Economisation

A major influence on the book is what I call, after Koray Çalışkan and Michel Callon, the ‘economisation programme’. This is an approach to the study of economic life that has sought to examine exactly how things become ‘economic’ in the first place, drawing particular inspiration from Science and Technology Studies and the related Actor-Network Theory approach/theory/method. This means, on the one hand, a focus on devices and, on the other, a questioning of some of the core assumptions of economics, including, most notably, that there is ‘the economy’ out there to be studied by economics operating independently of the theories and methods of economics itself.

Here’s an attempt to briefly introduce the concept, from the book’s introduction (n.b. all footnotes have been stripped away):

The devices described here [see here] each aim to stimulate a market-oriented form of engagement; they can be described, in other words, as ‘market devices’. They are all concerned with eliciting and formatting the processes and practices involved in making markets operate. The diverse body of scholarship interested in tracing and following this specific type of device can be gathered under a loose umbrella term: an approach to economic life interested in the study of processes of ‘economisation’; the ‘economisation programme’, in short. As the term emphasises, the aim in this approach is not to take for granted the way things (behaviours, organizations, institutions, objects) are ‘economic’, but to see their becoming economic as a very particular accomplishment. This is a body of research which draws particularly heavily on the writing of French sociologist and STS scholar Michel Callon, writing often pursued in collaboration with others.

One of the most important things that the economisation programme has achieved, partly through an attention to the role of devices, is to show just how much that which happens in markets is affected by their social and material infrastructures. Perhaps most significantly, it has demonstrated some of the ways in which people come to make judgements and decisions about how to proceed within market settings according to the logic of those settings. This marks a contribution to a question that has been central to both economics and economic sociology as well as, increasingly, to economic psychology: how people calculate in markets (or ‘qualculate’—but I will come onto this in the first chapter). As the studies of the economisation programme have variously shown, the devices and infrastructures of markets do not simply sit in the background in order to clear the way for the kinds of disembodied, rational, maximising economic calculation that are taken for granted by the large majority of economic theory. Rather, they play a dynamic and active role in shaping both the conditions for and practices of calculation. This book will provide further evidence of this, with respect to the calculative practices surrounding lending and borrowing.

A related contribution of this approach has been to provide a richer account than is found either in economics or much economic sociology of the ways in which products come to act as products in markets. The proposition made by the economization programme is that products are not stable entities, but are subject to ongoing processes through which their ‘qualities’ are qualified and requalified. It is this ongoing act of requalification—which we might also want to think of as a kind of redefinition—that sets the framework for subsequent calculative work, for ‘evaluations and judgements’ (Callon, Méadel, and Rabeharisoa 2002, 199).

This unceasing process of qualification is highly mediated: market devices combine with the work of what Callon et al. call ‘professionals of qualification’ (marketers, designers, and so forth) and a range of other market-oriented infrastructures to establish the terrain for particular market encounters (ibid.). How shopping carts allow people to move around the supermarket (Cochoy 2008), how a door-to-door insurance agent is shaped so as to fit into the daily lives of customers (McFall 2011), how a financial equation affects the flows of global finance (MacKenzie 2006): each of these involves the conduct of markets being shaped by unique combinations of people and things in the composition and recomposition of unique market ‘assemblages’.

The approach has also sought to account for the processes of movement involved in this ongoing work of market recomposition. One way these movements have been described as ‘struggles of market attachment’. This is a way of talking about markets that I will return to throughout this book. Describing markets in terms of movements of attachment – and detachment – is intended to draw attention to how the social and material assembly of market exchange involves multiple and ongoing processes of association and dissociation between actors in these markets. On the one hand, products within markets need to become attached to buyers. Products and, once they are bought, ‘goods’, need to be made to matter to the buyer—they need to fit tightly into their worlds, into the conduct of their everyday life. This is equally the case for spaces of consumption as for the spaces of high finance. Attachment devices relevant to the former might include marketing work and product design; to the latter, this might include specific analytical technologies. On the other, products have to be detached, or ‘disentangled’ from the range of associations that might threaten the stability of the transaction. In an ideal typical transaction, buyer and seller must end the exchange ‘quits’. That means that the object being purchased should be sufficiently detached from things that might disrupt the successful conduct of the market—sufficiently alienated and qualified, to put it another way—so that it is able to pass securely from one party to the other without there being any unwanted ties left between them. For instance, once a shopper exits a supermarket she or he would be unlikely to want the supermarket to come and reclaim part of the shopping because of some kind of continuing ownership over these products. That this is extremely unlikely is in part the achievement of a range of well established devices (including both legal and socio-technical) designed to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

I suggested earlier that we might not want to impose a limit on what kinds of entities might compose devices—that these could, for instance, be made of assemblies of ideas, people and things. We may want to be similarly open about what devices actually do. Market devices, as I’ve outlined, are designed to elicit forms of engagement according to the logics of market settings. However, this is just one ‘mode’ of engagement that such devices may prompt. Noortje Marres has explored the potential for devices to become involved in what she calls the “co-articulation” of different logics, different domains, different ‘modalities of action’ (2012, pp.62–63; see also: Callon 2009). She looks for instance at the role of devices used by people in their everyday lives to keep track of their carbon emissions. Such devices, she writes,

are explicitly attributed [by their users] the capacity to evaluate action along multiple axes, from ethics to consumption to innovation […] they enable the organization of spaces of multivalent action, in which a routine act like making tea is at once a technical, economic and ethical act. (Marres 2012, p.70).

We should not be too quick, therefore, to assume that what seem to be ‘market devices’ are just concerned with the making of markets. They may well prompt engagement, prompt ‘participation’ (the latter being Marres’ particular interest) in potentially diverse registers. One may indeed be the economic. But it is perfectly like that there are other forms of engagement that are solicited. We will see this in action later in the book (especially Chapters 2 and 4 [see here and here respectively]), in the collector’s attempts to transform the routines and relations of everyday domestic life into a way of generating calculative engagement. The collections device, then, can be simultaneously concerned with the formatting of a debtor’s life in markets and in his or her home.

 

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