The Performative and the Political (Or, SSF Meets Technopolitics)

The Politics of Markets workshop at UC Berkeley, held immediately before ASA, was both a blast and the most academically exciting event of this year’s con season for me. The panels and presentations were discussed throughout the rest of ASA. Fabio has a quick recap here. On that OrgTheory post, Brayden is a bit critical:

Sounds like a great conference. I wonder though how much any of this, except for the research involving state regulation, is about the “politics of markets.”

Where are the politics here?

In a discussion with Daniel Beunza*, about possible ideas for next year’s conference, I brought up this comment, because I think it might be a mistake to read politics too narrowly when trying to add a more explicit analysis of politics to the performativity agenda. If “the politics of markets” becomes simply a venue for talking about state action – laws and regulations and the like – I think SSF/Performativity will miss out on its potential greatest contribution to “markets and politics”: technopolitics, or the way that the technical and the political interact in non-obvious ways. Gabrielle Hecht, a historian of science here at Michigan who studies nuclear power and uranium production in France and Africa, draws on this concept to discuss how technical decisions are political but with a particular flavor (apologies for the short summary!). I’ve been thinking about how I can use the idea in my own work, which is influenced very strongly by Callonian performativity on one hand and Polanyian economic sociology on the other. Long story short: we need to look at the guts of technical decision-making as consequential, political decisions. Categorizing and counting the world are power-laden. Etc.

None of these ideas are new, but I think they all militate for an expressly political soc of fianance/performativity agenda that does not narrow politics to the state. How stock analysts decide to understand firms, and how credit rating agencies include (implicitly or explicitly) race in their calculations are both consequential and, broadly understood, political. SSF and performativists should highlight the politics – the contestations and consequences – without needing to bring in the state except when it makes sense. Sometimes the state is not the most important political story**. Yes, SSF should mean politics, but politics should not be restricted to macro outcomes!***

So, let me cast my vote for “The Politics of Markets II: Electric Boogaloo! Now with more explicit, but still subtle, politics!” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue…

See you all in Atlanta!

*Thanks Daniel B for suggesting I turn our email exchange into a blog post!
** See the last 40 pages of Berle and Means (1932) for an excellent discussion of how large corporations ought to be understood precisely as political rather than (or in addition to) economic organizations!
*** Nor should those things be off the agenda, of course! My own work is very much about the state, or its statistical agencies anyway, and the overall shaping of national economic policy.



  1. joshmccabe

     /  August 13, 2009

    I’m a bit confused by this definition of political. I thought politics, by definition, involved the state or state action. Could you explain it bit more for me?

  2. Right on, Dan. If, as Latour writes, “technology is society made durable,” it follows that market devices such as the yield curve are themselves a form of politics. Just a less obvious one…

  3. Josh: One way of thinking about politics is the classic political science route – politics is about the state and its allocation of resources and the like. Political sociology focused on the state looks at, for example, social movements that attempt to win rights from the state, or the way that corporations influence regulations, or massive agrarian revolutions. There’s nothing wrong with that analysis, but other thinkers have (I think persuasively) argued that they are incomplete. If we broaden our understanding of politics to concern power more generally – the ability to get what you want (Weber-style), or to set the agenda for others (Lukes/Foucault-style) – then we have to look outside the state for politics. For example, we can look at identity based social movements that attempt to influence popular culture. Or we can look at the way that poor peasants make use of various cultural norms and small opportunities to get by in a highly unequal society without escalating to an unwinnable rebellion (see James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak for an excellent example of this sort of analysis).

    In this context, we can look at, say, how technological and theoretical innovations of finance favored or disfavored certain actors in the financial industry, independent of state action. For example, physicists became highly valued on Wall St. because of their ability to run sophisticated models. So the forces that pushed for the adoption of those models drove up salaries for physicists, and perhaps disfavored less quantitative financial professionals. To the extent that those professionals resisted the adoption of such models, we can witness a political struggle: a fight over resources and control, but one separate from the state. Even if the resistance was non-obvious, there is still a political (“related to power”) analysis to be done.

    Does that make sense? I highly recommend Stephen Lukes’ work (e.g. Power: A Radical View), as well as the James Scott book, and any number of works by Foucault (especially where he talks about how we need to “cut the head off the king” and move beyond analyzing the state as sovereign).

  4. Dan – Nice post and I think you’ve articulated well the vision of a technopolitical view of markets. I’m not against a technopolitical perspective at all. I agree with the basic premise that technologies/market devices are objects and tools of political power. Inasmuch as “politics” encompass the study of power relations, I think technology is an important aspect of the field.

    I do have a problem though with equating politics with technopolitics. Appropriating the term “politics” can be a dangerous thing, especially if it blinds us to the intentions and resource bases of the actors who use technology to construct markets in a fashion that benefits them and excludes others. We could miss the big picture because we’re too focused on the technological details.

    I also think it’s a fair question to ask, what is political about X if the keyword “politics” is central to the framing of the event discussed. Sadly I wasn’t at the conference because of other obligations, and so I can’t comment on the specifics of the papers.

  5. @Brayden – Thanks! And fair enough. I definitely was writing more against a strong intepretation of your comment than the comment itself, which seemed honest enough. Daniel had mentioned the possibility of focusing more exclusively on regulation and state level politics of markets (in response to comments like yours but more explicitly critical and less open) and I wanted to offer an alternative that still emphasized the political (by reframing politics a bit).

    I agree there is the potential to focus too much on the technical – and this was the thrust of Neil Fligstein’s critique of the performativity agenda at the mid-day keynote – but I think that that view is based more on a sense people have of Latour and Callon’s program than a detailed reading of the actual products of scholars like Yuval, Donald MacKenzie, etc.

    I actually missed the first half of the event – with the less overtly political papers – so it’s possible that your (and Neil’s) concerns make much more sense there. And I agree that an explicit focus on interests and resources beyond the immediate tools is immensely important – I just don’t equate that with the state necessarily (nor, do you, I think), and I wanted to caution against making that leap. But I think where SSF-style argument can add something really unique and beyond existing approaches is on the other end – the political (in a broad, Foucault-y sense, and a narrower one) consequences of technologies and their implementations. This picture is just as “big” as the other one, and of course, they are two halves of the same world.

  6. Dan – The other worry, and maybe this is what Neil was hitting on, is that an overly-technological view of politics misses the actors, their interests, etc. It could be that technology and their uses is really endogenous to a whole system of political intrigue and conflict. Narrowing on the state misses the big picture, but in a different way.

  7. joshmccabe

     /  August 17, 2009

    Thanks for the clarification. I’m not sure if I buy into it, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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