SSHA and Fiscal Sociology Workshop Highlights and Thoughts

Though the Social Science History Association’s annual meetings continue today, I got back to my warm and fuzzy hobbit home in Ann Arbor last night. Today will be filled with paper grading and frantically reading Wallerstein and Mintz for class. SSHA was wonderful though, and exceeded expectations both in the quality of talks and the pleasure of being in downtown Chicago. The pre-SSHA workshop on Fiscal Sociology was also very useful, and while I learned that I am not a dedicated fiscal sociologist, there’s plenty to be excited about it when it comes to taxes.

Some highlights:
Reading Tilly on Putin (see forthcoming short post).

Richard Biernacki’s literary account of agency as a the retrospective or in the moment self-accounting (rather than a capital Agency as free will). Biernacki used a very interesting analogy to literature. He argued that even authors when they have complete control over their characters often cannot create compelling accounts of the reasons for an action until after the fact – that is, characters can only be plausibly written to understand their actions post-hoc. Biernacki argues we might usefully abandon the big A Agency of agency vs structure and free-will to think about being an agent, that is, achieving an understanding of what one has done and why, as one is doing it or after the fact.

A panel on the “politics of expertise” which included talks on the origins of modernization theory, radical black political economy, Turkish vs. Chilean economics, and most interestingly, the effect of anti-evolution movements in the 1920s on the social sciences. According to the talk, by political theorist Michael Lienesch, the anti-evolution movement of the 1920s had relatively little effect on the curriculum of science courses, but a much greater effect on social science curricula. In the beginning of the 1920s, social science textbooks in Anthro, Soc, History, etc. often started with pre-historic man and then described evolution up to the present. By the end of the 1920s, social science abandoned evolution in their narratives as being too controversial, and as part of the larger project of professionalizing and becoming more value-neutral and specialized. Lienesch analogized to the current Texas School Board which failed to get evolution removed from the Science curriculum, but succeeded in getting a totally distorted American history in the social studies curriculum. In other words, the religious right’s attacks on the educational system may have the most impact not where they are most high-profile, but where their targets are lowest profile. On the other hand, as one commenter asked, it’s possible that the move away from evolution in the 1920s in the social sciences created a space for what are now the striking critiques of genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology that you find in the more cultural social sciences as sociobiology and ev. psych start to reappear. A very provocative and interesting talk, and I look forward to the book/paper.

Two excellent author-meets-critic sessions, one about Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, the other about Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. Lamont’s book examines how multidisciplinary panels make decisions about high-status fellowships like the various societies of fellows at prestigious universities. The main criticism of Lamont (in, for example, “How Fabio Thinks About How Michele Thinks About How Professors Think” by Fabio Rojas) is that she’s really studying a very specifically constructed and weird site, which is not at all representative of academia at large, although it is very important. Lamont’s case is specifically one where professors can’t be engaged in struggles to define their own field and reproduce their particular way of doing things within that field, and thus the usual Bourdieusian analysis of the academic war of all against all doesn’t get you far, but also isn’t refuted for the larger field. Lamont shows us that carefully selected for niceness, already high-profile, academics look very different and perhaps evaluate very differently from what we are used to thinking about – they don’t just privilege work like their own, and they try to be team players. Steve Epstein also criticized her for not paying enough attention to the particularities of the evaluation systems- for example, the 1-5 scoring process – and how that constrains and enables certain kinds of evaluations.

Tony Chen and Nelson Lichtenstein gave comments on Phillips-Fein’s book on the war of business against the New Deal. Phillips-Fein argues that the myth of a postwar compact is just that, a myth. Business never accepted the New Deal and the existence of strong unions and regulation, but rather immediately post-WWII (and even a bit before), began to fund an active crusade against the New Deal in both academic and extra-academic (e.g. Think Tank) settings. By tracing funds from supposedly corporate liberal businessmen (like GE Vice Presidents and such) to extremely anti-New Deal intellectuals, Phillips-Fein argues that the 1970s were not so much a break from a 30 year peace as an opportunity that emerged for an already present desire by business to get rid of as much of the New Deal and the labor movement as they could. Chen and Lichtenstein mostly praised the book (I should note that I haven’t read this one, so my summary is based on their summaries), but three interesting criticisms emerged. First, that there was not one logical and coherent “New Deal” but a collection of sometimes contradictory programs, and Phillips-Fein is a bit unclear on that in the text. Two, that local business may well have been very different from higher-profile, national elites, and may never have played the game of sounding corporate liberal while actually funding very anti-New Deal thought. Third, that some high profile business leaders may have bought into corporate liberalism as a whole, in other words, that Phillips-Fein may go overboard in portraying anti-New Deal sentiment as being universal among top business leaders.

The last academic highlight was an all-star economic sociology panel on the politics of credit starring Greta Krippner, Sarah Quinn, Marion Fourcade & Kieran Healy, and David Freund. I’d hear pieces of the first three talks, but never seen them as formal presentations, and was very excited, but I’ll refrain from summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that they were excellent, informative, important, and etc. Freund’s talk was a fascinating summary of a larger project on the history of money from the 13th century through the 20th, with a focus on certain key moments like the New Deal ere-reforms. Freund argues that orthodox 20th century economics, though not neo-Keynesians nor various heterodoxies, mistakes money for just being a medium of exchange, when really money is always credit money, a promise of future services. Freund used that theoretical jumping off point to argue the New Deal financial reforms were really revolutionary and not just stabilizing, especially because they made it possible for banks to use government debt as collateral for government loans (through the Fed). In other words, government debt, backed by the promise of the government to pay in the future but not by any directly productive asset, became money itself. And that had profound implications for the interaction of the government and finance (and the economy as a whole) for the rest of the century through present. The argument was complex, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in written form so i can fully digest it.

Ok, beyond all the fantastic panels and side conversations, there were a few other highlights. First, just getting to see a bit more of Chicago. Despite growing up only a few hours away, I’ve only been to Chicago a handful of times and not seen much of it. On this trip, I got to see Northwestern’s campus, a bit of Lincoln Park, and a slice of downtown. I’m looking forward to making another trip for solely tourist purposes – I’ve clearly underrated Chicago in the past.

Second, crashing the Junior theorists drinking event and attempting to explain actor-network theory at the hotel bar.

Third, meeting and hanging out with all of the fiscal sociologists.

Last, and most amusingly, Fabio Rojas + Hipster Heavy Metal Show = Win.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it to SSHA every year – it’s not clear how many big conferences I can afford, time or moneywise – but I’m sure I’ll be back. SSHA was too good to miss!

PS And how could I forget Phil Mirowski’s hilarious presentation on neoliberalism’s focus on the production of ignorance which used this graphic:

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1 Comment

  1. Isaac

     /  November 22, 2010

    There’s actually a bunch of interesting work in economics thinking more carefully about the `liquidity’ value of money and assets in general (where one way to interpret liquidity is how easy it is to exchange in the future–and so can sort of be shoe-horned into being “promise of services”).

    In particular, I gather that `new monetarism’ attempts to distinguish between the `numeraire’ function of money and these other dynamic considerations–including a `rigorous’ way of talking about money and near-money (I’ve only read the introduction of this:

    [Incidentally, from a modeling perspective the New Keynsian bashing in that piece is totally fair.]

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