Across the Atlantic: on the IPO-VID podcast

Sometimes great things turn up unexpectedly. And so an invitation from the cheerful and startlingly well informed Patrick L Young, ‘former stock exchange CEO, long time derivatives trader, serial entrepreneur and fintech pioneer’ and general man about town. Patrick and I chatted for an hour and had a fun time. It was good to chat to an audience of professionals as well, although I don’t think they expected some of my answers to go the direction they did!

I’m pleased to say that when it comes to the nitty-gritty of setting up an exchange – although I spend the whole book avoiding that topic – Patrick and I had a great deal to agree on.

Patrick’s team also featured How to Build a Stock Exchange in the EI Weekend newsletter available on Medium and Substack. Well worth a look for those interested in actually setting up a financial institution.

Thank you again to Patrick and all his team.

At the Library of Mistakes, Edinburgh

What a fine place Edinburgh’s Library of Mistakes is – and what a great venue to do my first proper book talk for How to Build a Stock Exchange. Thank you to the Library’s Keeper, Russell Napier, for the invitation and for chairing the session.

Also, I got a brilliant mug!

Podcast: Dismantling the construct of finance

Happy Easter everyone! Here’s a little easy listening if you’re relaxing in the sunshine. I’m delighted to be able to share this podcast, put together by Jess Miles and Bristol University Press. Jess and I chatted about the darkly comic world of finance, why it matters to us as citizens, and why we need to understand how it works. I think Jess, as a finance-studies newbie, was convinced. Thanks Jess and BUP for inviting me onto the podcast. I hope you enjoy listening.

BBC Radio 3 Freethinking on Debt

Twas the night before Budget day and all through the house, nothing was stirring but BBC Radio 3 Freethinking and a very excellent discussion on ‘Debt, from the South Sea Bubble to Sunak’. As the nation waited for Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s next moves on the UK’s crisis ravaged economy, Anne McElvoy hosted a high powered panel: Professor Kenneth Rogoff, Maurits C. Boas Chair of International Economics at Harvard University; Vicky Pryce, former Joint Head of the United Kingdom’s Government Economic Service, Dr Dafydd Mills Daniel, lecturer in Divinity from the University of St Andrews, and of course, your humble correspondent. It was a fun discussion – I hope you enjoy listening!

The ‘Anthropology of Entrepreneurship’ by Richard Pfeilstetter

On 2 November, I was given the opportunity to participate in a panel debate – a ‘book lunch’ (very droll!) – for anthropologist Richard Pfeilstetter’s recent (2022) book ‘The Anthropology of Entrepreneurship.’ Thank you Richard for the invitation and to Kirsty Osborne and the University of St Andrews Entrepreneurship Centre for organizing. I ended up writing a review of sorts. Richard felt it was worth sharing, so here it is (in a slightly tidier form).

“Thank you everyone for the opportunity to participate in this discussion, to Kirsty for organizing. I found Richard’s book simultaneously engaging, challenging, stimulating and at times infuriating. For an outsider to anthropology the book provided an engaging and swift tour of the strange history of entrepreneurship studies in anthropology. The source of my infuriation was simply that the tour is, for an outsider, sometimes a little too swift. Richard has managed to cram so much into a slim volume. So much, but at times, and necessarily, never quite enough.

Richard’s argument centres on a call for anthropology to take entrepreneurship seriously. He is bothered that anthropological scholarship often dismisses anthropology as a native term, something that doesn’t need to be explored reflexively, but just can be deployed in situ. Hence, he suggests, the willingness of much contemporary anthropology to regard entrepreneurship as part of a programme of social coercion and behavioural adjustment on the part of neoliberal elites.

At the same time, Richard is cautious of the move to regard any kind of social-change maker as an entrepreneur, pushing instead for some kind of basic rigour in the definition. In his book we meet all kinds of entrepreneurs, many of them sole traders or disenfranchised individuals, but there is always a commonality of economic activity.

It reminds me of the definition in the first non-humanities academic book I ever read as I started to drift towards the world of management research: Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship, published in 1985. Drucker offers a definition of an entrepreneur as someone who transfers resources from a lower value to a higher value part of the economy. In some ways this is a tendentious definition, very 1985, because it posits that the true entrepreneur is defined by success. Druker goes on to suggest entrepreneurship is low risk – tell that to the struggling and marginalized entrepreneurs in Richard’s compendium! But, in other ways, as Richard demonstrates, requiring an attempt to generate value from enhancing economic returns as a very minimum for the definition does give us a common object of conversation, preventing the concept from becoming meaninglessly diluted.

Danel Defoe wrote of ‘projects’ and ‘projectors’

Richard’s approach also captures something of the original sense of entrepreneurship, from entreprendre – the go between – in the work of Jean Baptiste Say. A focus on the often mundane efforts of economic toil compares favourably with the offering of Daniel Defoe, who a century before Say, wrote of ‘projects and projectors’, undertakings so fanciful and bold that they are almost certainly doomed to fail. If the kingpins of Silicon Valley are Defoe’s ‘projectors’, speculative dreamers of a new economic reality, so Richard’s entrepreneur is the diligent intermediary in the production process. How refreshing to regain that focus, especially amongst the recession, inflation, and general political-economic turmoil that the UK now faces.

Back to anthropology. It strikes me – and Richard is perfectly aware of this – that anthropology is somewhat late to the party. There is a huge and flourishing literature of entrepreneurship, much of it functionalist and, dare I say, rather dull, but some of it critical and ethnographic in nature. At the same time the anthropological method – observation, thick description, an awareness of history, culture and context has spread wide. My own field, following thinkers like the late Bruno Latour, has for two decades espoused an anthropology of markets. Moreover, it is genuinely interested in its objects of investigation, whereas, in Richard’s account, anthropology’s own attempts to get to grips with entrepreneurship have been driven by the discipline’s intellectual history. The method has even made its way to the airport bookshelves: see Gillian Tett’s ‘Anthrovision’, a defence of the ethnographic virtues of looking, listening and understanding in the age of top-down, big-data-driven social science, policy and planning. 

It just so happens that the University’s new strategy was published yesterday, including an ‘entrepreneurial strand’. It states: ‘To be entrepreneurial in our culture is to see potential in existing and future activity and to translate that into enterprise for the benefit of wider society.’ Even allowing for the necessary blandness of organizational strategy statements, the notion of entrepreneurship has been entirely institutionalised: seeing potential and translating it into benefits. Having read Richard’s book I recognize a nativized term when I see one.

Unexplored terms, as Richard shows us, are freighted with their own politics. I agree, and these need to be unboxed. To be successful as an entrepreneurial community, here in an ‘Entrepreneurship Centre’, we will have to acknowledge the silences as well as the voices in that conversation, the exclusions as well as the inclusions. We need to understand what entrepreneurship means, not just to us, but to people who are not like us (that’s almost everyone!). That’s certainly a task for the anthropological method.

Is it, though, a job for anthropologists?  

In other words, when it comes to the ‘why’ of Richard’s book, I’m almost convinced, but not quite. The book does [as another respondent, the anthropologist Daniel Knight, made clear] a great service within the discipline by attempting to rehabilitate entrepreneurship into something that can be taken seriously as an object of study in its own right. It therefore makes an important contribution within the tangled and political history of anthropology.

But I’m not a disciplinary anthropologist.

It seems to me that there is a significant and important social and intellectual contribution to be made by academics able to articulate an intellectually robust, useful, and engaged account of entrepreneurship that is neither excessively instrumental nor critical. This is, I think, where Richard is leading us, and I welcome that endeavour.

At the same time, as a management scholar and sociologist of markets I am inclined to side with Tett, not Pfeilstetter: the anthropological method is for everyone. And if the anthropologists have missed the entrepreneurial boat? Well, so it goes.

Mentioned in the New Yorker!

It’s not every day one is quoted – not just mentioned but quoted! – in a publication as eminent as The New Yorker, so you will forgive me for adding it to the scrapbook. The article, a review of Elizabeth Popp Berman’s new book ‘Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy‘ has me mentioned next to the late great David Graeber. We are the obligatory econ-hating-lefties in Idrees Kahloon’s ‘war on economics’ (see left) but still. I’m very glad to be in Graeber’s company, too.

And here we are – the evidence. I’ll lay my hands on a paper copy soon!

The line itself comes from a blog I wrote for the LSE back in 2014, following the publication of my book I Spend therefore I Am (Viking, 2014, republished by Penguin as A Richer Life, 2015, and now available for less than a fiver, so knock yourself out). The book ruffled a few feathers among reviewers, just as Elizabeth Popp Berman seems to have done, and the blog was something of a reply to critics. Here it is:

Tools for thinking: a sociological take on the USS pension dispute

I teach fourth year undergraduates a module called ‘sociology of finance’. It’s a kind of mash-up of the ‘social studies of finance’, economic sociology and a little critical political economy. This semester, I had to explain to students why I was taking part in industrial action over cuts to our pension, and I tried to do using the ideas we worked with in class. If social theories are tools for thinking, as I always tell the students, we should try to use them when we can. That converstion continued on the picket line and grew into a seminar for colleagues. They liked it, and so I recorded a verson to share. The central argument is that the tools of valuation – all those ‘gilts plus’, ‘discount rates’, and ‘prudence’ – offer a space where things happen and political contestations are worked out. In every financial valuation, paraphrasing Greta Krippner, lies a history of contestation and struggle. To move towards an outcome that is satisfactory for everyone, I believe this is where we need to focus our attention; our dispute as as much about the sociology of knowledge as it is old-fashined industrial relations.

Here it is. I hope you find it helpful, informative, and not too partisan. I hope you like it too, and if you do, please pass it on.

So, I’ve finally finished that podcast…

Homemade logo 🙂

In January 2019 I decided it might be interesting to have a go at doing a podcast. There’s something enticing about jumping into the podcast space, crowded though it might be, the thought that you can record a few words and the next thing find yourself available on iTunes, Spotify, and other such platforms. So I bought myself a microphone, read up on the necessary infrastructure, drew a logo, sketched out a plan of what I might say. I’ll have it all wrapped up by the autumn, I thought.

Jobbers in the LSE’s ‘Gorgonzola Hall’

Everything always takes longer than you think. Nearly two years later, I have finally published the concluding episode of ‘How to build a stock exchange’. Over 18 episodes, the podcast has offered a social history of finance as we know it today, exploring the sociology and materiality of financial markets, and showing how contemporary exchanges have evolved from local concerns to global data infrastructures. The narrative features much of my original research on the markets of London throughout the twentieth century, and a smattering of anecdotes from my own youthful experience, in the days before I realised that writing about finance was far more interesting than trying to do it.

More importantly, the podcast is an attempt to find new voices for research and to disseminate more widely the intellectual concerns of a critically-inclined management scholar. In the final episode I invoke Hunter S Thompson and the spirit of gonzo: aiming for an intimate, first person take that emphasises spontaneity and raw authenticity over form and polish, where ‘deliberate derangement of the senses… de-familiarises reality, opening the door to paradoxically clearer perceptions, a twisted perspective..’ (I borrow the words of literary scholar Jason Mosser). An honest telling of our own stories, I suggest, is the best way we have of finding our moral compass in this complicated world; it certainly seems to have more integrity than writing critical articles about four-star journals in those same four-star journals. It is, says José Ossandón of Copenhagen Business School, a ‘genre-widening event’:

Dotcom London, the fringes thereof
(as seen in ‘Lock Stock’)

So the podcast zoomed between my own research, the rich offerings of the field of the social studies of finance, and a curious selection of anecdotes from the field: breakfast with some global heavies in the Cadogan Hotel (episode 15), malicious croquet and business angels (episode 4), surfing the fringes of dotcom London (episode 13) from stuffy offices behind the sooty Victorian ironwork of the still functioning Borough Market, all rats and squashed vegetables. London in the 1990s seems a world away, containing both the promise of a unbounded global world and the seeds of the present globalised mess that we find ourselves in. Along the way it explored themes such as gender inequality in financial markets (episode 10) and the murky history of finance and slavery (episode 17). The latter topic, written in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, explored Liverpool’s burgeoning financial sector and the narrator’s own connections to the city. It led to an article in The Conversation, ‘How the shadow of slavery still hangs over global finance’. In July 2020, I was invited to address an audience of US policymakers and regulators, alongside Commissioner Rostin Benham of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to discuss a possible exchange for recyclable materials, and I talk more about this possibility features in the final episode.

The podcast has been downloaded twelve and a half thousand times and the transcriptions accessed a further ten thousand times. The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty described the podcast as ‘brilliant and searching’, while others said ‘beautifully told, fascinating, and very important’ (Dr Paul Segal, Kings College London), ‘an absolutely wonderful way of disseminating research’ (Dr Kristian Bondo Hansen, Copenhagen Business School), and – my favourite – ‘overwhelmed at how good this podcast is’ (Guppi Kaur Bola, activist and writer, Chair JCWI).

It’s not too late if you haven’t found it yet: the podcast is available in full from this site on the podcast page.

Write a great essay in 12 (easy!) steps!

A couple of years ago I jotted down a step-by-step guide to help my son get started on his university essays. That’s always the most difficult bit of writing – starting – and it never gets any easier. I thought some other might find it useful as well, so I’ve put it on a short video. Have fun! Beware, last minuters: the first step is ‘start early’.

I hope this helps avoid a few essay crises. If you like it, pass it on! PS: you don’t have to go to the bar in step 12 if you don’t want to.