Confessions of a ‘critical marketographer’

Last week I attended the 12th International Ethnography Symposium, at the University of Manchester, and had the pleasure in speaking to a group of fellow ‘marketographers’, whatever they may be. In fact, I think that was rather the point of the stream, organized by Daniel Neyland and Vera Ehrenstein (both of Goldsmiths University) and Dean Pierides (University of Manchester). My thanks to Dan, Vera and Dean for a great two days. In the meantime, here’s my talk:

When I mischievously titled my abstract ‘Confessions of a critical marketographer’ I had in mind, not so much Augustine, but those bawdy films of the 1970s with names like Confessions of a Window Cleaner, all suggestion and double entendre but no more than the occasional glimpse of flesh on camera. This, I thought, accurately represented the state of my ideas, or lack of them. But of course the confessional tale is one of the categories of ethnography highlighted by John van Maanen in Tales of the Field. It is, he says a response to the realist abstraction of earlier scientific ethnography, focusing attention on the fieldworker as a means of supporting authority. It is typically told from a shifting perspective and in a character building narrative, ending on an upbeat note: a justification, in fact, of the realist work that follows it, or more usually precedes Tales of the Fieldit, because in 1988 at least, one could not write a confession until after the realist account. Van Maanen goes on to introduce the Impressionist tale, a narrative account depending on interest, coherence and fidelity, offering impressionistic moments or fleeting glances of the subject at hand: the audience is invited to relive the tale with the teller, to work out what is going on as the narrative unfolds. It seems to me that this move, described by van Maanen in 1988, it is roughly where we are at when it comes to marketography: glimpses and impressions, stylishly drawn, are appearing alongside more realist tracts. If I had to give an example, I would site Muniesa and company’s achingly stylish oeuvre ‘Capitalization’. Though whether we Brexit Brits could get away with something so assuredly Parisian is another matter…Capitalization

Those of us working in the qualitative social sciences are witnessing a proliferation of –ographies: organisational ethnography, ethnography of science, net-nography, valueography, emotionography, even elfnography, if we can get it published. Now marketography. We marketographers have presented a diverse clutch of empirical studies united by common theoretical concerns: the constructed nature of markets and market knowledge (prices), theories of performativity and qualification, an emphasis on the material embeddedness of markets and market action, on expertise and on evaluation.

Yet if all that we have to say is that market designers work on markets, our theoretical agenda ‘simply loses its radicalism’ – as Christian Frankel and colleagues have pointed out. Like the substantivist ethnographers of the twentieth century, working to show the un-normalness of our taken-for-granteds, the task of marketography is to denaturalize and decentre the market: to show through careful investigation that what is often taken as natural occurrence requires hard work and much organizational effort. The substantivists railed against the existence of economic man. We who study markets know that economic man surely does exist: we must ask how (and what) he comes to be (Callon, 1998). In the configuration of economic man – or rather, the plurality of forms he takes – we find the pivotal moment of the political economy of high modernity and an entry point for all kinds of critical activity – an inherently political move.

Let me put that another way. We may share formal concerns, but we also, I suspect, have an intuitive set of provocations, things we regard as axiomatic to our academic work. Here are mine. First of all, the world is in a bit of a mess. Second, much of that mess can be traced back to markets. Give me a couple of pints and a bar stool and I will expand on that. Among present, learned company I should say that many of the market-based solutions in our polity cause more harm than they have prevented. Third, that markets in and of themselves are not a bad thing: in many ways they can be a positive and beneficial form of association. Adam Smith did know a thing or two after all. And fourth, crucially, that we marketographers are much better equipped than economists to understand the functioning of markets.

This last point needs unpacking. The sociologist of markets, the marketographer, rails against economic analysis of markets, with its assumptions and abstractions, precisely because she understands this analysis to be part of the culture, context, temporality and meaning in which many contemporary markets are situated. Going back to our intellectual roots, we recognise that economics is constitutive of markets: on the inside, not the outside. We recognise the social processes implicated in the construction of economic fact, we understand these facts for what they are, and we recognise the economic and political processes that give such facts primacy.

This presents us with a methodological problem. Ethnographers recognise that the culture in question is as much created by the writing, as it determines the writing – in other words ethnography itself is performative. So, while our main critical anchor is the claim that economics constructs the world, our methodological armoury is vulnerable to the same accusation, and comments of motes and beams are likely to start flying around.

And there is a second methodological conundrum. Scholars think of ethnography in terms of an outcome of research, ‘an anthropological concern to understand the human as a cultured being’ and then to write about that culture in a rich, insightful manner. And to do this, there should be some long-term participant observation, an attempt to get close to people and experience that culture.

But markets, despite our insistence upon their situated nature, are often ‘elsewhere’. What does it mean to participate in the market? We have Caitlin Zaloom’s participant observation of a trading floor, or Iain Hardie and company lurking in a hedge fund. But it seems to me that these are often epiphenomena of markets that remain tantalisingly aloof. Are these observations any more valid than, say, CF Helgesson and friends’ reading of textbooks on the organization of drug trials, or Shiona Chillas and my own meanderings through the organizational structure of dating sites?

Perhaps participant observation might mean involvement in a range of things that are not the fundamental transactions of the market. This position makes sense to us, as social scientists, for we intuitively know that markets are embedded in chains of socio-material interaction, policed by the mores of the community. A marketographer will recognize that the eventual transaction is the culmination, and transformation, of a long choreography of social and material action. We have worried a great deal about the ontological status of the market, but from a pragmatic, critical perspective, perhaps that’s a distraction, an academic debate (in a non-pejorative sense of the word). I’m happy to settle for the market as a placeholder around which actors, whether participants or academics, circulate.

Which takes me back to my central provocation, the claim that we marketographers can do markets better than economists. What does it mean to be a critically engaged marketographer? We can deconstruct economics: we can rail about its abstraction, its assumptions, its fetishisation of mathematical modelling and its general physics envy. But we cannot be so un-self-aware as to fail to notice that many of these criticisms will apply to our own work, especially as we if we seek to establish a universal grammar of market action equivalent to the toolbox of the economist. We do have our own toolbox, our emerging sensibilities. Borrowing Anne Cunliffe’s list of ethnographic concerns, marketography could be about: culture, context and temporality, sociality and meaning, thick description and imagination. All of which can be told as tales. I suggest that our knowledge is necessarily local and contingent, and that our critical interventions be talked into being through stakeholders and research participants.

I have spent the last 18 months conducting a marketography of two small company stock markets founded in London in the mid-1990s. So it is a history, and much of the research has been spent chatting to ageing men about what they did 20 years ago – there should be a special term for history dispensed by old men in armchairs, bufferography, or somesuch – and ploughing through documents, news reports, press releases and so forth. I am oddly sensitised to the field. I was there, in my mid-twenties, working as a stocks and shares journalist, and since the project began old friendships have been renewed and new ones made. I am being pulled slowly into the community. I have sat in bars with brokers; I attended the boozy wake of a legendary PR man; I am off to a grand dinner at the Dorchester next week. My political antennae have become sharper, and I am starting to recognise the divisions and struggles within the community. Yet I am an outsider, too. Although though many interviews started, ‘I am glad you used to work in the city, dear boy, because you’ll understand what I have to say,’ the words that follow still sounded strange. I have what Bud Goodall terms ‘perspective by incongruity’.

I wrote a narrative history, simply to get a handle on all this material. Late at night I put some half-thought conclusions onto the end. When I had finished the draft I circulated it among the interviewees, wondering if anyone would like to talk further. Many did and I spent a busy week in London meeting my sources. I found this surprising. I was surprised that a retired businessman worth many tens of millions of pounds would take time to plough through my report and pick up on small points; that senior executives would take the time to gently persuade me that my emphasis was wrong, or that I was mistaken on key points. In fact, I was surprised that anyone gave a damn. I should not have been. Paraphrasing van Maanen’s opening line, marketographic work carries serious intellectual and moral responsibilities, for the images of others inscribed in writing are most assuredly not neutral.

It was clear that certain individuals saw me as a means to a particular end; the hastily written conclusions turned up at the London Stock Exchange at the end of a long email string, despite the fact that I had specifically requested that the document should not be circulated. In fact, I am publishing a finished narrative report, in part to engage the practice community and in part to take back control of the draft material.

The recommendation-conclusions with which I have fronted up this report might seem banal to you and me. I point out that the shape of these markets is embedded in particular social and organisational cultures and material path dependencies, for example, or that relying on social networks formed in the pre-Big Bang era as the main regulatory mechanism has become problematic three decades on. Yet, these claims seem to carry some weight, precisely because my observations are contextually specific and situated. I’m talking about their world in ways that participants find novel and illuminating. I also have to accept that much of the intellectual and analytic purchase of my marketographic writing does come from its institutional setting and intellectual context; I’m a reader at the University of St Andrews, and that in itself seems to provoke, in London at least, a particular and peculiar set of cultural semiotics.

What could it mean to be critical here? It strikes me that these markets, or others like them, have some potential as ‘critical performativity engines’, in terms of encouraging broad economic participation and shareholder democracy in a meaningful sense. They provide money, at risk, for firms that make and sell things, employ people, pay taxes, and so forth. In speaking well of these markets there is an implied critique of derivatives, and hedge funds, and all things high finance. It is surely as interesting to speak well of something good as it is to critique something rotten, though goodness, this needs doing too. Especially if speaking, or writing, has a performative effect, producing by power of speech alone, a world where things are – not could be, but are – a little bit different.

Still, I am troubled as to what I wish to achieve, or, rather, what I feel I can say. The great strength of economics over the last fifty years that it has been able to provide the ‘real world’ with positive ‘answers’ – scare quotes round both! – from free markets as the answer to totalitarianism, to nudges and diagnoses of irrationality as means of managing the atavistic biases of the great unwashed. I find myself talking about entrepreneurial ecosystems, but I suspect that’s too easy: a topic that demands the flamboyance of Fabian and colleagues if it’s not to slip to econ-lite prescriptions.

What can I say? What do I know? Let me give a small example, Over the last few years, my interest as a management scholar has fastened on the moral codes embedded in and performed by market structures: from neo-Darwinian incentive schemes to rational calculative romances, for example. In the current project it is quite clear that different kinds of market mechanisms bring into being different ethics of office, as Weber might say. In fact, conflicts between these rival ethics are one of the great sources of strife and change within the sector. The finding came strongly from the data, with many individuals talking about their responsibilities and moral codes: we did what was right for the market, says one, at the same time criticising the actions of another, who subsequently gave me a long justification in a frame of reference that any MBA would recognise.

Here’s the irony. When I began to draft this present talk, I realized that I had not included the finding in my summary. Perhaps it didn’t feel applied enough, or useful enough. In other words, it failed my criteria for utility in terms of what I might say. But that’s absurd, because the things I judge as useful are most likely things that the practitioners know far better than me already; the sole value I can add is by pointing out things to those in the market that they might never otherwise have seen. In this case because they have never read Science as a Vocation.

I propose that the task of the critical marketographer is not to know better, in the critical sense of somehow avoiding collective blindness to structures of dominion and fetishisation. Instead, it is to rework the situated knowledge of practitioners into critically-mined market innovations: I choose ethnographic hubris over critical hubris. How best should we do this? Most of all, how might we advance our long term aim as recasting markets as engines of performativity, vehicles to change the world in the way that we want? I do not know. I suspect – and this is my confession – there are no answers as such, that there is no grammar or lexicon of market action that we marketographers can peddle. Marketographers need to remain on the outside, peering through the steamed-up glass like the window-cleaner in these seventies films. The best we can do is offer a mirror to practitioners, painting impressionist pieces illuminated by our reservoir of theories. To open up discussion, to cast our bread upon the water – as the saying goes – and to see what comes back in return.