The responsibilities of marketography

by Joe Deville September 11, 2017

What makes a market a market? Where do markets begin and end? How might we go about following them? What is the role of the researcher in detecting their (in)consistencies? These are some of the questions that bubbled up over the course of the recently completed ‘Marketography’ stream of the 12th Annual International Ethnography Symposium at the University of Manchester.

Organised by Daniel Neyland, Vera Ehrenstein and Dean Pierides, and in many ways operating as a conference within a conference, the aim of the stream was to prise open the question of the relationship between ethnography and what we might call ‘market studies’. Inevitably, this became the starting point for a much wider set of questions that may be of interest to readers of the JCE.

The organisers have helpfully already written a summary of the various papers and some of their thematic commonalities. Rather than replicate this, what I will try to do is open up a few of micro-controversies that emerged. Being an STS-influenced researcher, I of course like controversies — it’s where we find science (in this case social) in action!

For, despite the generally constructive spirit in which discussions proceeded, these cordially articulated disputes opened up issues whose potential resolution (or lack thereof) will be vital to the futures of market studies. I will focus on three, respectively concerning (1) identification, (2) diplomacy, and (3) abstraction. As these are live issues, it seems appropriate to top and tail my discussion of each with questions.

  1. Identification

We know markets when we see them, don’t we? Well actually, perhaps some hesitation is in order. As Emma Greeson forcefully reminded us, adopting this or that view of the market is always a matter of politics. Particular perspectives on the market – its laws, which actors are understood as relevant to its operation, its extension across time and space, etc – involve mobilising particular ontological assumptions. As such, when talking and writing about markets, researchers need to recognise that they are always potentially involved in the reproduction of particular versions of the market – too often, she argued, this involves drawing on a latently functionalist understanding of markets that only results in the reproduction and defence of the status quo.

This point was underscored by Christian Frankel, building on earlier arguments he has made in the pages of this journal. In particular, he suggested that we as aspiring marketographers need to listen more closely to the various ways our participants talk about, think about, and perform markets. What exactly do they understand by the markets they are involved in? What practical boundary work do they do?

Yet at the same time, as I’m sure Frankel would agree, we cannot hope that the ethnographic field will entirely solve the problem of how to identify and circumscribe markets. As Bill Maurer observed, it was striking that a number of papers clearly showed how researchers’ attempts to trace particular instances of market design were thwarted by impenetrable layers of structural opacity. Perhaps market designers can’t remember or have lost the documents that might show why a price was set as it was, as Ida Schrøder found in her research into the marketisation of child protection. Perhaps the sheer complexity of global market networks coupled with strategically constructed opacity makes unpicking the full extent of, and relationship between, the actors involved impossible, not just for researchers, but also for the actors themselves, as in the paper Daniel Tischer and Adam Leaver co-authored with Maurer. Do we therefore need to become better at accepting that markets are not just performative but also autopoietic; that they often live simply because they live?

  1. Diplomacy

Is all this angst about what markets are and aren’t productive, however? Well, no, not really, argued Philip Roscoe, in his ‘Confessions of a Critical Marketographer’, which he has since posted online. At least, neither to the worlds in which his research moves nor to his work of gathering of insights from those worlds. Specifically, might it be, to paraphrase Roscoe, that debates about the ontological status of the market risk becoming a distraction?

On the one hand, some marketographers might do well to bracket such concerns and instead, with Roscoe, to see the market as a ‘placeholder’ for a variety of sets of concerns – practical, technical, moral, socio-economic. On the other, he asked, is there not a danger that in calling out the performativity and artifice of market-oriented activities this very charge might be directed back towards marketographers themselves? A more productive approach, he suggested, would be to become more sensitive to the co-production of critical marketographic knowledge given it is, as he put it, ‘talked into being through stakeholders and research participants’.

As the conference’s star keynote Bruno Latour has noted elsewhere, diplomacy is simultaneously vital in the face of a range of contemporary global challenges and inevitably a betrayal: “betrayal is part of diplomacy because the diplomat betrays those who have sent him or her precisely because he or she modifies their values”. It doesn’t feel nice to have one’s deeply held convictions translated, transformed, and maybe even debased. However, following the logic of Roscoe’s argument, for diplomacy with market actors to happen we might need to be ready to countenance such betrayals of market studies. The underlying question, to which Roscoe provides one set of answers, remains: if so, how, and on whose terms?

  1. Abstraction

This leads directly to the third of the stream’s live issues, and one that I personally continue to wrestle with: what right do marketographers have to describe a particular field of study in their own terms? Or, to put it another way, how might we form judgements about their abstractions? Questions along these lines initially arose concerning Amalie Martinus Hauge and Andreas Kamstrup’s paper, which sought to empiricise the proliferation of the ‘ography’. The very term ‘marketography’, from this perspective, can be seen as part of a broader florescence of different ographies within social research, from the praxiography to the webnography, to the emotionography, the valuography, the hospitography and many more besides.

In seeking to categorise and delineate the function of these different ographies, was there not, one questioner wondered, a danger of turning the ‘intensive’ into the ‘extensive’ much as a natural scientist would? The contextual thus becoming the decontextual, the situated the universal, the concrete the abstract, and so on. This charge was also implicitly levelled at the paper which I presented, co-authored with Jeanne Lazarus, Mariana Luzzi, and José Ossandón: it too has a categorical drive, by trying to identify the characteristic operations of what we call ‘oikonomisation’ – the enrolment of households and domestic life into flows of financial capital. It does so by analysing a geographically and temporally dispersed range of ethnographic studies. Similar questions could also be asked of Christian Frankel and his attempts to more clearly delineate different concepts of ‘market’.

This is an issue that deserves to be given serious consideration, especially given all the scholars mentioned above build on STS-informed work that has been variously keen to destabilise and question science’s multifariously constructed ‘view from nowhere’, as Donna Haraway terms it. In the interests of keeping this piece moving along, I’ll permit myself just a brief response. And that is that, yes, I do think this is a danger. But also that – and here I’m trying to put some of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy to work – we need to simultaneously recognise three key issues: first that both thought and the world are inseparable from processes of abstraction; second, that abstractions are not in any straightforward way reductive but rather a reordering of the world that makes it circulate in a novel way; and, third, and as a direct consequence, that that this does not absolve those doing abstraction-work from taking responsibility for their activities.[1]

Given abstraction is both inevitable and involves the ongoing reconstitution of existence, even if often only in barely detectable ways, what is at stake, and what is inevitably a matter of politics, is the manner of abstraction – how it is done.[2] I am my co-authors continue to debate this question. At the same time, I would point out that this issue does not pertain just to those doing the work of categorisation, but to all forms of research, social or otherwise. Addressing it likely forms part of the distributed responsibilities of marketographic practice.

This brings me to my final question: do we then need a followup event to get closer to the heart of what these responsibilities might or might not actually be?

The answer to this one is easy: yes please.


[1] Issues dealt with brilliantly by Michael Halewood in A. N. Whitehead and Social Theory Tracing a Culture of Thought (London, Anthem Press, 2011), which I draw on in making my argument above.

[2] Thanks to Dean Pierides for discussions on this point.