Twenty Years After: The workshop on cultural economy

by JCE January 31, 2020

This page documents the one day workshop held at City University in January 2020 to mark the 20th anniversary of the inception of ‘cultural economy’.

Liz McFall (University of Edinburgh)
Angela McRobbie (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Sean Nixon (University of Essex)
Don Slater (London School of Economics)
Chair: Philip Roscoe (University of St Andrews)

With a selection of participants in the original Workshop on Cultural Economy, the purpose of this panel is part archival and part scene-setting. Returning to the debates of the late 1990s in which Cultural Economy was forged, it will aim to explore the material, social and institutional arrangements, as much as conceptual and textual ones, through which epistemic projects such as this emerge and crystallise. Panellists will respond to the following questions:
– To what did Cultural Economy originally respond, in terms of both empirical events and scholarly disputes?
– What were the intellectual traditions which it drew on and set itself against? What were the institutional contexts in which it could be fostered?
– What were the gains and the losses from this formulation? Did that moment cultivate subsequent path dependence? Which were the paths not taken? What futures are still possible?

How Cultural Intermediaries Research Could Matter More
Jennifer Smith Maguire (Sheffield Hallam University)
We gather in the rosy glow of the 20th anniversary of the Workshop on Cultural Economy, and in the grim shadow of a general election that affirmed that the success or failure of products (political manifestos or otherwise) hinges less on objective properties and more on the canny perspicacity and cultural-economic devices of intermediaries. I’ve devoted not a little ink over the years to suggesting how and why cultural intermediaries matter. In examining thorny questions of how culture and economy are co-constituted, the empirical entry point of cultural intermediaries usefully trains attention on discrete living bodies and embodied passions, material practices and constraints, and socio-historical contingencies and impacts. Among other benefits, this lends a sense of ontological security (this is who they are; that is what they do and what becomes of it) to a fundamentally insecure enterprise: an attempt to unpick (if not dispose of) the boundary between culture and economy, two categories of meaning that are central to daily sense-making and mundane, practical action. The empirical utility (indeed, inclusivity) of a focus on cultural intermediaries, however, is not unrelated to its analytical challenges. If framing and influence work are understood as fundamental to all social interaction (Smith Maguire & Matthews 2012), if culture is recognized as endemic to all economic forms and activities (Neilson & Coté 2013), if the boundaries around expertise are increasingly porous and every Twitter account serves as a soapbox for a would-be influencer, then the field will continue to struggle with long-standing charges of a ‘dog’s dinner’ of a concept (Hesmondhalgh 2006: 227) and complaints of a lack of attention to ‘the social effects and divisive nature of cultural economic regimes’ (Jack 2002: 274). It thus seems an opportune moment to consider how research on cultural intermediaries continues to matter—indeed, could matter more—through a focus on the potential for crafting narratives, engineering cultural legitimacy, and orchestrating durable attachments (Cochoy et al 2017) to market relations that do ‘creative justice’ (Banks 2017) to their constituent people, products and ideas.

Cultural Production: A Return of the Repressed?
Andy Pratt (City, University of London)
This paper highlights the tensions between the production and consumption foci to the cultural economy. Work published in, and stimulated by, the debate launched in the JCE has arguably been more populous and popular stressing the culturalisation of the economy. I will argue that there is a renewed significance in exploring “the cultural economy”, contra the initial formulations in JCE: that the convergence of symbolic and material production that is the cultural economy is a particular object worthy of analysis, as a sub-set of “cultural economy”. I argue that the development of such a re-conceptualisation is a necessary first step towards a re-imagination of the alternative possibilities of cultural events, practices and materialities.

Ethnographers making markets (or how to intervene in a market-intervention)
José Ossandón & Trine Pallesen (Copenhagen Business School)

The cultural economy moment enabled the huge expansion of the social studies of markets inspired by Callon. This has created a new type of “persona” for the social researcher interested in markets: an ethnographer who studies the practices of economists and other experts creating markets. The paper analyses a case of an ethnographer trained in this “new new economic sociology” (McFall) who has been asked to collaborate in a project to design a market. The case opens two important questions. First: how well equipped is the new new economic sociologist to participate in the creation of new economic forms? Second: the literature on performativity has shown that economists do not simply represent but transform the situations in which they participate. Economists economize markets, but what happens to markets when you add an ethnographer. What do we add to – or how we intervene in – market making?

Material Culture and Material Politics: from affordances to political economies
Joanne Entwistle (King’s College, London) and Don Slater (LSE)

Drawing on moves towards material politics and inventive sociologies, we look at ways in which cultural forms and ways of encoding ‘the social’ in materials can shape political and economic spaces. The paper draws on the work of our Configuring Light research group, which carries out studies of a specific material – light – as an actor in the making of urban public space and in municipal governance; and which explores collaborations between social researchers and designers, planners and other lighting-related professionals. This paper considers several examples of how shifting understandings of light and urbanity can produce different financial, marketing and policy spaces.

‘Finance Capital and Ghosts of Empire’
Clea Bourne (Goldsmiths, University of London), Paul Gilbert (University of Sussex), Max Haiven (Lakehead University) & Johnna Montgomerie (King’s College, London)

The cultural economy approach has provided new interdisciplinary perspectives on financial markets – the spectre of which has haunted us for every one of the past twenty years. The cultural economy of finance has rightfully called out the tendency toward simplified and depoliticised explanations of financial markets in mainstream financial theory; a tendency which overlooks “wide-ranging social, cultural and political influences and impacts” (Hardin, 2017: 325). However, cultural economy’s own engagement with finance has, until recently, largely neglected questions of race and empire in its analyses of contemporary financialisation (Bourne et al. 2018). This paper introduces a planned special issue curating multi-disciplinary collaborations which reveal the entanglements of race, empire, colonialism and finance. In particular, we explore how emerging interdisciplinary critiques of finance, debt and financialisation account for the histories, legacies and ongoing realities of empire, colonialism and global racial ordering. Our questions include: What is being missed when these themes are marginalised? What accounts for this marginalisation? What can be gained when these themes come into focus? And how might prioritising them open not only different scholarly horizons, but also different interdisciplinary linkages and pathways towards policy, practice and action? In turn, we explore how a cultural economy perspective on financial capital requires attention to diverse, situated processes of racialisation as much as it does a careful anatomising of financial arrangements. Our aim is not merely to deploy empire, race or colonialism as a means of explaining away finance as ‘socially constructed’ but to acknowledge how refracting cultural economy analyses through a lens of colonial repression builds a much-needed methodological understanding of the relationship between race, empire and finance in the present.

Finance: Cultural or Political?
Fabian Muniesa (École des Mines de Paris)

What is the use of calling “cultural” the set of habits, worldviews, practices, struggles and processes that go today by the name of “finance”? Cannot the subject matter be dealt with more aptly with the word “political”, especially if the objective is to add some critical traction and contribute to political articulation? Drawing from a few old conversations on the subject matter (and from a couple of arguably new problems), a plea for the “cultural” is nonetheless offered, with special reference to the disorientating role that “political economy” and the concept of “value” play in the debate (and with connections to the current thread on “economic theology”).

Postcolonial Financial Citizenship in Malaysia
Syahirah Abdul Rahman (University of Sheffield)
This paper explores the spatial and historically specific nature of financialisation in a postcolonial context. Specifically, the paper draws out the significance of FC as part of broader nation building objectives in Malaysia from an elite perspective, while also observing the reluctance of citizen investors who are engaging with the equity market to support the formal objectives of the policy. In doing so, it provides an example of the financialisation of everyday life in a distinctive and complex emerging economy context. Moreover, the paper explores these processes from both elite and citizen perspectives, allowing these layered relations within FC to be analysed. The paper, therefore, brings new understandings of elite–citizen relations in postcolonial nation-building strategies.

The Economy of Enrichment: Towards a New Form of Capitalism?
Simon Susen (City, University of London)

The main purpose of this paper is to provide a critical overview of the key contributions made by Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre in their recent book Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise (Paris: Gallimard, 2017). With the exception of one journal article, entitled ‘The Economic Life of Things: Commodities, Collectibles, Assets’ (New Left Review 98: 31–56, 2016), their collaborative work has received little attention in Anglophone circles. This paper aims to demonstrate that Boltanski and Esquerre’s study, Enrichissement, contains valuable insights into the constitution of Western European capitalism in the early twenty-first century. In order to substantiate the validity of this claim, the paper focuses on central dimensions that, in Boltanski and Esquerre’s view, need to be scrutinized to grasp the nature of major trends in contemporary society, notably those associated with the consolidation of the enrichment economy. As elucidated in this inquiry, Boltanski and Esquerre’s ‘pragmatics of value-setting’ is based on four forms of valorization: (a) the ‘standard form’, (b) the ‘collection form’, (c) the ‘trend form’, and (d) the ‘asset form’. Arguably, the interaction between these forms of valorization is crucial to the rise of a new socio-historical constellation, which Boltanski and Esquerre call ‘integral capitalism’. In the final section, attention will be drawn to several noteworthy limitations of Boltanski and Esquerre’s analysis.

Veblenian Entrepreneurs and the Untrepreneurship Economy
André Spicer (Cass Business School, City, University of London)

What is driving the declining quality of innovation-driven entrepreneurship? In this paper, we argue the growing entrepreneurship industry is an important yet overlooked explanation. This rapidly growing industry has transformed the nature of entrepreneurship and encouraged a particular form of low-quality entrepreneurship. It has done so by leveraging the Ideology of Entrepreneurialism to mass-produce and mass-market products that make possible what we term Veblenian Entrepreneurship. This is entrepreneurship pursued primarily as a form of conspicuous consumption. Aside from lowering average entrepreneurial quality, Veblenian Entrepreneurship has a range of (short-run) positive and (medium and long-run) negative effects for both individuals and society at large. We argue that the rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur has contributed to creating an increasingly Untrepreneurial Economy. That is an economy which superficially appears innovation-driven and dynamic, but is actually rife with inefficiencies and unable to generate economically meaningful growth through innovation.

Stuart Hall, Black and Asian British Arts as Creative Economy
Angela McRobbie (Goldsmiths, University of London)

This paper makes three specific and interrelated arguments. First, it argues that the power of Stuart Hall’s pedagogy can be understood as having established a “third space” between political activism and academic research, a space that in the 1970s and early 1980s permitted the development of British cultural studies as an anti-elitist, theoretically informed approach to the field of culture, in particular popular culture. Second, I propose that as this space also opened itself up, starting in the late 1980s, to emerging young black and Asian British artists, and as it extended itself so as to engage with the work of key postcolonial theorists, a body of films and artworks appeared that expanded this space, maintaining the integrity of a practice that refuted the distinctions between high and low culture, in terms of aesthetics, and rhetorical address, and audiences. Third, I argue that the advent of neo liberal political culture in the United Kingdom cuts short the conditions of emergence, which had supported this group of artists, with all that this augurs for future generations of black and Asian artists today.

Critical Geography, Cultural Economy, and the University
Felicity Callard (Birkbeck, University of London)

The critical geographical literature has, in relation to many domains – including cultural economy – been fascinated by how cultural, institutional and organizational configurations affect broader domains of practice. And so it is striking, and analytically fascinating, that it has little reflected, in print, on its own. Critical geography has been particularly loath to acknowledge that many critical geographers (including those who have contributed to cultural economy) have, in certain senses, contributed to bringing the contemporary university into being – by dint both of being professionalized workers within the university, and by being active contributors to current higher education policy. In my paper, I consider the generational shifts that have brought critical geography close(r) to the heart of institutional, class and governmental power; and the place of the critical geographer in making and enjoying – as well as resisting and lamenting – the contemporary university. And I call for more research — within and beyond cultural economy – on the university as a complex material and epistemic form, which brings together multiple modes of intellectual and administrative work.




10 JANUARY 2020, 9am – 6pm


ELGO1, Drysdale Building

Northampton Square

London EC1V 0HB


The Workshop on Cultural Economy took place at the turn of the millennium, at the Open University’s Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, hosted by the Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research. The event produced an edited volume, Cultural Economy: Cultural Analysis and Commercial Life (Du Gay and Pryke 2002); within ten years, via a range of publications and collaborative projects, it had evolved into an increasingly robust, if still nascent, field of study (Bennett et al. 2008). 

On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, therefore, we reconvene the Workshop: revisiting the conditions of its emergence; provoking consideration on its legacies and possible futures. Returning to this moment in a spirit both genealogical and renovative, we encourage original participants and those who engaged with later conceptual and institutional developments (sympathetic co-conspirators and passionate critics alike) to present their own evaluations of the (ongoing) ‘making up’ of the Cultural Economy moment. 

The 2020 Workshop is co-hosted and generously supported by the Journal of Cultural Economy; the department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh; and the Centre for Culture and Creative Industries and department of Sociology, both at City, University of London.