On June 4th, I gave a talk to a broad group of scholars at the University of Melbourne Business School about my book Collateral Knowledge. I’m very grateful to those who attended and especially to those who asked really thoughtful questions about my work. Here’s an excerpt of an exchange I had with a sociologist who participated:
Sociologist: I think there is a thickness to the society in which [market participants] live, if you want to call it a society. They may not have personal links with each other but they all are schooled in the same economic texts by and large. They attend the same conferences, they work for the same big four, big six or however many there are now. They get socialized through corporate training programs, through conferences and all that. So there is a thickness to a shared knowledge that they have and they recreate that world through shared knowledge and shared practices.
AR: Right, but that’s not what we normally think of as thickness. We normally mean they went to the same prep schools, they’re married to each other’s cousins, that there’s all this social stuff there that’s really what’s motivating them. But actually you’re right: it’s training manuals, it’s conferences, it’s education in certain texts.
Sociologist: Of course, but this is actually very structural. It’s not just mundane practices, they are structurally informed mundane practices, I think.
AR: What do you mean by that?
Sociologist: Well, there’s a structure that says this is what the market should be and this is what the market practices are. There are some practices that are deemed acceptable by the market through this shared common knowledge. Then they adapt their practices to this shared knowledge. So the shared knowledge might be at a very personal level very mundane, very personal, but they’re informed by these structures that they have been socialized into. So there’s this interconnection between these broader structures of knowledge and practice that translates into individual practices.
AR: I remember there was a week when I decided I was going to experiment, that I would ask people about netting. I asked one informant: what do you think about the fact that if you’re a labor union you don’t really get a seat at the table in this deal. I was looked at like I had six heads. It wasn’t a bad question it was just like I had said the sky is purple today. It was a nonsensical question. So there’s a situation where – it’s what you’re saying – there are certain things that are inconceivable which relate to larger structures.
I did a lot of case studies of how those manuals and documents get produced. Over 10 years I worked on making a lot of them. I never heard anybody say now this is what a market looks like, now I should produce a document that is in line with what an ideal market should be. What I’ve heard people say is well how do they do it in London and can somebody get a copy of the document from Shanghai and let’s compare those. Could somebody translate it? We really should use professor so and so’s theory because he was my professor, so could we just copy and paste some language.
I mean it looks very different from deep structural thinking when you’re in the midst of it, but you’re right, its effects are certainly connected.
The question for me remains how we can represent the structural constitution and effects of markets while still being ethnographically responsive to even the most unexpected representations and commitments financial market actors experience in their everyday lives.