Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Continuities in Markets as Definitional Practices a Response to Aspers, Knorr Cetina, and Prus

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Continuities in Markets as Definitional Practices a Response to Aspers, Knorr Cetina, and Prus

Article excerpt

Let me first acknowledge my deep appreciation to Professors Aspers, Knorr Cetina, and Prus for the rime and energy that they put into their responses to my paper (Smith 2007). (1) As each of them built on my paper in responding, so I will attempt to build on their comments. Though their comments overlap in many respects, the focus of each varies sufficiently that I will address each individually beginning with Prus, then Aspers and concluding with Knorr Cetina.

Robert Prus, while accurately seeing my paper as supporting a "thoroughgoing constructionist/interactionist approach" to markets, seeks to relate it more specifically to the symbolic interactionism tradition of Herbert Blumer. He does so by emphasizing the extent to which markets should be understood as

1. "reflectively enabled fields of activity (and interchange)";

2. interdependent with non-market factors and situations;

3. engaged with objects with evolving, relativistic meanings;

4. entailing a variety of "purposes" and "rationalities;"

5. not only entailing ambiguities and risks, but also generating them;

6. ongoing practices that require ethnographic study; and

7. instances of social exchanges, interchanges and practices in general and as such best understood and studied within a broad theoretical understanding of social processes in general.

Given that Prus correctly sees each of these points echoing similar sentiments within my paper, it will come of no surprise that I have no objections with how Prus has extended these points. At the same rime, however, I am perhaps more wary than he in how extensive we should theoretically reach. If I have learned anything from my many years of studying markets of varying sorts it is how theoretically fickle markets can be. All practices, including market practices, are inherently minded insofar as they are informed by numerous expectations in the forms of concepts, schema, and assumptions. These concepts, schema, and assumptions, however, are themselves constantly subject to change within the practices themselves. While I strongly share the symbolic interactionist and ethnographic antipathy toward attempts to reify and objectify social practices as inherently meaningful, I am similarly dubious of social actors' autonomy to define object and practices. We similarly need to be very careful in that we not reify concepts and meanings. As cases in point, both the notion of "risk" and the notion of "rationality" have undergone quite dramatic transformations within markets, primarily financial markets, in recent years. While "risk," initially introduced by Knight (1921) as distinct from "uncertainty," was meant to pertain specifically to measurable uncertainty, it has by and large managed to claim the whole field for itself and in so doing obfuscating whole areas of very real uncertainty by endowing them with quite dubious probability quotients. Game theory, rational choice theory and neo-classical economics have successfully been responsible for a somewhat similar transformation of our notion of "rationality."

I am quite confident that Prus and I are on the same page here, but wonder how many readers are likely to overlook the degree to which meanings not only structure practices, but also the degree to which practices transform meanings. What I have continually found captivating about markets is the extent to which this latter process not only occurs within markets, but the extent to which these transformed meanings often carry over into other non-market social processes. In short, while clearly agreeing with Prus that markets should be understood within a broad social practice context, I also feel that the unique research opportunities of seeing "Market as definitional practices" not be lost in the process.

It is specifically this concern that tempers my otherwise very positive response to Patrik Aspers' comments. The heart of the problem emerges quite early in Aspers' paper when he seeks to set markets apart from other types of social practices by defining them as follows: "a social structure for exchange of rights, which enable people, firms and products to be evaluated and priced. …

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