Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Leaving Commonplaces on the Common Place: Cornerstones of a Polyphonic Market Theory

Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Leaving Commonplaces on the Common Place: Cornerstones of a Polyphonic Market Theory

Article excerpt


Markets are considered economic phenomena, which is said to be true even if markets are considered social structures, cultural fields, or simply politics, at the same time. Against this background, the present paper argues for a polyphonic market concept. Unlike the popular economy-biased notion of markets, such a concept allows for the analysis of markets in eras and areas where functional differentiation did or does not exist or play a major role. Furthermore, it turns the idea of the ultimately economic nature of markets from an axiom to a research question. In doing so, it breaks ground for research in major trends in functional differentiation and in the preferences for particular function systems featured by concrete groups, milieus or organizations.



New economic sociology

Functional differentiation


Commonplaces and Markets: An Introduction

When the conversation turns to markets, one automatically thinks of the economy. As described in classical literature on economics, we still seem to imagine markets as meeting places or spaces of supply and demand. In our minds, we have merchandise markets (Weber, Roth, & Wittich, 1978), price formation mechanisms (Coase, 1990) and "sets of moneymediated exchange transactions" (Zafirovski, 2007, p. 313). At times, the market is also defined as an internal environment of the economic system (Luhmann, 1988, p. 91). In any case, the market clearly is "the central economic phenomenon" (Zafirovski, 2003, p. 88) or the central institution of modern economies (Beckert, 2009b, p. 245).

The idea of non-economic markets, therefore, contradicts both common sense and scientific expertise. So far, commodification and marketization (Pohlmann, 2006, p. 230) can confidently be used as synonyms. The expansion of the market concept to non-economic spheres of society is, therefore, quickly considered a form of economic colonialism (Swedberg, 1990). Even if such advances to market fundamentalism (Soros, 1998) do not necessarily evoke the economic horror (Forrester, 1999), they are mainly described as dangerous or, at the very least, fruitless and unscientific games with metaphors.

Though noble in its aspirations, the problem with this attitude can be found in the definition of a reasonable market concept. While the claim of the economic nature of markets necessarily refers to a concept of functional differentiation, we can easily think of markets in times and places where the modern distinction of policy, religion, law, art and perhaps also the economy was either unknown or at least rather irrelevant. This still might be true for a considerable number of world regions. With specific reference to transition countries, we might even find that functional differentiation is a reversible process (Hayoz, 2007). The comparative study of (pre-/post-) modern markets, however, requires a market concept that does not imply functional differentiation, but, firstly, allows for the defining of an object of investigation on which functional differentiation can be applied. This claim is supported by the fact that a traditional market, the Moroccan Jemaa el-Fnaa, has been designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in order to protect it from economization. If we acknowledge that markets actually can be sometimes more or less economic, we must also champion an unbiased approach to the idea that the (i.e. the economic) market refers to only one of several dimensions of an obviously trans-economic market phenomenon.

In the present article, we come closer to such a polyphonic market concept. Why, according to the new economic sociology, can markets be quite naturally distinguished in terms of different segments or strata while we should refrain from applying functional differentiation to the market phenomenon? In other words, why not distinguish between economic, political, scientific and religious markets in the same way as we do when comparing Chinese, Russian and German markets or luxury, premium and mass market segments? …

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