An Essay on the Growing Contribution of Economic Markets to the Proliferation of the Social
Relying upon the anthropology of science and technology, we can define economic markets as socio-technical arrangements or agencements (STA) whose functioning is based on a set of framings concerning not only goods and agencies but also price-setting mechanisms. Market framing constitutes powerful mechanisms of exclusion, for to frame means to select, to sever links and finally to make some trajectories (at least temporarily) irreversible. Certain worlds, with their goods, agents and attachments, are chosen above others which are consequently threatened with extinction. This is the first source of matters of concern. Since framings are never completely successful, overflowings occur, which constitute a second possible source. To illustrate the proposed approach, I am now going to consider each of these two sources of matters of concern in turn, limiting myself in each case to a few significant examples.
The framings required by the functioning of market STAs are multiple (Callon, 1998; Callon and Caliskan, in preparation; Callon and Muniesa, 2005). Some maintain a strict (ontological) divide between, on the one hand, entities transformed into (passive) goods susceptible to valuation and pricing and, on the other, the agencies capable of performing those valua- tions. Other framings concern the agencies themselves: for instance, they define their geometry (individual and collective) or the motives and equip- ment (cognitive, emotional, instrumental) enabling them to engage in operations of valuation. Finally, there are framings which organize encoun- ters between goods and agencies.
A complete analysis would require us to examine all of these framings and to identify the exclusions and matters of concern that they generated. Since the aim of this article is to present and illustrate an approach, I will simply consider two cases of framing responsible for significant exclusions.
The mutual reinforcement of the different framings mentioned earlier, which results in the provisional stabilization of technologies, rules of the game, conventions, laws, training, competencies and skills, leads sometimes to what economists have called socio- technological lock-in. Everyone knows Paul David’s famous example of the QWERTY keyboard, chosen for the sake of technical efficiency related to the first typewriters’ design (David, 1984). This option ended up becoming a standard that it is now quite impossible to change. More generally, when a new socio-technical activity emerges, several options compete for a while. Yet fairly quickly one (or a few) of them prevails, and not necessarily the best one from a technical or even an economic point of view. Paul David has proposed the term enraged orphans for those consumers who chose a technological option that was eventually eliminated for reasons not directly related to its technical qualities or initial relative costs.
Granovetter and McGuire (1998) generalize Paul David’s argument in a superb analysis of the trajectory of the North American electricity industry. They show how the choice of frequencies and the priority given to the centralization of units of electricity production gradually created irre- versibilities. Certain options were rejected and, along with them, related projects and demands. As a result of social networks, institutions, policies implemented by government authorities and research undertaken by labora- tories, a technology and the world matching it were permanently imposed. The orphan groups that had bet on other options or that would have liked alternatives to be developed were thus left on the side of the road.
This is a general mechanism. Due to increasing returns resulting from adoption and production, the dynamic of markets produces huge exclusions. Of all potential worlds, only a small number are explored and exploited. Certain demands, expectations or needs end up being ignored. We can agree to use the term orphan groups for all these groups excluded from techno- logical and economic development. Orphan groups are not necessarily enraged. Some can avoid giving in to resentment. They can choose to engage in a strategy of construction of the worlds in which they want to live, by developing the research and innovation potential that will make them even stronger and more effective.