Where do groovy markets come from? A conversation with Liz McFall

Liz McFall (Head of the Department of Sociology at the Open University, one of the editors of the Journal of Cultural Economy and site manager of Charisma-Market Studies) has been crafting a very distinctive approach, in the context of recent SSF, to finance. She doesn’t write about esoteric derivatives but about domestic financial goods such as insurance and consumer lending. Most of her research is based on historical data, not on interviews or participant observation, and her conceptual interest is not calculation, rankings or formulae but charisma. In this conversation, carried out last May in Copenhagen, I use McFall’s last book Devising Consumption. Cultural Economies of Insurance, Credit and Spending as an excuse to make her expand on some of the characteristic features of her work.

Q1. Devising Consumption has five main chapters, accordingly have I prepared five questions, although, and I am sorry for that, my questions neither follow the order of the book nor do they necessarily correspond to particular chapters.

The first question is about the term ‘devising’. You situate your research in the context of the recent, to use your label, “new new economic sociology” (McFall & Ossandón 2014) and the attention paid in this context to ‘market devices’. ‘Market devices’ are normally understood as apparatuses that make economic things calculable. Your work on the history of insurance and lending in the UK leads you to explore a different dimension, what you call, following pragmatist philosopher W. James, “the dirty fact” of emotions, affect and so on. The act of ‘devising’ therefore is not only about making goods calculable but also about the practical craft of connecting markets and people’s practical everyday life. A year or so ago, we met at a workshop to discuss “the economy” chapters of Bruno Latour’s Modes of Existence. In that book, Latour (2013) draws a clear distinction between two types of economic actions. On the one hand, organizing, which Latour associates with making things calculable, in the sense of Callon or like Peter Miller’s work on accounting, and, on the other, ‘attachment’, in the sense of Hennion and Gabriel Tarde’s work, which he relates to the more affectual dimension of the economy. Attachment is about advertisement, sales and so on, or all that work that makes us attached to particular goods and not to others. I would like to ask you to reflect about your notion of ‘devising’ in this context. Would you agree that ‘devising’ as a term includes both sides of Latour’s distinction, ‘organizing’ and ‘attachment’? Should we therefore understand devising as a combination of ‘organizing’ and ‘attachment’ or is it, rather, a more ambitious concept?

A1. [6.18 mins.] 

Q2. One of the main arguments of Devising Consumption is that the success of the XIX and early XX century industrial insurance in the UK had to do with what you call “organizing charisma”. Insurance firms skillfully combined the virtues of cold bureaucratic organization and the technical actuarial knowledge needed to make insurance plausible with the charm of the sales force that visited customers’ homes. But, it is not only that insurance sales people were ‘natural sellers’ but you show how they were skillfully trained and disciplined. While reading all this, I was thinking about whether this combination of charm and bureaucracy is particular of the insurance industry or rather a more general feature. In fact, the type of organization in which we both work, universities, are not that different. Universities are massive bureaucratic organizations where some of the key tasks, for instance teaching, are dependent on some sort of charismatic interaction. Now, considering you are not only a researcher but also head of a department, my question is: what do you, as a manager, learn from the successful combination of bureaucracy and charisma of early insurance?

A2. [4.06 mins.] 

Q3. An expression a colleague of mine, who you also know well, Cristian Frankel (2014), likes to use is that of the ‘elephant in the room’. The expression, as far as I understand it, is used to refer to something which is obviously present but not directly addressed in a given discussion. I would say that the elephant in your book is Max Weber. Actually, in his endorsement of the book, Richard Swedberg states that you have accomplished something “Weber would have applauded” and one of the key terms you use is ‘charisma’, which of course relates to Weber’s work. However, at the moment of picking your classics the book refers to other authors such as Tarde or James. I don’t question your choice of references. However, and this is my question, have you thought about the consequences of your work to the discussion about the tensions between bureaucracy and charisma in modern organizations initiated by Max Weber?

A3. [7.58 mins.] 

Q4. You explain the success of insurance in terms of their skillful combination of organization and charisma. While reading the book, I was thinking of perhaps a third element. While I was conducting fieldwork on the consumer credit industry in Chile I found a group of people that have been working for decades as credit analysts (Ossandón 2014). Credit analysts, I found, were not only trained in their companies but have become, in the last couple of decades, something like a particular sub-profession, with its own technical language and conferences.  A similar story Joe Deville (2015) found in his work on debt collection. I was wondering, therefore, whether the story you tell about insurance companies skillfully organizing charisma could also be read as the story of a particular type of profession, insurance sales, which is not only produced at the level of firms and their employees, but also elsewhere, in between firms?

A4. [4.22 mins.] 

Q5. In page 33 you pose a crucial question: “How is that markets have sometimes succeeded – where success means enrolling enough participants to continue – in designing solutions to certain problems, while determined efforts by governments to solve the same problems have sometimes failed?” In page 60 you answer:

“The ability to observe and model the knowledge of consumers through repeated weekly visits was a fundamental part of the routine functioning of industrial assurance. It was because consumers were already so implicated in industrial assurance, so attached to their agents and their policies, that offices repeatedly had the edge over governments. This is what made markets schemes ‘groovier’ than governmental alternatives”.

I totally see the main point: some insurance firms were amazingly successful because of the weekly personal attachment their collectors were able to produce, while governmental attempts to develop an alternative failed to do that. But, what type of consequences should we read from this? As I understand it, in your terms state solutions failed because they tried to relate to consumers as if they were rational economic actors that would choose the cheaper more efficient option. On the one hand, the cold rationalized state, on the other, the warm and groovy market alternative. However, if we think about more recent developments, we find a quite different story. When policy makers around the world decided to replace a more or less working state-run service with market based solutions, many times they failed because market reforms assumed a rational choice consumer that doesn’t exist. And, in fact, some of the state services that have resisted radical waves of privatizations in places like the UK, for instance the BBC and the NHS or even the Open University, seem to be quite good at producing an affective attachment with their users. Would you agree that maybe, rather than a contraposition between state-cold and market-warm or groovy, your story could be told as being about organizations that fail and organizations that succeed in the art of attachment?

A5. [10.14 mins.] 

Interview: José Ossandón

References:

Deville, J. (2015). Lived Economies of Default: Consumer Credit, Debt Collection and the Capture of Affect. Routledge.

Frankel, C. (2014). ¿Dentro o fuera? O:¿ Dejarías a un luhmanniano invertir tu dinero?. Revista Mad, (30), 49-60.

Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence. Harvard University Press.

Mcfall, L. (2014). Devising Consumption: Cultural Economies of Insurance,Credit and Spending. Routledge.

McFall, L., & Ossandón, J. (2014). What’s new in the new, new economic sociology’and should Organisation Studies care?’. , in Adler, Paul; du Gay, Paul; Morgan, Glenn, Reed, Mike (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory and Organization Studies: Contemporary Currents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ossandón, J. (2014). Sowing consumers in the garden of mass retailing in Chile. Consumption Markets & Culture, 17(5), 429-447.

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