On July 1st, 2016 the workshop ‘Social Studies of the Economy in Latin America’ took place at the Science and Technology Studies Department, University College London. The meeting convened a number of outstanding academics, including several contributors to this blog. Because the topics discussed are of central concern to this group, we are taking the opportunity to share some impressions.
The workshop aimed to discuss leading research that offers a close-up examination of economic life. In particular, it was oriented to ethnographic research that sheds light on the multiple ways in which the economy, culture and technology intersect, and in which the economy as an object is constituted and performed. Elaborating on previous research into the world of economic policy-making and expertise, the media’s role in public economic discussion, the nature of economic calculation and its material devices, and the variety of economic knowledges, the workshop focused on the social studies of the economy in Latin America. At least three common threads emerged from the discussion.
First, Mariana Heredia, Federico Neiburg and Ana Gross’ papers examined disputes concerning consumer price indexes, the representations of inflation, and, more broadly, the way in which public numbers – their construction, treatment, publication, etc. – affects the economy. A second common thread between the papers was the attention paid to economic knowledge and economic practices.
Mariana Heredia (and Claudia Daniel) takes a long-term historical view of the way inflation is publically framed and understood in contemporary Argentina. Analysing the way price increases were discussed in the two major newspapers (La Nación and Clarín) between the 1940s and 1990s, they distinguish two clear periods. From the 1940’s to the 1970s, inflation was presented as a social and political phenomenon in which social leaders representing workers and branch industries played a leading role in disputing state involvement in price control. These national newspapers took clear ideological standpoints on inflation, standpoints reflecting different conceptions of the economy. While La Nación represented a liberal vision, Clarín promulgated a more interventionist conception. Notably, inflation during this period was an important problem for liberals, and particularly so, during unstable years. Since the mid-1970s, however, inflation has not only continued at three digit levels, but its framing has also changed. As experts in economics were increasingly called to give their professional advice and opinion, ideological cleavages began to fade. Inflation came to be considered an urgent economic problem, involving all members of society equally, without regard to political orientation, a problem requiring the in-depth intervention of independent economic experts.
Examining the way in which Argentina’s inflation dispute was framed, Federico Neiburg maps the genealogy and justifications of ‘economic emergencies’. Exploring the state of “national statistical emergency” decreed by President Macri, Neiburg discusses the juridical and political implications of intervening in the National Institute of Statistics. The objectives of the paper are: (1) to map a genealogy of devices and justifications for economic emergencies that aim to momentarily suspend the rule of law to encourage the ‘independent and normal’ operation of the markets; and (2) to show how economic emergencies are a particularly fertile field for analysing the interconnections between everyday and academic categories relating to the ‘real economy’: the emergency government of the economy allows action to be taken in relation to knowledge of economic life (such as the production of indicators) in favour of the ‘common good,’ acting explicitly on the ‘real economy’ and on ‘people’s real lives’: prices, wages, contracts, employment, debts, savings and so on.
Ana Gross takes the controversy generated around the validity of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in Argentina since 2006 as an empirical occasion to observe how the use of economic knowledge in society changes when statistics become decentralized (Hayek 1945). She explores two distinctive features of this controversy. First, the public disaggregation of inflation databases that render the products and prices used to calculate CPI in the country publicly identifiable; and second, the emergence of alternative inflation indicators based on different temporal modes of release and communication. The paper looks at how the observation, knowledge and experiences of public economic numbers might become re-organised when statistics are disaggregated to the point where they render the specificities of their calculations visible, and when official indicators like CPI – understood as observational coordinates – become contested by other measures.
A second common thread between the papers was the attention paid to economic knowledge and economic practices. In particular, the papers of Tomás Undurraga, Gustavo Onto, Tomás Ariztía explored the mediating role of other actors and objects in the making of the economy. What are the contributions of journalists, lawyers, public servants and engineers in producing knowledge about the economy? How do particular epistemic economic objects such as graphs, tables and consumer databases materialise? What are the ways in which these types of knowledges and ways of knowing affect and constitute knowledge competition, markets and consumers?
Tomás Undurraga investigates knowledge production in journalism. Based on a multi-site ethnography of two influential newspapers in Brazil, he examines how journalists mediate knowledge claims made by experts, policy makers and the lay public, asking whether and how Brazilian journalists experience themselves as knowledge-makers. Undurraga argues that Brazilian journalists index their production of knowledge in reference to four main issues: depth, authorship, influence and expertise. That is, journalists are more likely to consider newsmaking a contribution to knowledge when: (1) they have the resources to do proper investigative reporting (depth); (2) they are able to help define the public agenda through their reporting and to express their opinion on events (authorship); (3) they have impact on the polity, the economy, culture or any other field they cover (influence) and (4) their journalistic knowledge is recognised as a form of expertise by readers and by specialists (expertise). In practice, however, there are multiple obstacles that make Brazilian journalists hesitant about their contribution to knowledge, including, intensified working conditions alongside other challenges of media convergence, the lack of plurality within the mainstream presses, journalism’s low professional status in Brazil, and difficulty in dealing authoritatively with experts from other fields.
Based on an ethnography conducted at the Brazilian antitrust governmental agency – the Administrative Council for Economic Defense, CADE – Gustavo Onto describes the role that documents and graphic artefacts play in the regulation of market competition. Antitrust regulation requires the performance of a variety of administrative practices aimed at producing knowledge about specific markets, industries, companies and consumers, so to be able to decide, e.g., whether to authorise a merger between two companies, or to condemn anticompetitive practices like those of a cartel. These knowledge practices rely on the production and circulation of different bureaucratic artefacts that are critical for regulators to be able to visualize market competition, usually through tables, charts and percentages. Taking specific merger cases analysed by regulators as an example, Onto argues that competition is not necessarily an abstract or theoretical notion when seen from the point of view of knowledge practices used to investigate the possibility of future harm to consumers and other companies. In contrast, it can only be understood or visualized by regulators through specific material and graphic techniques that foreground a set of relations of similarity and difference between products, services and companies. The article reveals that antitrust policy in Brazil is considered a success not only because the agency is capable of enforcing its decisions effectively but also because its documentary practices are creating and disseminating certain understandings of how the economy works and should work.
Tomás Ariztía proposes new methodological ways of studying how customers are enacted in business practices. Based on an experimental ethnography of the process of manufacturing and analysing a transactional dataset from a small retail company in Chile, Ariztía engaged in ‘number crunching’ – i.e. process of creating, modifying and data mining transactional data. The author proposes three methodological movements for an ethnographic approach to (digital) business objects. First, facing the difficulty of ethnographic access to expert business practices, the paper suggests moving from an emphasis on “representation” to a focus on “provocation”. This involves taking a particular epistemological stance where fieldwork is not viewed as a space where a particular representation of the real is produced, but more as a set of operations where a particular kind of reality is “provoked” (Muniesa, 2014). Second, concerning the problem of visibility, the paper suggests focusing on ordinary practices and devices through which these particular realities are assembled. Third, Ariztía suggests shifting our attention from normal operations and processes to moments of error and breakdown. Examining error in data practice could offer a useful way of unpacking the different types of politics involved in business practices.
The third thread that crosses the papers was a concern to understand social studies of the economy in a specifically Latin American context. What do these various research projects focused on Argentina, Brazil and Chile tell us about the political economy of the region? Going beyond the traditional stereotypes with which the social sciences tend to label the region – e.g. as being a laboratory for economic experimentation, as being hierarchical both politically and economically and a place of hope for contestation and political change – these papers shed light on the socio-technical nature of the economy from an economic-anthropology and economic-sociology perspective. Contrary to a meta-narrative reading of Latin American political economy, these papers showed the nuances and specificities of the economies in the region, and how these economies as objects, are locally constructed, performed and contested.