The centrality of lateral economic objects: examples from Latin America

This is a really interesting workshop. This post originally appears at easst.net.

The centrality of lateral economic objects: examples from Latin America

Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Arista, Gustavo Onto

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 scholars who work at the intersection of social studies of the economy, STS, sociology and the anthropology of economic knowledge. The workshop focused on leading research that offers a close-up examination of economic life. In particular, it engaged ethnographic and historical perspectives on the multiple ways in which the economy, culture and technology intersect, and on the way in which economic subjects and objects are constituted and performed.

The kinds of research objects discussed in the workshop go beyond the usual economic entities and processes often examined by Latin American scholars in the social studies of the economy, such as markets, competition, money, economists and finance. Instead, most of the participants investigate assemblages of lateral epistemic objects which play a critical but relatively humble role in the orchestration of the economy, e.g. indexes, databases, economic news and regulatory figures. The research presented aimed to show how the production of different types of knowledge relates to the constitution, contestation and regulation of economic forms and processes, which are considered to be more central in public debate – e.g. inflation, competition, economic prospects and customers. Broadly speaking, three kinds of epistemic objects were discussed: public numbers, private numbers and economic news.

Economic News

Mariana Heredia and Claudia Daniel take 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 news of 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 key roles 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 approach. 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, they argue, 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 shorn of clear ideological baggage, a problem involving all members of society equally, without regard to political orientation, a problem requiring the in-depth intervention of independent economic experts. The story they tell shows how inflation moved from being a general social and political problem to a technical, ‘economic’ subject fit only for experts.

In a similar vein, Tomás Undurraga investigates the assemblage of economic news by Brazilian journalists. Based on a multi-site ethnography of two influential newspapers in Brazil, he examines how the production of economic news involves journalists in mediating knowledge claims made by experts, policy makers and the lay public. Undurraga asks whether and how Brazilian journalists experience themselves as knowledge-makers. The paper describes how journalists aim to produce news that is marked by four main features: depth, authorship, influence and expertise. In doing this, this paper shows that journalists are more likely to consider newsmaking a contribution to knowledge when: they have the resources to do proper investigative reporting (depth); they are able to help define the public agenda through their reporting and to express their opinion on events (authorship); they have impact on the field they cover (influence) and their journalistic knowledge is recognised as a form of expertise by readers and 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.

Public Numbers

Neiburg and Gross’ papers examined disputes concerning the production and circulation of public numbers and consumer price indexes through regulatory documents and policies. While public numbers play a key role in defining how the economy is shaped, such numbers are often constituted via historical knowledge practices through which specific versions of the economy are supported and others discarded.

 

Fig. 1. Workshop participants, from left to right: Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Ariztía, Mariana Heredia, Martín de Santos, Ana Gros, Gustavo Onto

 

Examining the way in which Argentina’s inflation dispute was framed, Federico Neiburg maps the genealogy and justifications of ‘economic emergencies’ as economic and legal objects. Exploring the state of “national statistical emergency” decreed by President Macri in December 2015, Neiburg discusses the juridical and political implications of intervening in the National Institute of Statistics. In this context, the paper maps a genealogy of devices and justifications for economic emergencies, which aim to suspend momentarily the rule of law and to encourage the normal, independent operation of markets. He shows how economic emergencies open a clear window onto the interconnections between everyday and academic categories relating to the ‘real economy’. Neiburg discusses how  “emergency” regulations designed to govern the economy allow action to be taken in relation to knowledge of economic life, such as the production of indicators. These actions are generally justified in defence of the ‘common good,’ and directly affect the ‘real economy’ and ‘people’s real lives’: prices, wages, contracts, employment, debts, savings and so on. Similarly to Heredia and Daniel, Neiburg shows how the production of ‘emergency’ situations relates to the practical implementation of technical numbers such as indicators.

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 public economic numbers are produced in an increasingly decentralized way. She explores two distinctive features of the controversy surrounding the proliferation of alternative inflation indicators: first, the public disaggregation of inflation databases that render the products and prices used to calculate CPI; thus transforming the way in which prices are visibilized; 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 experience of public economic numbers becomes re-organised when statistics are disaggregated to the point where they render the specificities of their calculations visible, and when official indicators like CPI become contested by other measures.

Private Numbers

We also examined objects such as databases and visualization techniques that help to shape and materialize economic subjects and states of affairs. These objects, such as antitrust policy charts and consumer databases, illustrate the mediating role that knowledge practices and devices play in shaping central economic objects and subjects – such as consumers, markets, and competition. These objects (Guyer, 2016) cannot be described as necessarily “economic”, since they are also used to enact things that are not necessarily considered economic. Further attention to these epistemic objects, however, expands the way we are prone to describe the economy.

Based on an ethnography of the Brazilian antitrust governmental agency – the Administrative Council for Economic Defense, CADE – Gustavo Onto explores the production and use of documents and graphic artefacts and the role they play in regulating market competition. Antitrust regulation involves a variety of administrative practices aimed at producing knowledge about specific markets, industries, companies and consumers, with the aim of facilitating decisions about, 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 artifacts that are critical for regulators to be able to visualize market competition, usually through tables, charts and percentages. Taking specific merger cases analyzed by regulators as examples, Onto argues that competition is not necessarily an abstract or theoretical notion when seen from the point of view of knowledge practices that frame the possibility of future harm to consumers and other companies. By contrast, he argues that competition 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.

In a similar vein, Tomás Ariztía discusses how consumers are enacted in marketing datamining. Based on an experimental ethnography of the manufacture and analysis of a transactional dataset from a small retail company in Chile, Ariztía describes the practice of ‘number crunching’ – i.e. the process of creating, modifying and datamining transactional data during the production of consumer databases. In doing so, the paper describes the enactment of consumers in datamining as the outcome of a myriad of socio-material practices and devices through which specific accounts of the social world are rendered visible. The paper describes how the consumer that is enacted through datamining is the result of a practical operation of qualification deployed trough different digital infrastructures. In doing so, the paper explores two specific aspects of the production of consumer datasets: first, the central place of error as both a heuristic tool and an outcome of consumer data practices. Second, the paper explores how datamining for marketing purposes relies on multiple, humble valuation processes through which the data that “counts” is defined. These processes involve defining and mobilizing consumers in specific ways, while others are discarded.

Lateral Economic Objects

What do public and private numbers such as consumer price and inflation indexes, market share tables, consumer datasets and economic news have in common? On what grounds can these objects be labelled “economic”? How do they relate to the production of more well-known economic entities and processes, such as markets, prices or firms? In what follows we discuss some common threads among the papers. We do so by proposing two key arguments about the place that lateral epistemic objects occupy in the production of the economy.

First, the objects described are ‘lateral’ since they relate to processes such as indexing, prospecting scenarios and deploying an administrative procedure, which are not necessarily specific to processes of economization. At the same time, however, all these objects contribute to the assemblage of entities that go on to be considered central to economic life, such as consumers, prices, market competition and economic forecasts. This apparent tension points us to one of the core theoretical claims that is supported by a close reading of the work presented: namely, that the different epistemic objects that constitute the economic world do not necessarily relate to the processes of economization described by Çalışkan and Callon (2009; 2010). These objects instead participate in the production of the economy in a subtler, lateral manner. In other words, core economic entities rely on the mobilization of a plurality of non-economic processes and knowledges, which are key in shaping the economy, such as databases, news or excel tables. Core economic processes are therefore not as autonomous and sui generis as the work of Caliskan and Callon is often taken to suggest.

It is in this sense that we term the objects described in these papers as ‘lateral economic objects’. They take part in economization processes only in an indirect manner. They deal with practices and devices that constitute the economy in so far as they mediate further processes of economization, but they may play a similar role in processes that are not overtly economic. The relatively humble operation of, e.g., manufacturing indexes, regulatory documents, economic news, databases and market shares tables contribute to making the economy possible but are not themselves specific or exclusive to modes of economization. Eschewing the centre/periphery binary, ‘lateral objects’ illuminate other processes that are not necessarily less central to the economy but have received less attention in the making of the economy

The previous claim points us to a second, stronger one. As argued by Miyazaki and Riles (2005), not all the objects and practices that shape economic life need to be related in a direct fashion to processes of economization or marketization. Economic life is produced in ways which are not always convergent and that might involve the existence of different frictions in the production of the economy. In this sense, these papers dealing with the production of lateral economic objects illustrate how economic life is produced and assembled in different and divergent places, which are only partially related to one another. The contributors to the workshop thus attempt to develop an understanding of the economy that is open to the multiplicity and contestability of knowledges and materialities that shape economic life.

The focus on the laterality of the objects examined here raises a further question about the Latin American nature of our examples. How do these examples help us to understand the production of the economy in Latin American countries specifically? What do these various research projects focused on Argentina, Brazil and Chile tell us about the specificity of the economies of the region? Going beyond the traditional stereotypes with which the social sciences tend to label Latin America – e.g. as being a laboratory for economic experimentation, as being politically and economically hierarchical and a place of contestation and hoped for political change – these papers shed light on the socio-technical nature of the Latin American economies from an anthropological and sociological perspective. In this sense, the papers discussed here illuminate a second meaning of laterality, one that relates to the place that practices and devices have in the analysis of economic life in this region. In fact, contrary to a meta-narrative reading of Latin American political economy, these papers reveal the nuances and specificities of the economies in the area, and how these economies are locally constructed, governed and contested.

This workshop received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agreement No. 283754. 

The organizers thank Tiago Mata, Asa Cusack and the members of the ‘Economics in the Public Sphere’ project for helping us put together the workshop

References

1 This workshop received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007– 2013)/ERC grant agreement No. 283754. The organizers thank Tiago Mata, Asa Cusack and the members of the ‘Economics in the Public Sphere’ project for helping us with the workshop.

Çalışkan, K. & Callon, M. (2009) Economization, part 1: shifting attention from the economy towards processes of economization. Economy and Society, 38: 3, 369-398.

Çalışkan, K. & Callon, M. (2010) Economization, part 2: a research programme for the study of markets. Economy and Society, 39: 1, 1-32.

Guyer, J. (2016) Legacies, Logics, Logistics. Essays in the Anthropology of the Platform Economy. The University of Chicago Press.

Miyazaki, H. & Riles, A. (2005) “Failure as an endpoint”. In: A. Ong and S. J. Collier (eds.), Global assemblages. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 320-331.

Author information

author Tomás Undurraga is postdoctoral Research Associate in the STS Department at UCL. He has written about the responses to neoliberalism and the varieties and justifications of capitalism in Argentina and Chile, as well as on the role of the press and the journalistic profession in the production of the economy in Brazil.
author Tomas Ariztia is Associate Professor at the Sociology department of Diego Portales University, Chile. He is interested in researching the infrastructures of consumption, particularly marketing practices and devices, and is currently involved in a 3-year research project focused on comparing Big Data, Design Thinking and Market Research as different knowledge grammars through which social entities are enacted in markets.
author Gustavo Onto is a researcher at the Research Center for Culture and Economy (www.nucec.net) based at the Department of Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He has recently concluded a long-term ethnography of antitrust knowledge practices in Brazil, describing how competition policy enacts the objects and subjects it governs and addressing some of the epistemological frictions characteristic of this mode of regulating the economy.

 

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