Interview: Koray Çalışkan

The sociological inquiries about the economy have often been characterized by the predominance of “what” and “why” questions, aiming to uncover the intricate relations between economy and society. In the last two decades we have also witnessed the emergence of a new wave of studies, driven primarily by the “how” questions, which have undertook a dynamic anthropological look at the economy.

Koray Çalışkan, a political scientist and economic and political anthropologist at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, is one of the proponents of this anthropologically-informed research program. In Market Threads: How Farmers and Traders Create a Global Commodity (Princeton University Press, 2011), Çalışkan carried out an ethnographic study of the global cotton market and characterized global markets as indexical possibilities, which, he argued, do not exist as such but are brought into existence when they are actualized by various human and non-human actors, and their use of market devices and discursive practices. He also wrote extensively on the meaning of price and on rural ethnography. In 2009 and 2010, he published a two-part article, “Economization, part 1” and “Economization, part 2,” co-authored with Michel Callon, where they offered a critique of the existing social scientific accounts of the economy and challenged social scientists to shift their focus from studying the “economy” to the processes of economization.

Gökhan Mülayim (Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology, BU) asked Koray Çalışkan to clarify some of his key arguments, and discuss his views on interdisciplinarity and U.S. economic sociology.

In “Economization, part 1” & “part 2”, you and Michel Callon call for social scientists to stop treating the essentially imagined idea of the economy as if it had an ontological status and to shift their attention instead to particular cases of “economization.” Could you talk a bit more about the concept of economization, how should economic sociologists adopt it, and what they can gain from it?
KC: These two papers that Michel and I wrote on Economization and Marketization did not only represent a call to shift researcher’s attention to a new reality, it was an empirical and theoretical demonstration of how this shift has already been emerging. Now looking at new dissertation research on marketization, I am more convinced now than five years ago that the research programme of economization is successful. As the ghost of Substantivist and Formalist debate left us, we realized that the border wars between two camps of “what is embedded in what” produced more heat than light. Now researchers look more at processes of economization than objects of the economy or the market. Studying a process opens up a more accurate representation of actual economic processes and their universe than focusing on an object such as the market and trying to locate where its economic and social boundaries meet, cross and traverse… Furthermore, studying economization gives researchers an opportunity to study actors and structures simultaneously without assuming a hierarchy of power between human and non-human, collective and individual actors. In the end, instead of assuming the mere absence or presence of their role in life, a researcher can assess the “strength” of the power of different agents. [Economization] also helps researchers incorporate the analytical (such as economic sciences) and practical (such as trader reports) descriptions and interpretations of economic life into the research framework to account for the level of performativity in specific empirical contexts. Finally, such a programme of research could also provide the agents of markets and sciences with political tools to imagine better (depending on the motivation of the actor, more profitable, more just, less patriarchal etc.) relations of production and exchange. In summary, studying economization instead of the economy, helps researchers to better describe, understand, theorize and change the economic world.

In your critique of the existing accounts on the economy, the question of ontological asymmetry between people and things seems to occupy central place. What are the problems caused by this asymmetry and is it possible to overcome anthropocentrism in economic sociology?
KC: Historically speaking, sociological imagination emerged before the society. The very making of the society itself was a product of the development and popularization of such an imagination. Beginning from the second half of the 20th century, however, the sociological imagination began to suffer from a narrowing of focus regarding agents. The Communist Manifesto opened with ghosts hunting continents, otherwise invisible collective human actors (such as class) or non-human actors (such as the state) were rendered visible in terms of their motivations, interests and more importantly, the consequence of their actions. But with the institutionalization of the objects of research (e.g. society, state, culture, the economy), and with the making of Weberianism as an alternative to Marxism in the West, social scientists began to produce more and more accounts of the actions of fewer and fewer actors. More importantly, researchers began to assume the passivity of human and non-human agencies before they begin to carry out research. We challenge this assumption. To give an example, the gun lobby argues that it is men who kill, not guns. We say no. Guns have a role in the death of humans. Agency, or playing a role in life, can be defined not in terms of intellect, planning, interest or purpose, but it terms of the consequence of structuring possible fields of actions of humans and non-humans. It is possible to overcome anthropocentrism in sociology for the science of sociology contributed to the invention of perhaps one of the strongest non-human actors, the society… Why not invent and see more, or to put it better, why not open the gates of sociology to theoretically suppressed actors?

In Market Threads, you define global markets as indexical possibilities. What do you mean by this, and how does this idea relate to your critique of the asymmetry between people and things as well as your proposal for refocusing our attention from economy to economization?
KC: A nationalist believes in the materiality, the existence of the nation. This is how nations are “realized” despite the fact that they do not exist. Their presence is dependent on their everyday imagination and more importantly, their everyday maintenance. Markets are similar in this respect. They are imagined and realized on the ground as an indexical possibility. But there is more to market than that. For many, the market is the place where exchange takes place, or the name of a series of actions that result in trade. I showed in Market Threads that the market is rather the very tool of engagement used by market participants as they pursued their interest. If one studies marketization as a modality of economization, one can better analyze, feel, describe and change relations of exchange and production. A study of economization requires a radical break from the prevailing understanding of markets. Markets do not just emerge as a relationship among self-interested buyers and sellers, governed by appropriate economic institutions. Nor can they be understood as economic relations embedded in wider social structures. They are relations of power, maintained everyday by constant interventions, production of devices such as prosthetic, associate and rehearsal prices, indices and various forms of struggles among the actors that make a global market possible. Furthermore, in addition to these complex relations of power, each market is also shaped by its primary commodity’s specific nature, its production and agency. Markets are particular configurations of power whose workings cannot be understood by revealing a central logic of operation, for they have none. Thus, proposing free market reforms by setting prices free is not categorically different than proposing free society reforms by setting individuals free. Both logics share an absurdity and a level of abstraction hard to be found in the workings of actual markets.

“Economization, part 2” calls for a greater methodological affinity with anthropology, but for many sociologists such an orientation may be too descriptive to be analytical. What do you think that economic sociology can learn or borrow from anthropology? Do you think that the knowledge produced following the agenda you propose should be systematized at some point, or would you say that it is not productive for economic sociologists to debate the descriptive-analytical divide?
KC: I do not think that Michel and I proposed a merely descriptive perspective to study markets. Our definition of markets has three gears: The first gear draws on the empirical description of how goods are produced and exchanged in organized settings. But if one does not change the gear, she goes nowhere. The second gear consists of an approach to markets as arrangements of heterogeneous constituents such as rules, conventions, technical devices, metrological systems, texts, discourses, ideologies, scientific knowledge, technical information regarding markets and their role in exchange relations. And finally, the third gear is a call to approach the market as a space of confrontation and power struggle. So, clearly, what we proposed, was not only descriptive.

What can sociology borrow from anthropology… That I do not know. In my own work I do not recognize disciplinary boundaries anymore. One ends up being a political scientist, a sociologist, an anthropologist… It is partly a choice, partly conditioned by a social scientific context. After all, we are all called Ph.Ds, i.e., doctors of philosophy… In the world of expertise we are required to claim one. This is the power of discourse; it makes you speak in a way instead of silencing you. I gave up taking disciplinary boundaries too seriously. I have questions to be answered, many of them… And I have colleagues who approach them in various departments and schools. Their discipline hardly helps one judge the accuracy of their scientific output.

Regarding the systemization question: This is a possibility. Since we published these two articles, various new work on markets came out. Some of them use our proposed research programme with force and revise it. I believe such a systemization is already happening. For example, Julia Kierkegaard defended a very interesting dissertation in Copenhagen last year on marketization of Chinese wind power. Some others use parts of the programme that we proposed. We’ll see in the next quarter century whether this programme will be successful. Sciences progress slowly, this is their condition of possibility.

Given your position as a U.S.-trained scholar that is currently non-US based, how do you see your own work in the context of the continental divide? What are your thoughts on the state and the trajectory of U.S. economic sociology?
KC: The US is the center of world academic research… Leaving the U.S. and carrying out your scientific work elsewhere. has a number of disadvantages. In the U.S. one can live as if he or she is covered with stretch film, secluded, reserved, and focused… There, politics around the scientist may stay away from the scientist if he or she choses. Here in Istanbul this is impossible. Especially if one lives in an authoritarian country like Erdogan’s Turkey, it becomes even more difficult to focus. Imagine that Trump wins in the US and multiply this effect by 10, you’ll see what I mean. Jokes aside, there is also a question of scale. In Turkey, there are many powerful social scientists, carrying out great and exciting new work. But compared to the U.S., the number of publications are still very low. My work on markets draws on research networks in the U.S. and Europe, not in Turkey. So it becomes more and more difficult to stay connected. However, living in Turkey has a great advantage. You are at the heart of the things you study… They touch you with greater force and heat. For an engaged social scientist, this is great. But it hurts at times, such as the government persecution of academics who signed a letter criticizing the Islamist AKP’s handling of the Kurdish question. Seeing your colleagues taken in custody, losing their jobs, being prosecuted just because they expressed an opinion that Erdoğan doesn’t like hurts you and your morale…

Regarding U.S. economic sociology… I think economic sociologists succeeded a lot. We live in difficult times. A slow-paced economic crisis has been melting working class income for a quarter century now. Sons and daughters of the previous generation, despite their better education, are now making less and less money, depending financially more and more on their families. Things are not going well in the first and other worlds… Economic sociology is needed more in such circumstances. However, to be taken more seriously, to be more successful in channeling research grants to sociology, social researchers must imagine more powerful tools of intervening and understanding the world. Sociology lacks that. We are usually regarded as people who show how the world is infinitely complex, instead of people who describe and analyze the complexity of the world with simpler tools. I do not know how to make this happen. Reading my own articles again, now I am not sure whether my own work is a good example either. But we have to find a way out.

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