Intermediaries and Ambiguity

Marc Ventresca and I wrote a quickie article for the London Times a few years back, a short what’s-what of economic sociology. In it, we wrote the following:

Intermediaries are vivid in these cultural and organizational studies of markets. They are, at the individual level: brokers, experts, consultants, analysts, and appraisers. They also work at the organizational level, as: mediating organizations, independent ratings agencies, standardized testing services. The role of intermediaries extend beyond the role of information broker, reducing uncertainty. Instead, they work to resolve ambiguity. Resolving ambiguity is necessary classificatory and commensuration work that allows markets to achieve settlement – of buyers and sellers, of rules and regulations, of the fungibility and legitimacy of commodities. The broader wisdom in this studies is a turn away from a comfortable and domesticated concern with uncertainty reduction. It is a core engagement with the myriad forms of ambiguity that stymie efficient “markets” in the standard economic sense and provide the challenges whose resolutions configure markets in particular ways. Traditional brokers address problems of information uncertainty. We emphasize the work of cultural intermediaries who manage core ambiguities in markets that make comparisons possible, such as the terms of valuation, metrics and categories.

This is what I want to take from the entanglement discussion. I’m not quite as interested in a doing to economics what STS has done to scientists, but I can certainly see it. I just don’t have as much a dog in that fight.

By contrast, I do think that this kind of category construction, valuation, metric-making, and the like are all less provocative but more productive. They are, as a number of us in this area have said, the sociology of the invisible, the infrastructure, the boring. Accounting systems, valuation, categorization, these are things which reduce ambiguity to a sufficient degree that we can have uncertainty. And then we can argue over price, efficiency, markets. This is where there is work to do. It’s not enough to say that the work of making categories, commensurating, disentanglement is all prior. You can’t set that in place and then look at how markets unfold from them. They are prior and ongoing, but relatively invisible. That’s important.

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