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economics PhD

“Oh God, the Economy!” (or how a meme can sum up my PhD thesis)

Who doesn’t love a meme? And when a couple of these come along that just happen to sum up your doctoral thesis, it’s both impressive, depressing, and a funny feeling of having come full circle.

Thanks, internet.

Elon Musk, king of many things but also of the art form that is The Meme, was widely panned for his early laid-back response to the pandemic, preferring to worry over the economy instead. And then there was this:

Admittedly, this is open to interpretation, and Musk hasn’t clarified how many layers of sarcasm are at play here but judging by more recent tweets, he seems to mean this literally. The image, of an astronaut on the moon watching the destruction of the planet earth while worrying about the fate of the economy is perhaps a fitting metaphor for some of the narrative around the Covid19 pandemic. Some have suggested that Musk was actually referencing the real role of the economy in human health, and the mutual dependence of the two rather than the “lives versus economy” binary that has defined the pandemic discourse. Alternatively, the image could beg the question of whether we are sacrificing the planet to satisfy the gods of economy. More on this later. In the meantime, the internet responded magnificently:

Humorous, yes. But there are two points to note here that relate to the relationship between economy, society, and the planet.

Memes are metaphors

Firstly, these make great visual metaphors for our preoccupation with the economy at a time when lives are being lost to a virus. James Geary cites metaphors as essential for framing a subject, which in turn defines how we think about something. His book “I is an other” notes that:

“We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.” (Kindle Loc. 219-221)

Perhaps the originator of work into metaphor and its effects on framing and cognition, George Lakoff highlights the importance of metaphor and its role in how we perceive, conceive and understand something that then gets wired into our neural circuitry. See “Don’t Think of an Elephant“, as well as Lakoff & Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by“.

A metaphor is a way of likening one thing to something else. In this case, the pandemic is represented by the destruction of the world, with the distant astronaut concerned over the fate of the economy. Is the implication really that the pandemic is a looming apocalypse? This would probably strike most people as extreme, but the similarities include the fact that we have not faced a global pandemic in living memory, that our way of life or “normal” probably has met the same fate as the meme-planet, and that the fate of the earth and the climate crisis has been unceremoniously bumped down the order of global priorities.

Much of the discussion about our responses to the pandemic seems to have polarised debate into a “lives versus the economy” binary. Of course, the world is not as simple as this. In previous posts I’ve emphasised the need to bring economics back into the social science and reorient it around people, highlighting the fact that without humans interacting, there is no economy. This fact seems to have been largely ignored in the discourse – if people are sick, the economy suffers. If the economy suffers, people will too. They are two sides of the same coin – another metaphor for trying to explain that the economy (itself a metaphor for a collection of human behaviour) benefits when we are fit, healthy, and productive, and vice versa. Pitting the one against the other is, admittedly humorous but erroneous and ultimately unhelpful.

Metaphors frame our thinking

Secondly, how (you ask) does Elon’s meme sum up my PhD thesis? Interpreted literally, it’s wide of the mark. But seen ironically, the meme captures a Polanyian interpretation of the economy-society duality.

We use metaphor to think, and our ways of thinking about the law and the economy are as steeped in metaphor as any area of life; in fact, possibly more so. We attribute human qualities to the economy (it’s “gathering strength”, it’s “taken a tumble”, etc), and neoclassical approaches have tended to prioritise the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that can regulate human behaviour accordingly.

This encapsulates Karl Polanyi’s assertions about the relationship between the economy and society. In more recent debates after the 2008 financial crisis, the question tended to be “is the economy embedded in society, or is society embedded in the economy” (both of these are readings of Polanyi’s thesis, and yes, they are contradictory). The point is, when we use “the economy” as a metaphor to start talking about collections of human behaviour, we can begin to personify these, and start talking about the economy as if it were a living, breathing thing. While we might think that “economy” should function for the benefit of society, there are those who argue that society now functions for the benefit of the economy. Some commentators have argued that the metaphorical aspirations of the economy have taken over the narrative, to the extent that society works to serve economic goals. We strive to increase GDP, growth, productivity, and so on.

And so, Elon’s meme neatly sums up the subordination of society, and the earth, to economic goals. At the same time, it hopefully asks us to reconsider the relationship between the economy and society, economy and the planet, and how we can move forwards in a mutually beneficial manner.

Categories
acoustic jurisprudence economics Embeddedness methodology methods Research Visualising ESL

Diving in to an ESL frame…

This mini animation, with sound, asks what the reintegration of the economic, legal and social might look like and sound like.

This is relevant for each and every interaction that occurs – there are always legal and economic aspects to every interaction, but we tend to forget that talking about the legal and economic in isolation from the social is a metaphor, or fiction.

How might we think about integrating legal, economic and social phenomena conceptually?

How could frames or lenses like ESL help us to remember the social basis for any legal or economic aspects of interactions?

Categories
economics Embeddedness Free market PhD Research Thesis Uncategorized

“Embeddedness” (and why we need to stop saying it)

Is the economy embedded in society? Is society embedded in the economy? Is the law embedded in society? Or is society embedded in a set of rules and regulations?

Have the law and economy become “disembedded” from society, and is this why the financial crisis in 2008 came as such a surprise? Would it help to “re-embed” the economy?

This post explores the use, misuse and abuse of the concept of embeddedness in the context of econo-socio-legal interactions.

Coinage of the term in the context of economic sociology and ESL is attributed to Karl Polanyi in his 1948 book The Great Transformation. Polanyi had reportedly been reading about the coal mining industry in the UK, and had taken the term “embeddedness” from descriptions of coal embedded in the walls of a mine. Thus, to Polanyi, the term was likely a relational descriptor and metaphor. Interestingly, despite earlier documented usage, Richard Thurnwald’s use of “embeddedness” has gone largely unremarked, enabling him to dodge the bullet of origination foisted on Polanyi. The term only appears twice on page 60 of Great Transformation, and then on pages 68, 73 and 135. There is no great overarching theme of embeddedness. Nor is there a definition offered. It is probably safe to assume that the word was a throw-away term of description that came to hand, and was then never given much more thought.

Little did Polanyi realise that 70+ years later, scholars would be puzzling over his meaning and even writing doctoral theses on the matter! One catalyst for the development of embeddedness into the core concept of sociological lenses was Mark Granovetter’s accidental revival of the term. Granovetter’s theory of networks, published in 1985, described the actor as embedded in networks. He has since admitted that at the time of writing, he had forgotten Polanyi’s usage of the term. Nevertheless, the success of Granovetter’s paper revived the career of embeddedness, but at the same time created confusion. Polanyi had been referring to the macro-level embeddedness of economy in society, although his “always-embedded economy” is more a theoretical proposition than empirically-proven reality. Conversely, Granovetter had used the term at the micro-level to describe the embeddedness of the individual in networks of interaction. Thus, development of the concept of embeddedness already straddled the micro and macro, giving rise of the question; “what are we talking about”?

Here’s the rub. When discussing the extraction of coal from a mine, for want of a better example, “embeddedness” is a perfectly adequate relational descriptor. It implies the co-existence of two conceptually separate phenomena in time and space; the coal, and the rock from which it is hewn. There is no problem with saying that one is embedded in the other.

Where difficulty arises though is where we also want to investigate the possibility that the two phenomena described not only share characteristics but might even be two aspects of the same phenomena. For example, we can say that the economy must be re-embedded in society if we accept that the economy and society are two distinct entities. This is clearly nonsense. An economy cannot exist outside of a society. An economy necessarily implies human interaction of a specific nature (economic). The same is true of law. We cannot imagine a legal system without a society behind, underpinning, and performing it. A legal system implies human interaction of a specific nature (legal). Therefore, stating that one is embedded within the other – whichever way round you phrase it – clearly does not make sense.

My research puts this in the context of ESL, which aim to reintegrate social science dialogue and which ultimately takes a constructivist approach. In other words, economic and legal phenomena (the econolegal) are performed through social interactions. All social interactions have econolegal aspects or flavours. There’s no escaping this, just as there is no way to have an economic exchange without it being between people (I’m excluding high frequency trading between computers here for argument’s sake, but will return to this in a future post).

Why is this important? Well, the response to the 2008 financial crisis is something we, in the UK, are still living with. Austerity, as the main policy response, was based on a particular understanding and framing of the economics that led to the crash. This is an economics that sees the discipline as somewhat ‘apart’ from society. Neoclassical economics sets out a version of ‘economic man’ on which complex economic theories are modelled. There has been recognition of the limitations of this approach. But in turn, those who criticise mainstream neoclassical economics frames tend to (with or without the help of Polanyi) argue that we need to “re-embed” the economy in society.

If we take this approach, we deny the possibility of ever seeing the economy as an aspect of society, the same as the law. We cannot hope to reorient the economy and its regulation (the law) towards real people if we talk about society, economy and law as separate entities. Speaking of one being embedded in the other simply reinforces their difference, their separation, and their disunity. It reinforces existing ways of doing, talking and thinking, which are predominantly shaped by neoclassical economics. It prevents us moving forwards.

So, what to do? We need to move beyond embeddedness, and how to go about that is the subject of a future post.

Copyright note: animation by me using ProCreate 5 on iPad Air 3. Please ask before you take!