Critique and Change through Ethical Banks? Normative Claims Between Autonomy and System Change

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.2.04 (Tower Two)
Sarah Lenz, Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main, Germany
For the SASE Annual Conference 2015, I would like to present first empirical findings in researching ethical banks from a sociological perspective.

The observation that ethical banking has experienced rapid growth since the beginning of the global economic and financial crisis in 2007 serves as a point of departure for the following thoughts. Although, compared to conventional banking, the market share of ethical banking is rather low, alternative banks have been increasing their visibility and their public perception. Ethical banks distinguish themselves from conventional banks by operating along certain criteria and principles which are laid down by themselves (economic, social, ecological or denominational values). It can be accepted, that specific criteria have prevented ethical banks from entanglement in speculative financial market activities, why the global financial and economic crisis has therefore not had a negative impact on ethical banks and why they are becoming models for a banking system working differently.

From the sociological perspective it is interesting to ask, how actors in ethical banks are given space or opportunity to develop their normative control performance or how their reflexive potentials restrict banking, e.g., in conflict situations.

This actor-based approach is based on the assumption that a regulation of capitalism cannot be guaranteed by political institutions alone. Rather, the normative action-orientation of actors themselves is a prerequisite for closing regulatory gaps in finance and for creating social order in modern, differentiated societies by means of “normative integration”. It is the social practices, legitimations and justifications of the actors themselves, then, which are at the center of attention.

This presentation on critical competences of actors, as they have been examined in Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s On Justification, scrutinizes the moral-cultural dimension as a prerequisite for change in finance and banking. Actors’ criticism thus plays a significant role in creating institutional change. Boltanski and Thévenot assume that moments critiques are favoring concrete reflexive action in the social environment.

The investigation of critical competences in ethical banking can be particularly revealing when we ask for the biographical developments which have led to criticizing conventional banking or which have led to employment in ethical banking. In short: What are the conditions of critical reflection? And how can they be reconstructed with the help of professional biographies of actors in ethical banking?

To give an answer to these questions, different cases (from semi-structured interviews) of actors in ethical banking are presented. The single cases are then analyzed, taking into account sociocultural dispositions, professional-biographical developments, and the specific forms of criticism. The characteristics of the different forms of criticism are understood as historically rooted forms of criticism which condense into the interviewees’ biographies. To include the waves of criticism which transform and shape capitalism and the basis of its legitimization in researching ethical banks, the distinction between artistic and social critique is related to the cases presented.