Moral Markets and Mechanisms of Control

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
219 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Philip Balsiger, University of Neuchatel, Neuchatel, Switzerland
This paper attempts to describe the defining and distinctive features of “moral markets”, building on various case studies. I understand moral markets as markets in which producers set higher moral standards than those governing conventional market practices, and consumers buy products that respect those higher moral standards. Most often this concerns environmental, animal rights, or social justice issues; typical examples are markets for organic produce or fair trade. 

Existing theorizations of moral market dynamics either point at the process of conventionalization (Guthman 2004), or put forward their stability and closure favored by strong collective identities (Sikavica and Pozner 2013). I take a different view and conceptualize moral markets as fields (Bourdieu 2005; Fligstein 2001) where actors are in strategic interaction (Fligstein and McAdam 2012). Building on my own studies on the markets for eggs and for clothes, as well as on other empirical cases, the paper suggests that all moral markets are composed of a plurality of actors whose understanding of and commitments to moral principles are variable. Between those market actors, struggles on moral legitimacy take place. Typically, one can distinguish between three categories of actors, depending on their origin and market strategies: purists, expansionists, and commercially oriented actors.

The paper then further describes what characterizes struggles on moral legitimacy, focusing on the key questions of symbolic boundaries and mechanisms of control. Struggles on the boundaries of moral markets evolve around the questions of who’s in and who is out: who is real, authentic, pure, and who is fake, a fraud, “watered down”. They also concern the question of who has the authority to say so, and on what basis this authority is conferred, i.e. what resources or capitals can be used to authorize claims. Mechanisms of control are crucial in this struggle. They are both inward and outward directed. Towards the inside, it is about norm enforcing, i.e. making sure moral principles are applied thoroughly. Towards the outside, it is about the policing of boundaries, the sanctioning of trespassers, and the struggles on the establishment of rules and “governance units” (Fligstein and McAdam 2012) enforcing them. Rather than being the sign of their failure (Sikavica and Pozner 2013), this paper thus describes struggles around the boundaries of moral markets and their sanctioning as one of their defining features.

In terms of methods and data, the paper aims at developing theory building on a number of empirical case studies, in particular on the moralization of the market for egg in Switzerland and on ethical fashion. It also draws on other cases from the literature for illustrations of the identified mechanisms and processes.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2005. The Social Structures of the Economy

Fligstein, Neil. 2001. The Architecture of Markets. 

Fligstein, Neil, and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields.

Guthman, Julie. 2004. "The trouble with ‘organic lite’in California: a rejoinder to the ‘conventionalisation’debate." Sociologia Ruralis

Sikavica, Katarina, and Jo-Ellen Pozner. 2013. "Paradise Sold: Resource Partitioning and the Organic Movement in the US Farming Industry." Organization Studies 34(5-6):623-51.