12th November 2012

On Market Ties: How the Market Makes Society

Du lien marchand - On Market Ties

Du lien marchand (On Market Ties)

How does the market makes society?

This is the question at the centre of a new collection On Market Ties (Du lien marchand: comment le marché fait société), recently released and available here. The book is edited by Franck Cochoy, features an afterword by Michel Callon and includes a number of members of the Charisma network.

What follows is a translated and shortened version of Cochoy’s introduction, with the aim of directing readers to a book that addresses themes that may be relevant to many users of this site.

Introduction – by Franck Cochoy

“[M]arkets can be seen as contributing actively to the manufacture of the social.” (Callon, 2007, p. 146).

The market is often described as a domain characterised by the absence of ties: for better or for worse, it is thanks to the market that we are supposedly able to free ourselves from exclusive, dependent relationships and to benefit from an infinity of choices. It is argued that it is as a result of the market that we are no longer bound together, but alone and isolated, subject to the competition of each against the other. However, in commercial settings, and indeed at the heart of market objects, market and tie are deeply entangled. This entanglement is for most of the time invisible and only really perceptable when trying to get rid of it. Take, for example, this account of one of those common market mishaps familiar to us all:

I bought an iPhone without a contract, from the French mobile phone provider Orange. I register the device and I realise that I’m stuck: even without a contract, my phone is tied to the provider who sold it to me. However, I have another contract with a competitor that I do not want to leave, because it allows me the benefit of enjoying an advantageous “quadruple play” offer (internet, telephone, television, mobile internet); at this point they are the only one providing this particular deal. In trying to free myself from this unforseen tie to Orange, I turn to piracy as a solution. As a novice, I don’t know what “jailbreaking” a phone means. Some helpful sites are willing to sell me a solution. On a forum, I find a satisfied customer who has unblocked his phone at a cost of 5 euros. I’m prepared to pay, but I realise that, to do so, I will have to reactivate my Paypal account that I have only used for a single transaction, some time ago. This payment solution does not inspire much in the way of confidence as I have in the past received a number of emails trying to obtain my bank details by posing as this company. But, in my interaction with the Paypal site, longstanding ties save me: thanks to my mother’s maiden name that I am invited to provide (and which I had apparently entered when I signed up), I retrieve my username and password and can reactivate my account. I pay and, in exchange, I receive the procedure needed to unlock the phone … luckily it works (but this is no luxury service: some time later I will come to realise that the procedure that I bought for a small sum was easily available elsewhere for free!). I connect my phone to my computer, but then I realise I can’t do anything without entering an obligatory credit card number. Through this iPhone I discovered a strange world, which, via this solitary, tiny device, on the one hand, offers access to a dizzying range of applications and functionalities, but which, on the other, also ties me very tightly to products related to and closely controlled by one company. Also, thanks to this form of pirate unlocking, I now have an icon on my phone that allows me to switch to an illicit supply, but I hesitate to use it for fear of viruses or malware which might damage the device. A day later, I inadvertently update the operating system, which takes me back to square one. To make matters worse, the new firmware is protected against the kind of pirate unlocking I attempted previously. Here I am once more tied to Apple and forced to try to get unlock my phone through official routes. I call Orange to try to see under what conditions, if any, it might be possible to unlock my phone. The operator’s website makes it clear that, in effect, unlocking is possible, for a price. But the resulting telephone call shows this to be practically impossible: the automatic system which answers my call requires me to enter an Orange phone number that, as I don’t have a contract, I obviously do not have! Finally, by surfing the internet to look for the number of shops, I came across a call center which also demands this famous number, but for once does not automatically disconnect after a period of silence. Instead, I get someone friendly, who makes me wait several minutes because, as she tells me, my case is complicated. She returns with her supervisor’s instructions: she suggests I call a number at Apple. Apple in turn tells me to return to Orange, advising me to go to one of their shops and to insist that they unlock my phone. After many other misadventures in this ball of ties that bind me to the market, I decide to buy a card for 15 euros which allows me to use my device as a wireless device. For phonecalls, I content myself with my existing smartphone and decide to wait the required six months before I can finally untie myself from this relational trap within which I have become confined by my ‘freely chosen’ purchase… (Toulouse, October 2010).

From a traditionally sociological perspective, the notion of “social tie” incorporates a certain terminological redundancy. The idea of a “market tie”, meanwhile, is not only absent from its vocabulary, but is also undoubtably an oxymoronic combination: from Durkheim to Polanyi the tie is presented as social cement, which individualism and market relations are threatening and dissolving. Yet it is this terminological redundancy we would like to question over the course of this book, by interrogating this oxymoron’s conditions of possibility: contrary to what is often believed, the figure of the tie is in no way exclusively social and very often follows from economic exchange to a greater extent than it precedes it. The story above makes this clear: we might think that every time we buy a product it is possible to enter and exit the relationship as anonymous parties, in keeping with the idealised market transaction, but even if anonymous entry is possible, we soon realize that we leave the exchange wrapped up in a ball of ties whose existence we did not initially suspect and which can become very difficult to get rid of. Buying a phone without a subscription nevertheless generates an implicit tie to the operator who sells it; the use of electronic means of payment connects the phone to us as a specific individual; the phone does not fully function unless we agree to associate it with our bank account, while these functions themselves bind us tightly to a particular network of applications; we cannot communicate with telephone operators without demonstrating prior evidence of a tie to them; and it is only on condition of a six months wait that it is finally possible to abstract oneself from the Gordian knot of the market, or rather move from one knot to another, for it is the destiny of commerce to try to prevent us escaping from market ties…

Behind the ways in which these various ties are made lies a project, which consists of studying how the market “makes” and “unmakes” society, and therefore how the latter is “remade”. In the pages that follow we will see that in every customer community, dating site, market regulation, loyalty card, corporate gift, business association, viral marketing tool, electronic social network, commercial contract (to name but a few), new types of tie are invented and proliferate through the encounters between partners in economic exchange. In other words, the market has never been richer with issues dear to sociologists, but in order to understand these issues, it’s never been more urgent to get rid of the idea that a sociological explanation of the economy consists of mechanically tracing action through a quasi-institutionalised repertoire of more or less fixed social preconditions, entities and properties (such as social class, gender, age, education, income, culture, institutions, network structures…) which act as independent variables shaping the course of economic action. To undertake this analysis and to understand these new forms of market action and the new social, technical and economic objects which this action produces, in accordance with the “proliferation of the social, generated by the functioning and extension of markets” (Callon, 2007, p. 140), means also being open to the study of associations which produce the exchange. This will open up a programme of relational economic sociology engaged in the presentation and specification of these associations. This programme consists of understanding the “social market” in the process of being made (but also being unmade and remade), and to ultimately explore the consequences of such transformations, as the contributions collected here we will show, each in its own way and with its own objects.

The book’s contributions are grouped into three sections. The first extends and explicates the present introduction through developing analytical frameworks (Franck Cochoy, Isabelle Bruno, Alexandre Mallard) and by providing examples (Laure Gaertner, through the case of teams of ‘creatives’ in marketing agencies, and Cédric Calvignac by examining promoters of wireless internet services), in order to better think about and understand the way in which the tie lies at the heart of the market.

The second section then explores the various facets of the marketing tie, first on the internet, whether its techniques of relationship marketing (Kevin Mellet) or the forms of market ‘captation’ undertaken by bloggers (Élodie Raimond), and then through other forms, from conventional loyalty scheme techniques (Sami Coll), to the use of unexpected gifts as a means of developing trade relations (Jacqueline Kieser and Illel Kieser’L-Baz).

Finally, the third part focuses on the surprising relationships between the tie, affect and market, whether in the case of life insurance (Liz McFall), credit (Joe Deville), or the ways in which market objects are received and possessed in intimate life (Hans Kjellberg), or become involved in the formation of bonds of love (Kessous).

Michel Callon in his afterword, provides a summary of progress made, situated in relation to past, current and future challenges within economic sociology, and enriched via a personal contribution. He insists, in particular, on the importance of a shift of attention from markets to market agencements, which alone makes it possible to understand the inherently innovative processes within the dynamics involved, including, in particular, the ability of these agencements to destroy relationships, in the process creating new proliferations of relational forms, and more generally engaging in processes of reinvention /reconfigurion. Following on from this, he identifies a central concern, which opens up possible future extensions of this book: the examination of the destination of the ties generated by markets, including asking under which conditions this relational production of the market might have tangible economic outcomes, in turn examining whether ties thus forged are capable of producing “bads” or (if possible) “goods”, that is to say entities capable of functioning both as objects and as moral contributions.

Translated by Joe Deville


CALLON, M. (2007), “What does it mean to say that economics is performative?” in MacKenzie, D. Muniesa, F. & Siu, L. (eds.), Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics, Princeton, Princeton University Press.