Review Note on “The Worth of Goods. Valuation and Pricing in the Economy”, edited by Jens Beckert and Patrik Aspers, Oxford University Press, 2011
The Worth of Goods is a book addressing an important topic for all those interested in market studies. It follows in the wake of David Stark’s The Sense of Dissonance and for Francophones, an excellent collection of essays in Evaluer et valoriser. Une sociologie économique de la mesure, edited by François Vatin. The EGOS 2012 conference will run a special track on value, values and valuation. All these constitute encouraging signs of renewed interest in valuation practices.
The Worth of Goods does not amount to a programmatic commitment to study valuation or pricing. Its value – no pun intended – lies in bringing together a diverse set of studies dealing with valuation and pricing in multiple ways. Chapters deal with such diverse topics as the valuation of nature, scientific papers, wine, art objects, financial products and fashion modelling. The empirical examples are thus plentiful and so are the theoretical sensibilities mobilised to explain valuation in different markets. It is thus an easy book to read for those who wish to dip into particular approaches or empirical settings.
The introductory chapter by Aspers and Beckert provides a long review of value and pricing from an economic sociology standpoint. The focus is on how sociological notions (e.g. social networks, institutions, rules) play a role in the valuation and pricing of goods. The ultimate goal is a sociological theory of valuation and pricing that applies just as well to markets for wines as to commercial airliners. Aspers and Beckert recognise that concepts such as singularity or judgment devices are likely to be of some use even if the aim of a general theory remains a mirage.
There is much to admire in the chapters that follow the introduction. Marion Fourcade’s chapter, based on her research in compensation hearings for maritime disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, contains fascinating insights into how nature itself became the subject of contestable valuations. Lucien Karpik’s chapter on the valuation of scientific papers will resonate strongly with all those involved in research assessment exercises of one kind or another.
Marie France Parpet’s chapter presents an interesting case of classification and valuation concerning Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, and his struggle to establish his estate and the Languedoc as recognised sources of premium wines. Ashley Mears introduces the reader to the mysterious world of fashion modelling and Olav Velthuis focuses on Damien Hirst and modern art auctions. Akos Rona-Tas and Stefanie Hiss’s chapter is a lucid and enlightening account of the role of rating and credit agencies in the US subprime mortgage crisis that sparked the financial crisis that we have yet to escape from. There are plenty more chapters that may spark some readers’ interest – for example, the notion of symbolic value features strongly in Beckert’s chapter on imaginative value and Ravasi et al’s account of the creation of Piaggio’s museum.
The last word belongs to David Stark in a chapter appropriately entitled “What’s Valuable?”. This is a thoughtful and though provoking discussion of value from a pragmatic perspective, following John Dewey’s (1939) Theory of Valuation. Dewey noted that the terms price, prize and praise are derived from a common Latin root – and arrived in English via old French according to most dictionaries – to which one could add appreciate/ depreciate. To these three Ps, Stark adds a fourth – perform. If we shift from value (as a noun or attribute) to valuation (as a practical act), the four Ps that Stark proposes turn into verbs – to price, prize, praise and perform. This suggests both a theoretical and methodological injunction to study the situated practices of valuation and to try to answer the question: “what is valuable to whom, where and when?”.
Stark’s chapter brings us full circle to the introductory chapter and to Aspers and Beckert’s remarks about the absence of a comprehensive theory of valuation. Perhaps we should just be content with more modest understandings of the practices of valuation rather than more ambitious and general theories about valuation and pricing.