Marion Fourcade. Classification Situations: Life Chances in the Neoliberal Era

Monday, October 21, 2013 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Classification Situations: Life Chances in the Neoliberal Era

Abstract: In this presentation, which draws on a forthcoming paper with Kieran Healy, I will explore the productive effects of economic classifications –the splitting and sorting work done by market institutions. We argue that classification situations driven by actuarial techniques shape life-chances in the neoliberal economy. Though this is a general point, our main empirical illustration comes from the credit market. This market, we argue, functions both as a leveling force and as a condenser of new forms of social difference. On the one hand, the U.S. credit system has greatly broadened its scope over the past twenty years, reaching groups that were previously not incorporated. We can observe this leveling tendency in the expansion of credit amongst lower-income households, the systematization of overdraft “protections”, and the unexpected and rapid growth of the “fringe banking” sector. While access to credit has “democratized”, it has also become highly differentiated. Finer divisions among the creditworthy have arisen, fueled by the rise of scoring technologies, which classify and price people according to the credit risk they represent. Scores are then attached to variable economic rewards (such as different interest rates and loan structures) and percolate into multiple other markets (insurance, employment, real-estate—even dating). These new classificatory tools are thus part and parcel of the processes by which “market-situations” are generated, and an important and overlooked dimension structuring the life chances of individuals. In other words, classification situations may have become the engine of modern class situations.

Marion Fourcade is a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. A comparative sociologist by training and taste, she is interested in variations in economic and political knowledge and practice across nations. Her first book, Economists and Societies (Princeton University Press 2009), explored the distinctive character of the discipline and profession of economics in three countries. Her second book project, tentatively called Measure for Measure: Social Ontologies of Classification, examines the cultural and institutional logic of what we may call “national classificatory styles” across a range of empirical domains. Current studies for this book include environmental valuation, the digitization of books and the classification of wines in France and the United States. Other ongoing research focuses on the moral underpinnings and moral consequences of economic processes and technologies; the role of credit in social stratification (with Kieran Healy); the comparative study of political organization (with Evan Schofer and Brian Lande); the micro-sociology of courtroom exchanges (with Roi Livne); and the role of business schools in the neoliberal turn (with Rakesh Khurana).