Economic knowledge and discursive power

Performative, imaginary and symbolic power: how economic expert discourses influence society

Jens Maesse

Introduction

Economic knowledge, ideas and concepts have a huge influence on society. The impact of economists extends across many institutions, realms and areas, such as banks and businesses, politics and administration, and it reaches (mediated by media and guidebooks) into peoples daily lifestyles. However, to understand how the dissemination of expertise from science to society works is one of the main tasks of the social studies of economics. Whereas action-oriented approaches in the tradition of Max Weber highlight processes of persuasion, actors’ interests and consensus among groups, as well as norms and values as devices for the transmission of economic expertise into society, structurally oriented approaches in the tradition of Marx and Bourdieu put their analytical focus on power, especially as it is represented by hierarchies, class structures, elite positions and other material constraints.

However, in order to understand the practical logic of power in economic expert discourses, a theory is needed that brings together the cultural as well as the structural dimension in these processes. Approaches in the vein of Michel Foucault and so-called performativity studies (inspired by the work of Callon, MacKenzie and others) took this challenge as a starting point for analysing how cultural and structural dynamics interact. Taking the Marxian and Bourdieusian traditions as a starting point and combining these with a Foucauldian approach, this chapter will ask how processes of discursive power can be analysed in economic expert communications as a way to overcome the culture/structure opposition. To this end, discursive power will be subdivided into performative, imaginary and symbolic power. In particular, I will show how and why performative, imaginary and symbolic power make visible different aspects of economic expert discourses. They are the key elements for analysing and understanding the diff erent forms of an economic expert’s impact on society.

The contribution is structured as follows. The first section (section 2) explains the idea of discursive power in the context of social studies of economics. Section 3 offers a definition of performative, imaginary and symbolic power in light of a Foucauldian conceptual framework. Section 4 takes examples from the Brexit discourse in order to illustrate each form of power. In addition, it will be indicated how these different forms might interact. The general aim of this chapter is not only to sketch out how discursive power operates in the case of economic expert discourses, but also to present a methodological framework that can be used in further analyses to study the impact of economic expertise.

Forms of power in social studies of economics

The influence of economic expert knowledge is analysed at different levels of society. According to Hall, economic ideas become powerful when they are promoted by professional economists, adopted and implemented by certain actors within the administration, or find support among a majority of politicians and civil society (Hall, 1989). Hirschman and Popp Berman identify three different channels of influence, from the economics profession to state and politics: professional authority the institutional position of economists in policymaking and the general cognitive infrastructure of polity (Hirschman & Popp Berman, 2014).

A deeper look at these three channels reveals that the first and third channels seem to be interlinked, because the authority of economists presupposes a certain cognitive infrastructure within society, politics and administration; and a preference for economics within the latter field will increase the probability of recruiting economic expertise as problem-solving knowledge. But, a distance between the economics profession and the state and society should be maintained. Otherwise, economists would directly rule society and the political economy. Against this backdrop, an open question in social studies of economics is how economic expertise is “transferred” through these channels.

One possible answer to grasp how the gap between economics knowledge and governance institutions can be bridged is “power”. Many analyses, especially in the varieties of capitalism tradition, draw on Max Webers theory of power and authority (Weber, 1972). Here, power (as authority) is analysed on the level of the formation of political values and norms through the construction of consent among actors. Accordingly, actors believe in the solution of social and political problems by applying certain economic concepts. The cultural sphere is of central importance here, because the influence of economic knowledge operates on the level of actors’ opinions and perceptions. In contrast, Marxian and Bourdieusian approaches highlight the role of material power relations, hierarchies, political struggle and ideologies (Bourdieu, 1989). Here, power is understood as a means to move peoples minds in a certain direction through symbolic coercion. In social studies of economics, many studies have analysed the impact of economics at the level of symbolic capital (Dezalay & Garth, 2009; Lebaron, 2008; Rossier, Biihlmann, & Mach, 2017; Schmidt-Wellenburg, 2017a). Symbolic capital does not operate on the level of actors’ consciousness. Rather, it exercises different forms of coercion in the formation of governance institutions, policy programmes and worldviews, and it defines certain styles of thinking among ruling elites. Here, academic, administrative and political hierarchies and the role of certain elite actors within the field of economic power relations are much more influential when it comes to explaining why certain economic ideas take hold and others do not (Fitzgerald & O’Rourke, 2015; Maesse, 2015; Piihringer 8c Hirte, 2015).

Next to action-oriented (Weber) and structural (Marx/Bourdieu) theories, performativity theory has become established as a third type of approach to analyse the influence and power of economic expert knowledge (Callon, 2007). The original idea was to study economics as a meaning-making machine that does not analyse markets but reconstructs the economy according to a neoclassical worldview (MacKenzie & Millo, 2003). Initially, this approach was criticised for promoting naive neoliberal worldviews and ignoring economic realities (Mirowski & Nik-Khah, 2008). Today, performativity studies no longer believe that economic theory is transformed into economic reality on a one-to- one basis. Rather, processes of performation are analysed as a complex process of adoption, translation, implementation and critique, taking place between economic science and society, politics and the political economy. Thus, when economic concepts are used to solve political and economic problems, the concepts will be transformed and translated into different contexts (Boldyrev & Svetlova, 2016). Performativity approaches have a deep relationship with the discursive character of the political economy (Maesse, 2018a).

Whereas action-oriented theories overestimate the interpretative capacity' and cognitive sovereignty' of actors in the course of the adoption of economic concepts, structural theories underestimate the interpretative and translational dynamics that are at work when economic ideas influence society. Furthermore, Weberian approaches reduce structural constraints, hierarchies and domination to merely institutional obstacles that can easily' be overcome. They have a structural deficit. Marxian and Bourdieusian approaches pay too much attention to the rigidity of the structural level when analysing the influence of economic ideas. They very often have a translational deficit. Finally, performativity' approaches can take into consideration the complex translational and discursive dynamics taking place between different social fields (such as science, politics, the economy and so forth). But they have a conceptual deficit since notions such as “power”, “legitimacy” and “authority” are used very randomly and unsystematically.

An appropriate theory' of power that is able to understand how economic expert knowledge influences society should keep the advantages of the aforementioned theories in mind but simultaneously find a solution for the disadvantages. It should meet the following criteria: first, it must take into account the structural constraints of heterogeneous social fields; second, it must be able to account for the translational and discursive logics that take place between various fields; third, it will analyse the diverse forms of use and adoption of economic concepts in non-academic and non-scientific contexts. Drawing on ideas inspired by' the Foucauldian concept of dispositif (Foucault, 1980), the following chapter will outline a discourse-theoretical approach that is able to grasp processes of power in both its productive and coercive dimensions (Hamann, Maesse, Scholz, & Atigermuller, 2019). According to such a dispositif analytical understanding, power is always analysed according to its heterogeneous, transversal and heteroglossical character (Maesse, 2018b). The following chapter will explain in detail the scope and limitations of such a dispositif analytical approach for analysing economic expert discourses by sketching out three forms of discursive power.

 
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