“Operationalizing” Braudel

First off, big picture update here.

Though I missed it by a day, I’m trying to stick to this every-2-weeks posting thing, no matter how painful. Two weeks go by so fast (between teaching, administrative stuff, going on school field trips and so forth) and I’m finding that trying to write to this schedule is a useful practice for being aware of time and how quickly one can lose track of it!

That said, I’m finding this a bit challenging right now as I’ve gone back to some earlier work with the goal of carving out an academic journal manuscript for submission this semester (which is to say: hopefully before May). That earlier work is actually my never-published dissertation research, which was an analysis of the commercial transformation of world soccer (the creation of a world soccer economy) and its impact on the First/Third World (or, Global North/South) divide therein. While the framebuilding/NAHBS paper remains under review I’m hoping to patch together something from my long-abandoned and ignored dissertation work so that I can make progress toward my next promotional step and to just get the never-published dissertation (a story deserving of its own post) off my back. Given this partial diversion, I’ll likely need to push back my plans for a framebuilder survey, but hope to get to that this summer.

Ok, down to the framebuilding stuff, however brief….

So, last time I was talking about Braudel’s distinction between different layers of socio-economic life, those being “market life” and “capitalism”. The basic point is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Braudel sees real-world market life and capitalism as distinct from each other and motivated by different logics and strategies. This is fairly abstract, of course. In the social sciences we call the process of moving from abstract conceptual schemes down to empirical measures “operationalization” – in that we make “operational” measures when we actually head out into the world and make observations and generate data. 

How, then, could we operationalize Braudel’s markets/capitalism distinction?

How might we translate this conceptual schema down to something more applicable to making sense of real-world “cases” (like, for instance, framebuilders and their position within the larger bike trade)?

I’ll spare you all the academic citations for this, but I think a path toward operationalizing Braudel’s framework would start with the following factors:

  • Market life is transparent. Market transactions are visible to participants; they know what they are getting into and it is clear what goes into the production and distribution of the good or service being sold. Market life also tends to eliminate “middlemen” who might extract profits from the transaction by standing between producers and consumers and monopolizing information. Market life, and pricing, are fundamentally customary – they do not change radically.
  • Market life tends toward specialization. That is, market producers tend to specialize in a particular line of work or activity and persist in that vein. Market producers therefore lack the flexibility that Braudel sees as the hallmark of capitalists, who might rapidly shift across lines of activity in pursuit of higher profits. 
  • Market life is fundamentally local. Certainly this might have meant very literally local in earlier centuries, which was Braudel’s original concern. But, what would “local” look like today? In an online commerce and social media age – when I can order on a builder’s standardized Squarespace site, pay using Paypal and see the daily activities of dozens of framebuilders through Instagram – perhaps distance or spatial scale is less significant than social scale? Maybe the notion of a direct connection with the producer/seller is more relevant than whether that producer seller is in close geographical proximity? 
  • Market life is competitive. Following from the transparency, Braudel sees market life as being intensely competitive – with fewer middlemen and no easy places to “hide” the big profits that capitalists seek, market producers/participants are subject to competition. This competition also tends to drive down profits, such that market life is also a layer of low profits. Which brings us to…. 
  • Market life is motivated by the pursuit of livelihood and stability. In Braudel’s view, market producers are not primarily motivated by profits and the continued expansion of business enterprise in the pursuit of more growth. Rather, market producers are fundamentally pursuing a livelihood that remains stable over time. Commerce, in other words, is the means to an end of livelihood rather than the end itself.

That’s a start for now, but I’d like to return to, and elaborate on, these points, in part by talking about the opposite of market life: capitalism. I’ll leave that for another day/week!

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