Trade and Nation: How Companies and Politics Reshaped Economic Thought
VT: Can you tell us about how the idea for the book emerged? Did you always have a sense that the marginality of the merchants amidst the increase in chartered companies had something to do with the rise of economic and political thought?
VT: The book is also almost a new theory of the public sphere, or a new account of its emergence. You discuss the ways in which merchants were led to articulating their grievances and concerns to gain public support, because they lacked the representative institutions that would allow them to be heard. But in cloaking their own self-interest they had to rely on data, empirics, and new modes of scientific knowledge, because, you say, the public sphere imposed its own discipline. At first, this seems like a Habermasian notion of the public sphere, where the main actors are merchants seeking to influence state policy, in a realm that is distinct from the state and the market. But you do point out that what seems to be public interests was really the personal interests of the merchants cloaked in interest-free arguments, which then seems to be a critique of the Habermasian public sphere. Would you agree with this? Or did you have other theorists of the public sphere in mind in theorizing this dimension of your argument?
EE: Well, I think, the influences of Habermas and Arendt and their conceptions of public life and activity are certainly present, but I see my conception of the public as somewhat distinct from Habermas. First, I should say that what I wrote about in Trade and Nation is just one area of what was a much larger public discourse. Public discourse was growing, and economics is just one thread – kind of a unique thread that really only expanded in England in this era. So I can’t say the book is a theory of the origin of the public sphere, because it deals only with the economic literature, although it does perhaps suggest some sort of friendly amendments to existing theories. The difference that I would emphasize in terms of how I’m thinking about the development and emergence of the literature that is different from the Habermasian story, is that he is all about the private sphere and the state, and it’s the reaching out, bridging across between the two. But for the economic literature it isn’t the private sphere, these aren’t individuals operating out of their households. The important actors are large commercial organizations, and they create a kind of a space or discourse within the organizations that seems to have contributed to the articulation of this new mode of communication, i.e. new style of economics. What I am suggesting is that there is an organizational component to the story of the development of the public sphere that played some kind of role in providing a kind of infrastructure or foundation that undergirded and supported, at least in some partial sense, the development and growth of the public sphere over time.
VT: You mentioned Arendt’s theory of the public sphere. Can you say a bit more about how that played into your theory?
EE: Well, I think that Habermas was influenced by Arendt, and I always mention it because female scholars aren’t often given the attention or credit that they deserve for the important ideas they’ve introduced into the literature over time. But I didn’t start with a theory of the public sphere and look to go test that idea. I tried to solve an empirical problem that had what I think of as important implications for theories of the public sphere. If anything I think that the spatial component of Arendt’s conceptualization influenced my thinking about how the space of debate within companies was important to the development of the public sphere, as the debates took place in the chambers of the buildings, but I think of this as more interactional or relational than truly spatial.
VT: Another major argument I saw in the book was one that almost seemed to confirm Weber’s notion of disenchantment and secularization. We do observe, in the way you present the data, a transition from the medieval scholastic period where economic thought mainly relied on the notions of fair exchange, and just prices – to one in 17th century where new moral frameworks emerged based on growth, and prosperity of the nation etc. Would you agree with this observation? Do you think that this is an argument of disenchantment and secularization? Or would you propose a different account of disenchantment?
EE: It’s an interesting question. I would say it is a Weberian argument, especially in the sense that if you take Weber as the central theorist of unintended consequences, then this is definitely a story in that model. The outcome, i.e. shift in economic thought, is an unintended consequence of people seeking to pursue their own self-interest. They just happened to produce a flourishing literature that becomes a foundation for a really valuable scientific enterprise over time. They clearly didn’t see that coming on the horizon or intended it in any meaningful way. It wouldn’t even have occurred to them. So it was an unintended consequence. Disenchantment is interesting. One aspect of Weber’s work that I never fully believed is the inevitability of disenchantment and rationalization. So, the work is definitely not written in the spirit of another demonstration of the inevitability of modern rationality. It’s much more in the spirit of, there were these interesting unpredictable occurrences, a structural conjuncture that produced this kind of change in a trajectory of a certain mode of thought that didn’t have to happen in this way. It didn’t really happen that way in other settings. It happened this way because of the particularities of the kind of political setting in England at that time. So, in that sense, I see it as a more of a contingent outcome than an inevitability.
VT: Maybe this was happening in the economic sphere, if we are thinking of different spheres? That it’s not like a general theory of secularization that was happening in all spheres?
EE: That’s very true. It’s certainly not about, for example, about the religious literature that dealt with economic behavior. That literature didn’t change much. It continued on over time. It just was dwarfed by the work that took a new, more secular approach. So, the existence of the companies and the position of merchants in society weren’t necessarily transforming all areas of social life and public discourse, but they were changing the economic mode of thinking that was taken to approach economic behavior, i.e., what’s problematic, what’s beneficial, whether people believe that something like economic growth was possible, all of those things.
VT: Even though you are explicitly tracing the transformation of economic and political thought, you are also doing an in-depth cultural analysis in really going deeper into the public sphere discussions and debates, and tracing the shifting notions of the good, of society, of the nation. Can you tell us a bit about whether and how you see your work contributing to cultural sociology?
EE: I do think of this as a cultural transformation, so I would hope then, that the cultural sociologists would also be interested in the work. I suppose there’s probably two ways of thinking about the possible contribution. One is the methods, the methodological possibilities of using these different techniques and text analysis, such as natural language processing, computational methods in analyzing these texts. All these things are getting a lot of traction across sociology and across social sciences, but maybe they are being adopted at a lower rate in cultural sociology. I hope the book helps to demonstrate that it can be very useful to use these methods. I would also say that, if we are thinking about cultural transformation, another thing I hope the book demonstrates is that history offers a rich landscape for exploration of ideas, their transformation over time, and the relationship between social structural elements and cultural processes. And the documents are much more readily available than before. So many archives are online, and you can access them fairly easily. I hope cultural sociologists read the book and that it encourages people to think more about the possibilities inherent in doing historical work, which I find to be such incredible resource for thinking through social and cultural change over time.
VT: A question about Adam Smith. At first reading, it seemed like you were bringing him down from his pedestal, almost, in demonstrating that his contribution was actually not what we thought it was but elsewhere, reframing his contribution from the notion of free market to a notion of moral economy. Is that the right way of characterizing your argument? Or not? And how did Smith come into the major arguments of this book, did you always have that in mind?
EE: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s bringing Smith down from his pedestal. I actually think Smith is incredibly brilliant, and amazing and rewarding to read -- perhaps and even more rewarding over time. I think that people should maybe spend more time reading Smith. It’s true that not everything he is credited with was entirely his own invention. He did systematize knowledge and information, which you know, is also a contribution. I actually think that is an underrated part of theory -- the systematization of knowledge and linking what is known and conceptualized into a coherent whole. But, Smith also added a moral dimension to what he was systematizing. He reframed the way that relationships between nations were thought of in such a positive way. He provided this lens that embraced cooperation in between nations for the benefit of all. It’s just such a powerful lesson and one that has the potential to produce so much good in the world. So the book is definitely not meant to bring him down, but it is meant to correct what I think is more and more commonly recognized as a mischaracterization of Smith. It’s so egregious and hard to understand why it entered into mainstream thought the way that it did. But the idea that Smith embraces unfettered free market expansion and competition was in many ways the opposite of what he was trying to do. I do try to make that point in the book. In that, I’m joining a chorus of different authors, from Martha Nussbaum to Amartya Sen, that are trying to make that point at this moment in time.
VT: Do you think these intellectual debates also influenced the ways in which the authority of the Crown was conceptualized. What do you see as the relation between these debates and the emergence of the new economic thought and the stability or instability of the authority of the Crown? You track the unintended consequence that the voicing of grievances has on the emergence of economic and political thinking, were there other consequences in terms of the kingdom, the authority of the Crown. To what extent were these debates influential in the broader realm of the Empire?
EE: It is a tough question. I have to say. In some sense the influence of these individuals was more limited than they hoped it could be. That’s part of the reason why they wrote these books. They weren’t the most influential people and felt that they weren’t getting the voice that they deserve, and they couldn’t effectively pressure the government to take the actions that they hoped it would. So, I would say the effect that they had on conceptions of royal authority or authority was limited. But it is also true that the common will and the idea of the commonwealth is picked up and further developed in these works. You could trace the way in which they at first focus on how their actions are to the good of the king or the queen in earlier works and then later the actions are for the good of the commonwealth. The body that is supposed to be benefitting from whatever practice they are engaging in changes but what the causal arrow there is…whether it’s because of the changing conceptions of political authority or changing the kind of mode in which these people make their argument or whether they are also contributing to the changing conception of political authority. It is probably a little bit of both. Maybe it’s contributing but I can’t now make an argument that it was a causal force. I don’t have enough evidence.
VT: You theorize through the use of computational methods. I’m excited to learn more about how you were able to theorize using these methods and the possibilities that this kind of methodology opened up for you? What did your analysis provide that you would not have had with other kinds of qualitative or other methods?
EE: I’m a structuralist. In the end, I think that major cultural transformations and major social changes are things that are not really the produce of the actions of just one individual. If they are major historical transformations, they almost always have to emerge from the actions of the many. Therefore, I think it is important to think about the way that not just all people take one action, but the way sometimes people take different actions, but those actions interact to produce possibly unintended but still very important outcomes. These kinds of things take place over populations of people, and that’s what these methods allow me to observe. It is easy as a person to think about one or two other people and their actions. But to think about the complex interactions that occur between a hundred people – or a thousand – gets to be very hard. Computational methods are tools that help us to think about populations of people and their actions. So in the case of the book, using topic modeling allow me to move beyond a Schumpeterian analysis of just the major works in a field and base my interpretation on the entire set of authors that are writing on these topics. No matter how famous you are, the culture in which your book is received can absolutely change the meaning that it has. Indeed, Adam Smith is a good example of that – how interpretations of his work have changed over time. Thus it is important to look across the entire body of works that are produced to really understand what’s going on and when and where change occurs. On their own, one person is hard pressed to read all of the books, and it’s also very hard to be very precise about your analysis when you are getting into thousands and thousands of tracts. We need assistance, our brains have limited capacity, unfortunately. These methods enhance our brain power, so that we can think about not just a couple of people but whole populations.
VT: Did you have to train yourself in new methods to write this book?
EE: I used a couple of different methods, and I’ve always been a quantitative researcher, although I’ve always done it in a somewhat unusual context. Social networks is something I was trained in during graduate school. The topic modeling, I hadn’t used before, and I suppose I learned it for this project – although I expect it will continue to be useful.
VT: What do you see as the future directions in your work? Were there any new theoretical arguments that emerged writing this book that you are thinking of, that are left to investigate?
EE: Actually, I do kind of hope to escape the early modern era at some point and get closer to the present. Something that I think is interesting that came out in this book, or that I started to think more about in writing this book, is the relationship of these commercial organizations, the chartered companies, and the nascent democratic state in Britain. The companies and democracy co-evolve in the context of England and I think this is an interesting and somewhat unexplored relationship. There is some contemporary work that’s mostly critical of companies in modern democracies, but I think the relationship might be a little bit more complex, especially in the early modern context, so I’m excited about working in that area.