Young Scholars Workshop: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Global Finance
21-23 September 2016, University of Bremen
In September, the research group “Transnational Political Ordering in Global Finance” led by Sebastian Botzem has hosted a young scholars workshop on the interdisciplinary study of finance at the University of Bremen. This event brought together 30 emerging academics from different universities, countries, and disciplinary backgrounds (including Political Science, IPE, Economic Sociology, Economics & Business Studies, Human Geography, and Economic History). Besides providing a platform for establishing international contacts among young scholars, the main goals of the workshop were to better understand the complexities of global finance and to discuss merits and constraints of interdisciplinary approaches to studying finance. Given the increasing relevance of finance, in both politics and everyday life, and finance’s susceptibility to crises, a more encompassing understanding of its dynamics is urgently required. In this respect, the three days of intense paper sessions, inspiring lectures and a concluding round table certainly provided new insights and ideas for the individual projects of the workshop participants as well as for a broader common research agenda on finance.
In his introductory remarks, Sebastian Botzem addressed different (often interconnected) levels of finance that merit academic attention ranging from international financial governance to the everyday repercussions of decisions in financial centers. In this regard, the transnational dimension of finance is particularly relevant since cross-border encounters, public-private interactions, and social structures beyond the nation state are at the heart of contemporary finance. Financial markets and actors are not only increasingly transnational but also highly dynamic, making their exploration even more important (and challenging at the same time). This is exemplified by the expansion of financial logics, the rise of new products, rules and practices, institutional change, the increasing speed of transactions, and the constant reconfiguration of actor constellations. All this calls for an interdisciplinary approach, since finance is simply too complex to be studied from one angle only. Thus, empirical curiosity is at the heart of interdisciplinary work.
Twelve paper sessions made up the backbone of the young scholars workshop providing useful hands-on advice for the authors and fruitful discussions on empirics, theories, and methodologies. The expectation of the conference organizers to have a dense workshop with intense and productive discussions of work in progress was fully met thanks to the great contributions of the participants and the interactive session format. Contrary to established conference habits, there were no presentations by the authors themselves. Rather, the projects were introduced and commented on by the respective co-panelists. The sessions covered a wide range of empirical subjects including the role of private and public banks, regional varieties of financialization, derivatives trading, rating agencies, the Eurozone crisis, financial literacy, housing and insurance, corruption, social investments, and global financial governance. Papers also adopted very different theoretical and disciplinary perspectives such as heterodox economics, critical and cultural political economy, social studies of finance, and the everyday life perspective addressing different scales and mechanisms at work. This diversity also translated into a variety of methodological approaches including qualitative case studies, statistical approaches, discourse analysis, different types of interviews, network analysis, participatory observation, and following-the-thing approaches.
Besides the paper sessions, three experienced scholars gave lectures on their current research and the merits of interdisciplinarity in studying finance. In the first talk, Eleni Tsingou from the Copenhagen Business School presented a project on “Ideational ecologies in central banking” she currently works on with Andrew Baker and Leonard Seabrooke. This project explores ideas as process (rather than as institutional fit) using the example of the Jackson Hole annual symposium run by the Kansas City Federal Reserve. The particular setting of this event provides a platform for testing, assessing, and spreading economic ideas since it brings together central bankers, academics, and other representatives of the global financial elite. Of particular interest for Eleni and her fellow researchers are instances of anti-mainstream ideas and debates that seem to pop up regularly and deliberately at Jackson Hole. The project pursues a rather ambitious mix-method agenda compiled of content analysis, sequence analysis, network analysis and the use of biographical information.
In the second lecture, Lucia Quaglia from the University of York presented the main insights from her recent book “The European Union and Global Financial Regulation” (Oxford University Press) that explores standard-setting processes in financial regulation from a Comparative Political Economy Perspective. In contrast to ideas, rules are quite easy to trace and research. However, according to Lucia, EU rule-stetting, previously, has been broadly overlooked while national standard-setting was at the core of the debate. Lucia compares regulatory capacities and outcomes in the US and the EU for different financial policy areas over time and finds mechanisms of uploading, downloading, and cross-loading. While the EU traditionally has been a downloader of international standards in many areas (sometimes uploaded by the US), it has become more influential after the recent financial crisis. In the subsequent discussion of her findings, the nexus between financial lobbying and regulatory policies as well as transnational dynamics in financial governance were addressed.
The third lecture was given by Phil Mader from the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex) who talked about the spread of microfinance as an instance of financialization based on his book “The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty” (Palgrave Macmillan). Phil introduced another definition of financialization focusing on the expansion of the frontier of financial accumulation. Microfinance, then, pushes this frontier through mobilizing narratives, constructing a specific form of governmentality, and extracting profit from the poor. This might also apply to financial inclusion, a concept that has become somewhat of a predecessor of microfinance (also engaging NGOs as drivers of financialization). Phil concludes that we need to vastly expand our view of financialization taking into account the pushing forward of frontiers, subtle ways of spreading financial logics, and the paradoxical appeal of finance as an (apparent) solution to contemporary problems like poverty (but also climate change).
In the concluding session, participants collected some of the recurrent themes of the workshop and discussed merits and constraints of interdisciplinary approaches. Throughout the workshop, the issue of financialization was relatively prominent, signaling its appeal to different disciplines and its potential to cross disciplinary divides. However, confusion remains about what financialization actually is and what the best way is to study it. The papers nicely brought together a wide range of definitions and literatures on the spreading of financial logics. In many of our discussions, the rather simple notion of regulatory or cognitive capture and lobbying power was deemed too simplistic. Still, the complexities and sometimes contractions involved in the diffusion of financial market rationalities to policy-making and the everyday life are difficult to grasp both theoretically and methodologically. This remains a core challenge of our common research agenda on finance.
The final round table on interdisciplinarity revealed both merits and constraints of crossing disciplinary boundaries. Sebastian Botzem argued that interdisciplinary perspectives have the potential to provide more in-depth understanding of real world phenomena. Such more innovative approaches can reveal insights usually hard to detect with approaches that are narrowly confined to strict disciplinary perspectives. Interdisciplinary approaches are particularly suitable to understand complex phenomena that address, for example, boundary spanning activities, multiple loyalties and embeddedness or multi-level governance. . At the same time, naïve approaches of interdisciplinary research are highly problematic as they tend to delegitimize interdisciplinary research by appearing simply eclectic causing more confusion than bringing about additional insights. As Lucia Quaglia noted, real world problems are usually rather complex and rarely fit one-sided theoretical assumptions and concepts. Borrowing literature, methods, and theories from other disciplines might induce new questions and ideas and enable us to speak to broader audiences. Phil Mader agreed with this and stressed that finance is probably particularly prone to interdisciplinary investigation. However, he reminded us that we cannot include all disciplines at the same time, especially in a dissertation. Natalia Besedovsky shared some of her experience in different disciplines pointing to the need of disciplinary homelands and potential downsides of interdisciplinary research in terms of career development. Thus, we should always engage in translating concepts and findings back into our disciplines. After all, crossing disciplinary boundaries might bring us closer to our empirical subjects, but often also entails moving towards uncomfortable territory. This endeavor needs occasions and a supportive atmosphere. We hope to have provided both with this workshop.
This workshop would not have been possible without the generous support by the Center for Transnational Studies (ZenTra) and the Foundation of the University of Bremen for which we are very grateful. Moreover, we want to particularly thank our three speakers and Hans-Michael Trautwein (University of Oldenburg & ZenTra) who not only contributed to our program but were also outstandingly active in the paper sessions. Finally, a huge compliment goes to our student assistants Berit Dießelkämper and Fabian Besche who did much of conference organizing and kept the event running smoothly behind the scenes.