Dissertation Abstracts

Becoming Economic: A Political Phenomenology of Car Purchases

Author: Vasic, Milos , vasic@primus.ca
Department: Sociology
University: York University, Canada
Supervisor: Brenda Spotton-Visano
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Markets , Embeddedness , Power , Automobility
Areas of Research: Economy and Society , Political Sociology , Sociotechnics, Sociological Practice


This dissertation revisits the most ambiguous and perhaps most controversial aspect of Karl Polanyi’s embeddedness thesis, namely his implication that socially disembedded action (i.e. economic action guided by a purely calculative disposition, ontologically separate from considerations of sociality) is always embedded nonetheless. I aim to trouble what it means to say that economic action is either embedded or disembedded. What follows is less a re-evaluation of Polanyi’s ideas than a ’reboot,’ given that Polanyi is rarely mentioned herein – less still Mark Granovetter, embeddedness’ more recent champion. I call instead upon an altogether different set of protagonists: Daniel Miller and Michel Callon, who in 2002 and 2005 squared off in a fruitful debate on the nature of economy. The analysis here adopts their terminology – entanglement versus disentanglement – as well as Miller’s ethnographic sensibility, specifically of car purchases.

Via semi-structured interviews with car buyers (N=39), I have sought to ascertain the determinants of the car-buying calculus and in doing so, to lay bare the socio-technical dynamics of automobile transactions. Putatively disentangled decision-making and -taking is entangled, I argue, with market/power, a neo-Foucauldian neologism emphasizing ways by which the buyer’s sense of inferiority acts a focal point of market experience and subjectivity. Becoming economic in the context of an automobile acquisition (or any other major life purchase for that matter) is hence less a matter of optimally formatting one’s calculative competencies than of reasonably justifying one’s inferiority; of learning, that is, the crucial injunction to stop calculating. Another way of putting it, the market asymmetry that counts most is not the one between the buyer and seller, but rather the buyer and herself.