Economic Categories in Neoliberal Society
(paper with Kieran Healy, Duke University)
Official and unofficial classes and categories of people give structure to social settings, provide a basis for social identities and, as Max Weber argued, shape the life chances of those who belong to them. We consider some aspects of classification in the market, in particular the market for consumer credit. We argue that the consumer credit system works both as a leveling force and a condenser of new class categories — what we call here the “consumer class system”. The primary division in a credit market is that of inclusion versus exclusion, i.e., whether one has access to credit at all. Over the past twenty years, the system has greatly broadened its scope, reaching groups that were previously not incorporated. We can observe this leveling tendency in the expansion of credit amongst lower-income households, the systematization of overdraft “protections”, and the unexpected and rapid growth in the "fringe banking" sector. The second division is made amongst the creditworthy. Here, too, there has been a marked change in the kind and degree of credit people can access, paralleled by an increased differentiation both among and within credit institutions. We argue for a framework that connects the status ordering of credit providers with the *habitus* of credit consumers, by way of attention to the extensive market research and branding efforts of providers, on the one hand, and the dispositions and social environment of consumers, on the other. We argue that this perspective clarifies a variety of apparent oddities — notably the segmentation of the credit market into classes only partly accounted for by measurable risk — and helps make sense of observed or presumed “irrationalities” in consumer choices when it comes to credit.
Marion Fourcade is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. She is a comparative sociologist, specifically interested in variations in economic and political knowledge and practice across nations. Her first book, Economists and Societies (Princeton University Press 2009), explored the distinctive character of the discipline and profession of economics in three countries. Her second book, tentatively called Measure for Measure: Social Ontologies of Classification, will investigate the cultural and institutional logic of what we may call “national classificatory styles” across a wide range of empirical domains, includingenvironmental valuation, the digitization of books and the classification of wines. Other ongoing research focuses on the role of the credit market in social stratification (with Kieran Healy); the comparative study of political organization (with Evan Schofer and Brian Lande); the microsociology of courtroom exchanges (with Roi Livne); and the role of business schools in the neoliberal turn (with Rakesh Khurana).