Market-Based Initiatives as Solutions to Techno-Scientific Problems: MISTS

Daniel Neyland, Sveta Milyaeva & Véra Ehrenstein
EASST Review Volume 34(3) 2015

MISTS engages with market based initiatives employed as potential solutions to what Frankel, Ossandón and Pallesen (2015) recently referred to as collective concerns((See: such as environmental or health-related issues. We use ‘market-based initiative’ as a term to cover a range of activities that incorporate a market component (from market creation, through market devices, to drawing on market principles in order to, for example, stake a claim for enhanced competition). The project, which runs from 2013 to 2018 and is funded by the European Research Council, draws together two strands of Science and Technology Studies (STS) research: the theoretical turn to matters of business and markets; and the more policy oriented STS literature on science problems (and solutions). The two strands of STS research are drawn together to explore four sub-projects: attempts to build a market for privacy, a market scheme to incentivise vaccine development, international initiatives to resolve price carbon emissions and a national system that uses market principles to render higher education research competitive.

The rise of market based initiatives from the 1970s and 1980s onwards as solutions to problems can be seen in numerous areas. For example, market based initiatives have been implemented in an attempt to enhance the value for money of public services((See: by introducing competition Daniel Neyland, Sveta Milyaeva & Véra Ehrenstein for increasingly scarce public funds((See: and have been discussed as one aspect of contemporary government austerity drives(( We resist using singular terms such as neoliberalism to convey what is going on in these initiatives to instead consider the way such initiatives are composed through various devices, practices, policies and so on. Perhaps we will end up with a study of neoliberalism in action, but one which questions the nature of the term.

As STS scholars, we are particularly interested in the area of science and technology policy, where markets have been heralded as mechanisms to, amongst other things, stimulate otherwise absent innovation((See:, introduce ethics into new fields((See, for example:, and generate efficiency((See the UK’s new Research Excellence Framework:, efficacy and greater equality((See: In these discussions, market based initiatives are noted as both valuable in their own right and key for attributing and distributing value. Market based initiatives are also understood as providing the means by which scientific, technological, financial, social and policy issues can be corralled and addressed, problems can be made to make sense and resolved. And yet controversy endures regarding for example: claims that in some areas there is no competition and hence there can be no market((See: A. Farlow (2005) ‚The Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, Malaria Vaccines, and Purchase Commitments: What is the Fit?’ (Innovation Strategy Today, June 2005: 1-15).)); that assumptions built into market models simplify key areas such as scientific discovery into linear financial models((Overlooking the history of STS research into scientiic ‚discovery’ which questions assumptions of linearity.)); that the insistence on creating a market is expensive and inefficient with regards to the problem to be solved((See for example, criticism of plans to marketise the UK NHS (‚No market for the NHS,’ Guardian newspaper, 14th March, 2011, p.31) )); that on the terms on which they are established many market based initiatives fail((See:; that markets asymmetrically allocate agency and capability at the expense of the most vulnerable and that market prerogatives are not neutral, but shape and constrain the activities and realities of those subject to them((See: History of Human Sciences (1999) ‚Knowledge for What? The Intellectual Consequences of the Research Assessment Exercise’, special issue of History of the Human Sciences 12(4): 111–46.)). Thus despite their widespread deployment, engaging ever more people, resources and devices, market-based initiatives have frequently been associated with questions, concerns, possible failure and/or the generation of further problems. Hence the relationship between problems, solutions and markets is by no means straightforward. This suggests that the very genesis, development, experience and consequence of market-based initiatives require careful consideration.

In our research we have drawn on the move in recent years by STS scholars to pay greater attention towards matters of organisation, organising and business, particularly those that can be said to draw inspiration from Actor-Network Theory (ANT)((A note of caution is advisable here: many early advocates of ANT have over the last 10 to 12 years questioned some of the limitations of ANT, used the label post-ANT or refer in very minimal terms to ANT. See for example Callon, M. (1998) The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwells; MacKenzie, D., Muniesa, F. and Siu, L. (eds) (2007) Do Economists Make Markets? On the performativity of economics. Oxford: Princeton University Press; Muniesa, F., Milo, Y. and Callon, M. (2007) Market Devices Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)). For example, Callon (1998) suggests, markets can be treated as assemblages that are continuously made and re-made through the work of economists, models, calculative devices, forms of valuation and experimentation((Callon, M. (1998) The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwells)). The substantive focus for STS research on markets is broad, engaging global financial markets, arbitrage and price, through to the exchange of strawberries((See for example: MacKenzie, D. (2006) An Engine, Not a Camera (London: MIT Press); Beunza, D. and Hardie, I. and MacKenzie, D. (2006) A price is a social thing: towards a material sociology of arbitrage. Organization studies, 27 (5). pp. 721-745; Garcia-Parpet, M. (2007) The Social Construction of a Perfect Market: The Strawberry Auction at Fontaines-en-Sologne, in D. MacKenzie, F. Muniesa, and L. Siu (eds) Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics. New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, pp. 20-53.)). Market assembly, according to Callon (1998) involves the production of devices and framings, which disentangle entities from their social, cultural and technical obligations, in order to be re-entangled into specific market framings. Such disentangling and re-entangling in market assemblages is said to affirm various demarcations between, for example, relative degrees of value. Further innovative and provocative ideas arise through treating economics and markets as performative((MacKenzie, D. (2006) An Engine, Not a Camera (London: MIT Press) )), questions are posed of what counts as a market actor((Cochoy, F. (2009) Driving a Shopping Cart from STS to Business, and the Other Way Round: On the Introduction of Shopping Carts in American Grocery Stores (1936—1959). Organization. 16: 31-55.)), forms of equivalence and other market metrology are investigated as a practice((Callon, M., C. Meadel, and V. Rabehariosa. (2002) The Economy of Qualities. Economy and Society. 31(2): 194-217.)) and the intersection of market assemblages with broad political systems analysed((Barry, A. (2002) The Anti-Political Economy. Economy and Society. 31(2): 268-84.)).

We have found these ideas useful and challenging for our own thinking. But what of the critiques of market-based interventions? How can we engage with the problematic politics of markets as apparent solutions to collective concerns? Here we have analysed a variety of ideas. For example, we have explored STS thinking on the constitution or legitimacy of solutions, the entangled histories of recursive problem-solution relationships, the notion that problems are frequently re-oriented to it current understandings of the capability and capacity of solutions, and the numerous unintended consequences of solutionism((Woolgar, S. and Pawluch, D. (1985) “Ontological Gerrymandering: The Anatomy of Social Problems Explanations,” Social Problems (32:3), pp. 214-27. Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology (NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall).)). We have also drawn on STS science policy work to start rethinking the status and role of market and economic expertise, the importance of values held by decision makers in seeking solutions to diverse social problems and how these become embodied in political culture((Drawing on the work of, for example: Jasanoff, S. (2007) Designs on Nature (USA: Princeton Press).)). Work on governance has also been useful for helping us to think about the adequacy of methods of public consultation in relation to demands for greater accountability and transparency in market work and the concerns that have been expressed regarding the means by which market-based legislation and regulation, public representation, participation or consultation has been formed((See for example Irwin, A. (1995) Citizen Science (Routledge, London); Kitcher, P. (2001) Science, Democracy and Truth (Oxford University Press, Oxford); Kleinman, D. (2000) (ed) Science, Technology and Democracy (State of New York University Press, Albany NY, USA); Jasanoff, S. (1994) The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (USA: Harvard University Press); Colebatch, H., Hoppe, R. and Noordegraaf, N. (2010) (eds) Working For Policy (Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam Press); Rip, A. (2003) Constructing Expertise. Social Studies of Science 33(3): 419-34; Collins, H. and Evans, R. (2007) Rethinking Expertise. London: University of Chicago Press; Bozeman, B. and Sarewitz, D. (2007) Public Values and Public Failure in US Science Policy. Science and Public Policy, 32(2): 119-36.)). And we have started to consider the role of us STS researchers in these policy contexts.

Taking on these ideas in our initial sub-projects on markets for privacy and markets for vaccines in low-income countries has been analytically useful. In considering attempts to regulate the proliferation and monetisation of data through the online data industry, what we have found are, for example, start-up firms and community groups trying to invert taken for granted assumptions that the monetization of online data inevitably and straightforwardly harms individuals by, for example, invading their privacy. Instead, various organisations are attempting to rethink privacy in terms of control and the establishment of proxy property rights for users over their data. Through doing so, start-ups seek to establish a form of privacy (through control and a re-specification of property rights) as the future of marketing. We have become interested in how this re-specification work could become part of on-going and recursive problem-solution relationships. Alternatively, in attempts to transform global vaccine markets for low income countries, what we find is not markets in the wild, but pacifying, taming contracts, mutual obligations, and carefully managed supply chains, governed and held to account through international agreements, aid partnerships, diverse forms of expertise (legal, epidemiological, economic, etc.), standards of assessment and evidential delivery mechanisms. Market assemblages, political governance and counter-intuitive results abound. Although superficially we might take this kind of intervention as an example of market-based initiatives being used to civilise otherwise unruly, incalculable exchanges, what we find in practice is an enormous number of mundane, sometimes messy, sometimes unruly practices, devices and people coming together through a number of distinct evaluative situations.

Our on-going research continues to explore long-standing CSISP interests. For example, what counts as a problem or issue appears to be continuously at the forefront of market interventions. Furthermore, the practices and processes of intervention seem key. And a focus on inventive and experimental methods continues to be vital (including our own attempts to subvert the dominant policy-shaping field of experimental economics by carrying out our own breach experiments that disrupt otherwise rational and linear market thinking). Alongside our on-going research activities, we also continue to organise a series of events. In September, we will host ‘Economic Exchanges’ exploring what happens when STS engages with the economic and at the next EASST conference in Barcelona, we hope to put on another stream, this time on Mundane Market Matters.

Author information


Daniel Neyland is the Principal Investigator on the MISTS project. Daniel‘s interests cover issues of governance, accountability and ethics in forms of science, technology and organization. He draw on ideas from ethnomethodology, science and technology studies and his research is ethnographic in orientation. In particular he is interested in the question of how entities (objects, values, relationships, processes and also people) become of the world.


Sveta Milyaeva is a Research Fellow on the MISTS project. She completed her PhD in Sociology supervised by Donald MacKenzie and Alex Preda at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests are located in social studies of finance (SSF) and her current work focuses on data markets and the marketization of UK higher education.


Véra Ehrenstein is a Research Fellow on the MISTS project. She completed her PhD at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, Ecole des Mines, Paris. Her research interests revolve around Science and Technology Studies, the sociology of markets and the anthropology of development, particularly in relation to topics like tropical deforestation and health in so-called developing countries.


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