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What’s Observed in a Rating? Rankings as Orientation in the Face of Uncertainty

Elena Esposito and I agree with the criticisms of ratings and rankings as simplistic, obscurantist, inaccurate, and subjective. But why are they becoming such an increasingly influential social form. We argue that they function well enough not because they mirror how things are but because they offer a highly visible reference point to which others are attentive and thereby provide an orientation to navigate uncertainty. The concluding section places the problem of ratings and rankings in a broader historical perspective contrasting the ranked society to the society of rankings. Responding to uncertainty, ratings and rankings perpetuate rather than eliminate anxiety.

Forthcoming in Theory, Culture & Society volume 36, 2019.”

Observing Finance as a Network of Observations

You can observe a lot just by watching,” says Yogi Berra. I use quips by Yogi as a device to organize a commentary on a paper contributing to observation theory by Elena Esposito. The exchange is published in the online journal Sociologica. Yogi's observation that “The future ain't what it used to be,” turns out to be a nice summary of Esposito's analysis of the role of financial models. The second half of the paper is itself a second-order observation. It uses another viewpoint (that of observation theory) to reinterpret my earlier ethnographic and network analytic research on finance.

Sociologica, 2/2013:1-12.

Esposito-Stark Debate on Observation Theory

Here is the full debate with Elena Esposito on Observation Theory in Sociologica 2/2013.

From Dissonance to Resonance: Cognitive Interdependence in Quantitative Finance

How do traders deal with the fallibility of their models? The answer, Daniel Beunza and I show in this ethnographic study of an arbitrage trading room is to use devices for dissonance that disrupt the taken-for-granted and prompt them to reconsider the assumptions built into their databases. Warning: the same socio-technical networks of reflexive modeling that are a source for correction can also lead to the amplification of error.

Economy and Society, 2012, 41(3):1-35.