Future and the "science of the not yet"

Interview with David Stark

David Stark is Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Professor of Social Science at the University of Warwick. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (2019/2020). He holds a PhD in sociology from Harvard University where he worked under the supervision of Theda Skocpol and Alessandro Pizzorno. Stark received an Honoris Causa Doctorate from the École normale supérieure de Cachan in 2013 and has been a frequent visitor to research institutes in Paris. Among many other topics, his research interests include the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe, finance, innovation and creativity, but also cognitive sociology and valuation. His current project, “Diversity and Performance: Networks of Cognition in Markets and Teams,” is supported by a five-year grant from the European Resarch Council.

Excerpt of an interview conducted by Léa Renard and Bénédicte Zimmermann

Interviewer: How did you come to address the issue of the future in your research?

DS: I think the first time that I confronted the future in my own research was in Eastern Europe, in 1990. The Berlin wall came down in November 1989 and the first free elections were held in the spring of 1990. Very soon, economists from Cambridge, Mass, and Cambridge England are flying into Eastern Europe, and they know the future. They don't think they have some vague ideas about the future; they think that they know the future. And the future of these societies is that they would become more like the West, that they will be market economies with competitive markets and competitive parties in the political field. Competition will be what governs the economy and what governs the polity. There will be liberal democracies with markets and private ownership. That is the future.

For me, this was the “science of the not yet”. That's what I called it [Stark, 1996]. But something that had not yet happened could not be known. It would even be wrong to say that it had not yet happened. In the thinking of the Cambridge economists and others, the not yet is the thing that certainly will happen - it's just not yet happened. But I don’t believe in the science of the not yet. So my objective was to put the crystal ball down, and try to look at society without an idea of what the future is. Yes, how people think about the future is a part of the present. But the not yet is a very particular idea about the relationship between the present and the future. So, it’s better if we try to look at what is happening, and what is not, as opposed to what has not yet happened.

What I was trying to say at that time is that we don't know what's going to happen in these societies. But what we might need to think about is that something that we don't know about, will happen. Look what we got in Hungary today: at that time, it was perceived as the country that was leading the way on the road of liberal market economy. But now it is the country of anti-liberal democracy. I did not predict it, but what is sure is that there was nothing inevitable that market democracy would be the outcome of the transformation in Eastern Europe.

For me, another confrontation with the future was in the trading room that I as studying with Daniel Beunza. At the time we were doing so, the future was about 2 seconds ahead [cf. Beunza, Stark, 2004; 2012]. That trading room was destroyed in the attack on September 11 but the manager invited us to come back after the attack. We went there and they didn't have high speed bandwidth to the New York Stock Exchange, they were at a 9-baud telephone line, so there were all kinds of trading they couldn’t get to do at all. A week later they got a Bloomberg connection which is 15 minutes behind the New York Stock Exchange and I told a trader: “you must be really happy that you got this high speed connection now”. He said “I don't trade with historical data”. 15 minutes. A trading engine at that time got 2 seconds behind, so for a trader the future was 2 seconds away. And now the future is nanoseconds away, it’s milliseconds, nanoseconds, that is the future.

Interviewer: Is economic sociology able to properly address the future as a research object? What are the challenges?

DS: I think the challenges are related exactly to some of the big opportunities and possibly misadventures for economic sociology and for sociology more generally, and it bears on the future. I see 3 problems. The first one is that physicists are coming into our field. They didn’t sign Parsons’s Pact either and why shouldn’t we have physicists studying what we sociologists think is important. They think that if they have big enough data sets, and big enough computing power and simple enough models, that it will allow them to have something important to say about basic things in society. Computation, whether it’s called computational social science or the physics of the social world, is a big challenge. But it's also an opportunity. The fact that people misused these data sources doesn’t mean that the data are bad and not to be used. Look at the work of Dan McFarland at Stanford or Brian Uzzi and his group at Northwestern. There are signs that good and important work would be done in this area with these methods, so that's an opportunity and a danger.

The second challenge I see concerns economic sociology in particular. I think the most interesting thing that did happen was the influx of people who came into the field from Science and Technology Studies (STS). Some people might think that the object of study of sociology is human beings. I think the object of study of sociology is being human. That was the lesson that I got from STS, that being human is different than human being. We are human because we have non humans and we evolve with the non humans, it is part of our species that we literally coevolve with our non humans. Society is not just made up of human beings, but of all kinds of actants that are very active there in our world. Among the most important are algorithms. The study of the relationship between humans and non humans, algorithms and humans, is one of the most important things that we can be doing. And if you want to know about the future, then you need to know about the algorithms that are finishing your sentence. In Science and Technology Studies, scientists look at markets from a very different perspective than economists do, from the point of view of engineers. Look at Donald MacKenzie, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra or Elena Esposito’s book The future of futures [2011] on predictive algorithms, that's the future of economic sociology.

I also have some worries about economic sociology, that would be the third issue. I was always concerned that economic sociology might become the sociology of business. And I had hoped that economic sociology is the sociology of worth. If our object of study is worth, then we could study that in any domain, we could study the family, we could study social movements, we could study educational institutions. We don’t have to study businesses. Look at the study of domestic economy as done by Jeanne Lazarus, José Ossandón, Mariana Luzzi or Joe Deville: they study the management of finances, not the financialization of the economy, but what counts for households, how they deal with budgets, whose contribution counts for what etc. We don’t need to study just value, but value plus values, worth, anywhere that it happens, not just in the business world and markets.

But more and more of the economic sociology that's done in the United States is done in business schools. And I think it starts to change not just what is studied but how it’s studied and how it's presented. I worry that there is a kind of fetishization of technique, and by that I don't mean methodology, I mean technique. I am worried that we have lost sight of what it is that we are studying. That our attention is on the technique that's being used, the kind of instrumental variables to be selected, the robustness checks, rather than on the object of study. Now you’re down to a very restricted, little box rather than what Bourdieu taught us: Choose a humble topic, it doesn’t have to be a big problem, but then it’s valuable if you can leverage it to say something of real significance. I just don’t see enough of that happening, I see the opposite. But it’s not going to be good if we just keep in those ruts.

Beunza D., Stark D. (2004), « Tools of the Trade: The Socio-Technology of Arbitrage in a Wall Street Trading Room », Industrial and Corporate Change, vol. 13, n° 2, p. 369–400.

Beunza D., Stark D. (2012), « Seeing Through the Eyes of Others: Dissonance Within and Across Trading Rooms », in K. Knorr Cetina, A. Preda (dir.), The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Finance, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 203-222.
Esposito E. (2011), The Future of Futures: The Time of Money in Financing Society, Cheltenham, Elgar. Stark D. (1996), « Recombinant Property in East European Capitalism », American Journal of Sociology, vol. 101, n° 4, p. 993-1027.