The Contested Moralities of Markets: Volume 63

Cover of The Contested Moralities of Markets

Table of contents

(13 chapters)


Pages i-xi
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Part I: Introduction

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Moral struggles in and around markets abound in contemporary societies where markets have become the dominant form of economic coordination. Reviewing research on morality and markets across disciplinary boundaries, this introductory essay suggests that a moral turn can currently be observed in scholarship, and draws a direct connection to recent developments in the sociology of morality. The authors introduce the chapters in the present volume “The Contested Moralities of Markets.” In doing so, the authors distinguish three types of moral struggles in and around markets: struggles around morally contested markets where the exchange of certain goods on markets is contested; struggles within organizations that are related to an organization’s embeddedness in complex institutional environments with competing logics and orders of worth; and moral struggles in markets where moral justifications are mobilized by a variety of field members who act as moral entrepreneurs in their striving for moralizing the economy. Finally, the authors highlight three properties of moral struggles in contemporary markets: They (1) arise over different objects, (2) constitute political struggles, and (3) are related to two broader social processes: market moralization and market expansion. The introduction concludes by discussing some of the theoretical approaches that allow particular insights into struggles over morality in markets. Collectively, the contributions in this volume advance our current understanding of the contested moralities of markets by highlighting the sources, processes, and outcomes of moral struggles in and around markets, both through tracing the creation, reproduction, and change of underlying moral orders and through reflecting the status and power differentials, alliances, and political strategies as well as the general cultural, social, and political contexts in which the struggles unfold.

Part II: Empirical Studies

Section A: Struggles Around Morally Contested Markets


While certain contested goods do manage to make their way to market, others have moved less far in this direction and others seem permanently unable to do so. Moral contestation promotes, holds back or blocks the emergence of contested markets. This chapter examines the conditions that make the operation of these markets possible, and those that block their appearance. From a comparison between two cases (organs for transplantation and gambling), the authors focus attention on the one hand on those devices that make transactions possible, and on the other, on the “vulnerable populations” that these devices are intended to protect, either from or by the market.


The chapter studies the functioning of the so-called “voluntary” carbon offset market, a market in which moral controversies take place. The analysis dwells on the theoretical framework that enables us to study the functioning of a contested market through particular devices. The chapter seeks to contribute to the literature on moral struggles within markets by focusing the attention on one specific device: relational work, including several dimensions like meeting between seller and buyer, establishing contracts and maintaining the relationship with clients in the long run. By studying relational work, the authors highlight how this basic market activity is a crucial device that makes it possible for a contested market to continue to exist.


With only a few exceptions, economic sociology scholarship remains almost silent about illegality and crime in the economy. The implicit premise in the literature on market sociology is that institutional structures and exchanges taking place in markets are law abiding in nature. As a consequence of this legality bias the study of morality in markets has so far only addressed commodities – like human organs, gambling, drugs, alcohol, or tobacco – whose legal status depends on broad social agreements and has excluded markets whose workings are dependent on formally legitimized institutions like property rights, trademark laws, or copyrights. Drawing on seven months of ethnographic research, this chapter addresses the phenomenon of emerging moral justifications in the context of a marketplace for counterfeit and sweatshop-produced garments. In line with Anteby’s proposal on a “practice-based view of moral markets,” it argues that despite the broad moral consensus around trademark laws and the absence of professionals who advocate for legalization, moral justifications views arise from rising aspirations in such illegal markets. The case expands existing understandings of morality and contestation in economic sociology literature and shows its relevance in the context of recent academic scholarship on perceptions of the future as a source of moral justification of market exchanges.

Section B: Coping with Moral Struggles in Moral(ized) Markets


As a “fictitious commodity” (Polanyi), that cannot be separated from the human being who is its owner, labor has a special moral significance. However, this moral quality is not a given but must be asserted in struggles over the value of labor. With the example of disabled workers in Switzerland, this chapter examines the moralization of labor as a means to revalue a category of workers who range far down the labor queue. Moralization mediates the tension between the normative societal goal of inclusion for disabled people and the freedom of employers to select the most “productive” workers. Drawing on the theoretical approach of the Economics of Convention the chapter analyzes the valuation frames proposed by economic and welfare state actors in political debates over the establishment of the Swiss disability insurance and the role of employers regarding occupational integration. A core concept used in negotiations of the value of disabled labor in the public arena and within individual businesses is the “social responsibility” of employers. Historically, employers’ associations successfully promoted the liberal principle of voluntary responsibility to prevent state interference in the labor market. In contrast, disability insurance argues predominantly within the market and the industrial convention to “sell” its clientele in the context of employer campaigns and case-related interactions with employers. Only recently, both sides started to reframe the employment of disabled people as a win–win affair, which would reconcile economic self-interest and the common good.


Moralized markets are economic markets in which moral aspects are explicitly used to legitimize decisions. Companies involved in such markets have to cope simultaneously with opposing logics: While they strive for economic growth, their existence is bound to their moral integrity, too. This chapter investigates how ecopreneurs manage this inherent conflict of moralized markets. Based on interviews, documentary analysis and sample purchases, an empirical case study highlights the example of well-renowned ecopreneurial dairies distributing their milk via ecologically disreputable discount stores. By looking into the related struggle between moral and economic expectations, the chapter sheds light on one particular coping strategy: The tacit creation and maintenance of separate fields for moral and economic logics. This strategy of fragmentation is referred to as ‘double game.’ The study emanates from competing logics approaches to hybrid organizations by adopting a field theoretical, Bourdieusian perspective. Its explicit focus on opposing logics and on coping strategies that go beyond reconciliation opens up new perspectives for both sustainability and organization studies.


German ethical banks have experienced a significant increase in customers, deposits, and lending. They aim to establish a fairer banking system. But the simultaneous pursuit of social, ecological, and economic goals leaves them vulnerable to conflicting orders of worth. The authors examine the normative foundations that ethical bank employees refer to when they describe their everyday practices and identify the specific problems that arise from negotiating between moral principles and economic demands to provide insights into the impacts, constraints, and paradoxes of normatively oriented business practices. Drawing on the theoretical framework of the sociology of critique, the authors assume that moral categories, social processes of interpretation, and justification are an essential part of markets. Ethical banking is characterized by the need to meet both market-limiting and market-expanding requirements, and this particularly becomes contentious when dealing with economic growth. By analyzing ethical banks’ freely accessible documents, the authors first outline the institutional guidelines. In a second step, the authors analyze 27 qualitative interviews with employees of ethical banks to gain insights into everyday lending practices and action-guiding normative orientations. The goal of this chapter is to examine the tensions that may arise from applying normative guidelines under the condition of increasing economic requirements and to disclose the way that ethical banks negotiate between mechanisms of expansion and limitation. The analysis of this chapter points out a paradox of ethical banking: due to the banks’ economic expansion, investments corresponding to their ethical commitments tend to become a luxury they cannot afford.

Section C: Moral Entrepreneurship and Moral Struggles in the Market Field


Whenever the news media feature brand-related moral struggles over issues such as ethicality, fairness, or sustainability, brands often find themselves in the position of the culprit. However, brands may also take the opposite position, that of a moral entrepreneur who proactively raises and addresses moral issues that matter to society. In this chapter, the authors present a case study of the Austrian shoe manufacturer Waldviertler, which staged a protest campaign against Austria’s financial market authorities in the wake of the authorities demanding that the company closes its alternative (and illegal) consumer investment model after 10 years of operation. In response to this demand, the company organized protest marches, online petitions, and press conferences to reclaim the moral high ground for its financing model as a way out of the crunch following the global credit crisis and as a way to fight unfair administrative burdens. The authors present an interpretive analysis of brand communication material and media coverage that reveals how this brand used protest rhetoric on three levels – logos, ethos, and pathos – to reverse moral standards, to embody a rebel ethos, and to cultivate moral indignation. The authors also show how the media responded to protest rhetoric both with thematic coverage of context, trends, and general evidence, and with episodic coverage focusing on dramatic actions and the company owner’s charisma. The authors close with a discussion of how protestainment, the stylization of a leader figure, and marketplace sentiments can ensure sustained media coverage of moral struggles.


Action from activists is at the origin of many initiatives that end up injecting moral concerns into the way companies operate. In such instances, activists function as moral entrepreneurs that lastingly change the definition of what constitutes morally acceptable corporate behavior. Yet, in order to have such a lasting effect on companies, activist efforts need to pass through multiple stages that deal with both the effective mobilization of their own constituents and the triggering of corporate responses that can induce broader change in the economy. In the present chapter, the authors study how local shareholder activists initiated and helped sustain the process that led to the establishment of active ownership in Switzerland between 1997 and 2011. Active ownership refers to the active engagement of shareholders with firms to push them toward considering environmental, social, and corporate governance criteria in their decision-making. The case illustrates the processual nature of moralizing dynamics initiated by activists and emphasizes the long-term and cumulative nature of many moralization projects.


Over the past few years Uber has experienced more controversy than any other digital platform. Looking at the case of Uber in Poland, this chapter distinguishes four arenas in which Uber has been contested: in cities, in public opinion, in the political realm, and in the legal field. Each of these arenas has a different logic and dynamic and also involves different actors and institutions. Nevertheless, the various struggles are connected with each other. Victories and defeats in one spill over into another, providing actors with resources or imposing constraints on them. The author illustrates the connection between various arenas by looking at court cases involving Uber drivers in Poland and shows how those court cases were not only legal events that determined the legality of Uber in Poland but also moral and political events that influenced struggles over legitimacy that were taking place outside the courtroom.

Part III: Conclusion


Pages 205-209
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This short text argues that a single moral – the notion’s etymology refers to the mores of a group or a society – must not be contested, but as soon as more than one morality is in play, there is a great chance that at least one or both are contested. It is also argued that man is moral by definition. Markets come, by definition, with struggles, but not all struggles in markets are moral. Most struggles in markets are economic, and most markets are not contested. Future research in the field of moral struggles could benefit from clearer distinctions of types of struggle.


Pages 211-218
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Cover of The Contested Moralities of Markets
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Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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