Motivation and research questions

In the wake of the global financial crisis there was a moment when everyone from media pundits and social protesters to political incumbents and financial investors were rallying to an agenda for change. Reform of the financial sector was the name of the day, but that day has come and gone and now it seems just another case of plus ça change… Have we, despite Philip Mirowski’s (2013) warning to never do so, ‘let a serious crisis go to waste’? The present project takes its point of departure in the nuanced answer to this question that appears when one turns from purely economic explanations to interdisciplinary investigations of the social, political, and communicative causes and consequences of the financial crisis. Studies in this vein have interrogated previously taken for granted truths, disentangled well-established discursive patterns, probed longstanding positions of power, and discovered deep needs for altering the organizational forms that currently dominate the financial sector (see inter alia Engelen et al., 2011; Bryan et al., 2012; Brassett & Clarke, 2012; Davies & McGoey, 2012; De Cock, Cutcher & Grant, 2012; Whittle & Mueller, 2012).

The financial crisis, then, has not been wasted from the critical point of view, but concerted criticism of the economic order that caused the crisis has not let to equally rigorous reform of the financial sector, whose murky entanglements in barely legal as well as plainly illegal activities have, thanks to the Panama Papers leak, recently come under the spotlight yet again. Present disclosures are not the only indication that sector reform remains as pertinent as ever, key political actors during the crisis and its aftermath have – after retiring from their former positions of power – also stressed this point (Paulson, Jr., 2010; Bernanke, 2015; King, 2016). As former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King (2016: 334-355), poignantly argues: “Without reform of the financial sector […] another crisis is certain, and […] it will come sooner rather than later.” This worrying state of affairs, King goes on to assert, ought to lead to persistent engagement rather than detached pessimism. Or, in the words of former US secretary of the Treasury, Henry M. Paulson, Jr. (2010: xxxviii): “It’s time to act.”

Aspiring to heed the call to action, this project will move the scholarly focus from past events to present conditions of possibility aiming to conceive potential futures that do not simply replicate or intensify existing discourses, structures, and patterns of behaviour. This will require the development of a “registering apparatus” through which we “may detect the […] stirrings of a different state of things” (Jameson, 2009: 416). Focusing on existing dynamics of change from within, we ask:

  • How do alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing become possible? And how may such alternatives enable change from within the financial sector?

Beginning from a mapping of the forms of economic organizing that currently dominate the configuration of the financial sector, we will move into a series of critical case studies of alternatives to the prevailing order; alternatives that already exist within this order – not as its radical ‘Other’, but as its ‘second selves’, its AlterEcos.

We will investigate the relationship between dominant forms of organizing and their alternatives at four intersections: where financial practices meet regulatory standards, at the nexus of institutionalized logics and alternative business models, in encounters between employees of the financial sector and broader publics, and at the juncture of social movements and social media. Seeking to answer the general research question from each of these four inroads and to combine the insights that may be gained from each perspective, we have formulated six sub-questions. The first is of a general and descriptive character and is to be answered by all project participants in collaboration:

  • What are the forms of economic organizing that currently dominate the financial sector?

The next four are more specific and exploratory, to be dealt with in individual subprojects:

  • How are tensions between external pressures for more political regulation of the financial sector and internal interests in maintaining economic self-regulation negotiated?
  • How is the rise of alternatives to traditional banking enabled and/or constrained by institutional contexts?
  • How are individual employees of traditional banks constituted as compliant and/or defiant subjects?
  • How do social movements prefigure alternative forms of economic organizing?

The final question, which seeks to bring the insights of the subprojects together, is prescriptive and forward-looking:

  • How may alternative forms of organizing foster more sustainable economic orders?


Conceptual framework

The study of alternative economic organizing, to which the project will contribute, is an emergent and inherently interdisciplinary field that perceives and investigates the social, political, and communicative dimensions of the economy as an inroad to exploring the possibilities (and impossibilities) of conceptualizing and promoting change from within the established economic order (Boltanski, 2011; Jameson, 2009; Jessop & Oosterlynck, 2008). Our main contribution to this bourgeoning field lies in exploring how interdisciplinary conceptualizations may become applicable – as conceptual, methodological, and practical strategies for change.

Conceptually, the initial task is to explore possible meanings of the terms ‘alternative’, ‘economic’, and ‘organizing’ in relation to each other. Labelling something alternative not only begs the question of ‘alternative to what’ (in this case, to the forms of economic organizing in and through which the financial sector is currently configured), but also, and more pressingly, alternative in which way: what principles and norms constitute a certain practice as more responsible and/or sustainable than dominant organizational forms? In exploring this issue, we will bring together recent work on diverse economies (Gibson-Graham, 2008; Roelvink, St. Martin & Gibson-Graham, 2015), critical management (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012; Wickert & Schaefer, 2015), and alternative organizing (Parker et al., 2014a; Parker et al., 2014b). Thereby not only contributing to the substantiation of what alternative economic organizing might mean, but also furthering the study and practice of such alternatives.


Starting point

More specifically, we will bring the field forward by elucidating one of its most fundamental assumptions, namely that there is nothing ‘necessary’, nor ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-regulating’ about the (market) economy, but that it is, instead, perpetually performed. To this end, we will first suggest the theory of performativity of economics (MacKenzie, Muniesa & Siu, 2007; Çalişkan & Callon, 2009, 2010; Callon, 2010) as a common frame for investigating how dominant forms of economic organizing come to be. Second, we will move from accounting for the current order through the study of how specific alternatives become possible to conceptualizations of the ways in which these alternatives may become drivers of broader change of ‘the orders that be’.

Performativity of economics, then, functions as the conceptual starting point for our initial mapping of the current economic order. The key merit of this approach is that it conceptualizes processes, but not substances and, hence, is open to the specifics and nuances of the studied phenomena. Within this framework, economies are perceived as complex social and material relationships, so-called socio-technical assemblages (STAs), which emerge from, are maintained in, and reformed through continuous and contentious performation struggles; that is, constitutive contests between various modalities of economic organizing (Çalişkan & Callon, 2010). These struggles are characterized by distributed and decentred agency; (re-)configurations of STAs do not result from individual speakers’ intentional use of discourse, but rather from discursive interactions with and within technical and (other) material conditions (Çalişkan & Callon, 2009). Furthermore, performation struggles are never contained within the economic domain of, say, markets; instead, there will inevitably be overflows from particular economic configurations to society at large (Callon, 1998a, 2007: 139). Markets, in other words, are socio-politically embedded (Callon, 1998b).



Performativity of economics explains processes of economic ordering and states of economic order as contingent upon each other and, hence, dynamic and emergent, but investigations in this vein tend to understand ‘the economy’ as an STA in and of itself; one that continuously struggles with and must separate itself from politics – and continuously succeeds in performing this bifurcation (Callon, 2010: 165). Beginning from performativity of economics thus enables us to identify the currently dominant economic order and to position ourselves vis-à-vis this ordering.

As it is currently conceptualized, however, performativity of economics focuses on explaining what is and how it became that way and is less concerned with exploring what could be (De Cock, 2008; Butler, 2010). As our main ambition is to supplement the account of how dominant forms of economic organizing came to be with suggestions as to how alternatives may arise, we need to push beyond current conceptualizations (DeCock & Nyberg, 2014). That is, we will not only offer performativity of economics as the theoretical basis of alternative economic organizing, but also contribute to the ongoing discussion of how performativity can be harnessed for critical and activist purposes (Cabantous et al., 2016; Spicer, Alvesson & Kärreman, 2016; Just, Muhr & Burø, forthcoming). To this end, we will investigate alternatives to the key aspects of economic organizing as established by performativity of economics: engagement in performation struggles (subproject 1), institutional and socio-political embeddedness (subproject 2), distributed agencies (subproject 3), and socio-technical assemblages (subproject 4).  In sum, we will not only provide better explanatory foundations for the study of alternative economic organizing, but also stronger normative grounds for its practice.


Approach and methods

The overriding ambition of the project, then, is to conceptualize possibilities for alternative economic organizing through empirical studies of actually existing alternatives to the currently dominant order. This leads us to the issue of what it means to be ‘alternative’ in the methodological and empirical sense. Or rather, what empirical domains to explore and how to navigate these domains in order to develop and test theories that may both explain and enable alternative modes of economic organizing? In response to these issues, we adopt three basic assumptions: first, that theories are never ‘innocent’, but co-constitutive of the practices they purport to describe (MacKenzie, 2006); second, that theorizing should be done ‘on the ground’ (Geertz, 1973: 14; Hastrup, 2014); third, that theorizing alternatives works best in collaboration with those to whom the alternatives apply (Brydon-Miller, Greenwood & Maguire, 2003; Stringer, 2014).

The three basic assumptions lead to three common features of the investigations involved in the project: they consider the ways in which theories and practices are formed by and formative of objects, technologies, and settings for potential change (Marres, 2012; Berry, 2014); they are critical case studies that aim to build theory (Flyvbjerg, 2006); and they make use of case study integrity fora (CSIFs) (Seabrooke & Tsingou, 2015) at which representatives of various groups with vested interests in economic organizing will be brought together to discuss the project and its findings.


Integrated case studies

The four subprojects have a common starting point and a shared ambition: understanding the multiple forces that currently shape the financial sector and contributing to the possible reconfiguration of the sector. Thus, we will begin from reviews of existing literature and observations of current developments in order to map out existing forms of economic organizing and, hence, answer the first sub-question. Here, we will build a recognition that economic, social political, and communicative forms of organizing are co-constitutive of each other – and co-constituted in thoroughly entwined processes. The four do not exist as separate or separable entities, but continuously emerge in and through their dynamic entanglements. Thus, we aim to conceptualize and explain these entanglements.

Our mapping takes its point of departure in the global financial crisis and the extant literature on its causes and consequences (see introduction). Even so, gaining a full overview of the current state and possible developments of the financial system as such seems an insurmountable task. As we move from description, through explanation, towards the exploration of new possibilities, we therefore employ a tactic of building small-scale models “…on which the fundamental tendencies and the lines of flight can more clearly be read” (Jameson, 2005: 14); models which may point at potentials for conceptualizing and practicing economic organizing differently. Thus, the subprojects, as detailed below, will provide perspectives from which the current configuration of the financial sector may be explained and enacted differently. It is in its multiplicity, not in any claim to comprehensiveness, that the project finds its justification.

Corresponding to the four chosen ‘registering apparatuses’, or conceptual starting points for viewing economic organizing in and of the financial sector differently, four empirical loci of alternative economic organizing have been identified – regulatory bodies, organizations of the financial sector, individual employees within the sector, and social movements – each of which is explored in a separate subproject. Subproject 1 will study how inter- and transnational regulatory regimes, on the one hand, remain relatively stable and incapable of change and how these regimes, on the other hand, are involved in performation struggles that facilitate the rise of alternative economic organizing through the public circulation of such alternatives. Subproject 2 will focus on a specific sector-level alternative, namely social banks, in order to study how institutional contexts may facilitate and/or impede such banks’ assumption of a role of institutional entrepreneurship for the financial sector. Subproject 3 will look to individual employees within the financial sector in order to uncover the potential for organizational change in everyday acts of subversion and resistance as these are both facilitated and impaired by broader dynamics of distributed agency. Subproject 4 will investigate the different ways in which social movements materialize and organize as specific socio-technical assemblages within broader socio-material networks in an effort to identify the alternative forms of economic organizing these assemblages prefigure.

While we will investigate how each case relates to dominant forms of economic organizing, the ultimate aim is to uncover possible links between the offered alternatives. Thus, the main contribution of the project lies in its integration; only in combination will the different theoretical lenses and specific empirical loci shed new light on how the financial sector might be reconfigured. Conceptually, each subproject will allow us to deepen and develop the notion of alternative economic organizing, but only through conceptual combinations will alternative theories of economic organizing emerge.  Empirically, each of the studied alternatives has become possible within the current order without altering it significantly. The empirical details of each subproject, then, provide important insights into the issue of how alternatives emerge, but conceptualizing and promoting change from within the currently dominant order only seems possible at the intersections of various alternatives.


The four AlterEcos subprojects

Subproject 1: Regulatory alternatives – What are the prospects of change from above? (Responsible researcher: Sine N. Just)

Assuming that economic and socio-political forms of organizing are distinct yet intimately related, this subproject focuses on performation struggles within and between economic orders and regulatory regimes. Economic organizing is understood as inherently political as it generates a certain form of value (e.g. ‘profit’), and socio-political organizing is similarly understood as economic in the sense that it creates and/or upholds a certain order of valuation (e.g. ‘the market economy’). Thus, any form of economic organizing is political and vice versa, which is not to say that one or the other is necessarily good or bad, but that all forms of ordered value creation (all economies) are intrinsically normative. The market, with its focus on self-interested (monetary) exchange value, is but one mode of transaction and translation between different domains (Goggin, 2015), one ‘economy of worth’ (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006), which, by way of its successful performation in the struggle with other such modes, has come to be configured in a certain way (Callon, 2015).

Based on these theoretical assumptions, the subproject will investigate how tensions between external pressures for more political regulation of the financial sector and internal interests in maintaining economic self-regulation are negotiated in the public domain (Werner, 2014). Thus, performation struggles are detailed as processes of rhetorical circulation of affective signs in and through which the signs that are circulated most frequently gain in intensity and value and, hence, take on persuasive force that in turn enables the prevalence of such signs in the performation struggles of which they form part (Ahmed, 2004; Chaput, 2010). The empirical investigation will begin from the responsible researcher’s existing and ongoing research on media coverage of and involved actors’ contributions to two reform processes: the international regulatory framework for banks (Basel III) (Just, 2015) and the financial services regulation of the EU (specifically, the Banking Union) (Just, under review). Combining the methods of textual-intertextual analysis (Ceccarelli, 2001) and process tracing (Beach & Pedersen, 2008), the subproject will study how these two processes of (mediated) regulatory reform interrelate with more radical alternatives, namely the process towards establishing a financial transactions tax in the EU and the proposed monetary reforms in Switzerland and Iceland. Thus, the aim is to explain how inter- and transnational regulatory regimes on the one hand remain relatively stable and incapable of change and how these regimes, on the other hand, are involved in performation struggles that may facilitate the rise of alternative economic organizing.

Sine_MG_1549_SH_CLUSine Nørholm Just is an Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School Department of Business and Politics.

Subproject 2: Sector alternatives – May social banks foster change from within? (PhD project: Sara Dahlman)

Social banks seem to have emerged as the winners of the financial crisis. Not only did such banks increase their general public standing in the years following 2008; many people also ‘voted with their money’ by shifting their accounts from conventional to social banks (Benedikter, 2011). And not only have social banks been successful in themselves; their business models and managerial practices are hailed as viable ethical alternatives to the dominant organizing principle, i.e. profit maximization, of conventional banks. Social banks, it is claimed, could serve as role models for much needed wider reforms (Weber & Remers, 2010). In sum, they are hailed as central institutional entrepreneurs (DiMaggio, 1988) who by virtue of breaking with “the institutionalized template for organizing” within the banking sector might introduce a new logic that could change the “shared understanding of the goals to be pursued” and “how they are pursued” (Battilana, Leca & Boxenbaum, 2009: 68-69). Social banks, then, may have an opportunity to spearhead a reconfiguration of the financial sector (Just, Dahlman & Mouton, under review), and this subproject will study the background for and the potential of such banks’ actual assumption of this role.

In order to do so, a comparative study of social banking in Denmark and Sweden will be

conducted. The comparative method has been chosen to highlight possible causes and consequences of the relative success of social banks in the Danish context as opposed to the less successful Swedish case. Thus, the two contexts may shed light on the ways in which socio-political embeddedness may facilitate and/or hinder economic institutional entrepreneurship. More specifically, a two-part investigation will be undertaken: 1) a comparative historical-institutional analysis focused on the parameters of institutional frameworks, national banking systems, and social movements for a more responsible and environment-friendly society. This investigation maps the institutional field and formation of social banks in Denmark and Sweden in order to identify the social banks’ preconditions for acting as institutional entrepreneurs in these two national contexts. And 2) a comparative social network analysis of how two specific banks, the Danish Merkur Bank and the Swedish Ekobanken, perform within their national institutional settings and in relation to broader international contexts. This study will focus on the positioning of the banks as institutional entrepreneurs vis-à-vis other market actors (Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001; Lammers & Barbour, 2006; Lammers, 2011).


Sara Dahlman is a PhD at Copenhagen Business School, Department of Business and Politics.

Subproject 3: Individual alternatives – May employees of conventional banks foster change from within? (Postdoc project: Erik Mygind du Plessis)

While some individual bankers have emerged as public advocates of sector reform, examples of such critical voices are rather rare – to the point of being spectacular (see e.g. Morgenson, 2011). Thus, aside from a few widely covered public cases, observations of individuals’ critical potential within traditional banks are scarce (Alvesson & Robertson, 2016; Ho, 2009), suggesting that sector employees are mostly silent about, even complicit in or serving as scapegoats for, organizational disorders (Just & Mouton, 2014: 737-738). This subproject sets out to test and nuance the diagnosis of apparent muteness by exploring actually existing possibilities for conventional bankers to speak up against and provide alternatives to the organizational forms of their employers and the order of the sector as a whole.

The subproject takes its point of departure in the basic assumption that critique works as an engine of change (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005) and seeks to identify different forms of criticism stemming from employees of traditional financial institutions. In order to assess the transformative potential of existing forms of criticism, their specific relationships to power (Foucault, 1996; Saar, 2010) as well as to regimes of justification (Boltanski, 2011) and to subjective libidinal investments (Contu, 2008; Žižek, 1998) will be explored. Thus, the subproject explores the relationship between distributed agencies and individual acts of resistance and/or subversion; what alternative enactments are afforded by existing technological and social apparatuses? This question will be answered through analyses of organizational discourses and personal narratives (Linde, 1986; Doolin, 2003; Balogun, 2014), as found in official documents and in-depth interviews with employees and managers of two specific organizations: Danske Bank and HSBC.

The explored forms of criticism will include the practice of whistleblowing (Miethe & Rothschild, 1994), which is typically considered a radical critique (Contu, 2014; Weiskopf & Willmott, 2013), often requiring comprehensive identity-work (Alford, 2001). However, whistleblowing systems, which have become mandatory by law as a response to the financial crisis, are not commonly understood as a threat to the organization (du Plessis, 2014a, 2014b). Accordingly, the subproject explores the new modes of criticism and/or subjectivities afforded through the implementation of such systems at HSBC and Danske Bank. In addition, various everyday acts of criticism and resistance in the two organizations will be explored; ranging from informal resistance in the hidden cracks and crevasses of the organization (Fleming & Spicer, 2003) to more openly voiced critiques that may be well received by management and result in changes that are beneficial to the organization (Courpasson, Dany, & Clegg, 2012). This will also include various libidinal investments that may facilitate employee silence, e.g. cynicism (Sloterdijk, 1987) and fetishistic detachment (ZPižek, 2009: 65), as well as the dynamics of ‘moral narcissism’ (Alford, 2001) that can be involved when employees do speak up. Finally, the subproject will explore the emergence of new subjectivities within the sector – alter egos, as it were – that are not necessarily linked to voiced criticism, but might still enable alternative thoughts and feelings that could, in turn, provide possibilities for change (Gibson-Graham, 2006: 23ff).


Erik Mygind du Plessis is an external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School, Department of Business and Politics.

Subproject 4: Social alternatives – What are the prospects of change from below? (Postdoc project: Emil Husted)

While the majority of political and financial institutions seem to have returned to a state of ‘business as usual’ and popular protests have all but vanished from streets and squares, some infra-political alternatives (Böhm, Spicer & Fleming, 2008) continue to challenge the hegemonic grip of neoliberalism and the pro-growth agenda (Castells, 2012; Mason, 2013). From activist networks such as The Occupy Movement and Anonymous to grassroots projects like The Debt Collective and TimeRepublik, these alternatives sidestep conventional channels for political influence and work around the established system in an effort to change it (della Porta, 2013; West, 2013). Aided by the mobilizing power of new media technologies, activists are able to join forces and gather support in unprecedented and wide-ranging ways (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012). A further defining feature of most of these alternatives is that they seek to prefigure, at an organizational level, the change they advocate at the societal level (Maeckelbergh, 2011). For instance, The Occupy Movement rose to fame by prefiguring a democratic culture based on active participation, democratic deliberation, and consensus- based decision-making (Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012).

This subproject will investigate the different ways in which infra-political alternatives materialize and organize; the ways in which they become socio-technical assemblages in and of themselves, but also become part of broader socio-material networks. The ambition is to uncover and assess the potential of social alternatives to alter economic organizing as such. Beginning from a ‘typology for the organization of alternative political participation’, which has been developed at the conceptual level by the responsible researcher (Husted, 2015), the subproject explores two specific Danish cases, Alternativet and Gode Penge, as they interlink with, are similar to, and different from two other social movements, Avaaz and Occupy Wall Street. The subproject aims to test and enhance the typology through in-depth ethnographic and netnographic accounts (Kozinets, 2010), thereby furthering our knowledge of how alternatives to the currently dominant economic order may be instigated, articulated, and organized from below.


Emil Husted is a PhD at Copenhagen Business School, Department of Organization







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