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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reputation and Disenchantment

Review on the Berlin Review of Books of my French edited volume on Reputation

by Thomas Mollanger
The most recent issue of the journal Communications (No. 93) is devoted to an emerging concept within the fields of sociology, psychology, and economy: reputation. For a long time regarded as a notion of secondary importance, reputation has now become a legitimate object of inquiry in its own right. Around the central figure of Gloria Origgi, nearly ten scholars of diverse backgrounds contribute to this excellent issue which adopts a multidisciplinary approach to the concept of reputation. In fact, interdisciplinarity is central to Gloria Origgi’s discourse, as she highlights the ubiquity of reputation in her introduction. Closely related to issues pertaining to communication and information, reputation lies at the heart of a variety of phenomena. However, due to historiographical shortcomings, the concept is still deeply “enchanted”. The main issue at stake in this work is therefore the disenchantment of reputational phenomena.
Composed of twelve articles, the volume starts from the perspective of psychology. In the first article, Nicolas Baumard and Dan Sperber propose a thought-provoking reflection on the relationship between reputation and morality. Does having a good reputation necessarily mean being moral? Drawing from experimental and evolutionist psychology, the authors demonstrate that the mutualist thesis according to which reputation is correlated with morality is not incompatible with the idea that one can be motivated to act morally for reasons that are strictly moral. Following the arguments set forth by the first article, Jon Elster undertakes a discussion of the influence self-reputation has on the morality of our actions. One’s concern for one’s own reputation can prove to be a powerful motivating factor in one’s decision to act morally. On the other hand, performing a good action in the mere hope of being well thought-of is not moral since the act confines itself to the realm of the visible. There is but one step separating a concern for disinterestedness from a disinterested concern, a step which is not easily made when it comes to reputation.
In the third contribution, the rationalist approach to the relationship between reputation and morality shared by the two first articles is revisited. Through an analysis of Hobbes’s treatment of the problem of reputation, Barbara Carnevali establishes a crucial link between the issues of recognition and power. In fact, it appears that this is what characterizes the human race: humankind distinguishes itself from other species by its insatiable quest for material and immaterial goods within the context of a zero-sum game. Hobbes’s vision influenced a great number of works, from Bourdieu to the paradigm of theHomo economicus, which share a common way of representing the individual as guided by the same vital interest (the conatus) as well as the same inclination towards self-affirmation.
File:Honoré Daumier 003.jpg
Honoré Daumier: Crispin and Scapin (ca. 1858-60), image public domain (source: Wikimedia Commons).
It is precisely this way of understanding the competition for reputation as a race for self-affirmation which underpins Philippe Rochat’s discussion of the emergence of conscience in children. By retracing the origins and the development of shame in children, Rochat addresses the issues of reputation and identity simultaneously. He demonstrates that it is with the development of sociability around the age of seven or eight that the child builds himself or herself a reputation. One’s relationship to the other appears to be constitutive of reputation on many levels. Nicholas Emler’s contribution, which regards reputation as a social instrument, is another example. By putting an emphasis on the necessary and crucial role of language in the circulation and creation of reputation, Emler wishes to highlight the influence the size and density of networks exerts on the conditions of dissemination of reputation. (Emler does so by engaging with the works of Ronald Burt: Brokerage and Closure. An Introduction to Social Capital, Oxford University Press 2005.) The fact that reputation is intricately linked to the issue of dissemination reveals that despite its being subject to manipulation, reputation can function as a method of prediction and social control and thus contribute to making human actions more effective.
Gloria Origgi further reflects on the informational value of reputation from the perspective of social epistemology. Since she stresses the informational value of reputation, Origgi studies reputation as a form of “signal”. The signal gains in value when the uncertainty is greater. Far from limiting themselves to the mere observation of the other’s behavior, social and institutional behaviours and apparatuses give an impressive weight to the opinion of the other in the process of formation of our own judgements. “Within the realm of reputational economy, the others’ judgement is the primary source of information on the market” (p. 117).
The necessity to assess the judgement of others in the process of constructing reputations is a recurrent theme of the literature on economic sociology. This is precisely the approach adopted by the following three contributions. Lucien Karpik, following the line of inquiry he started in Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities (Princeton University Press 2010), distinguishes between two types of market principles which pertain to reputation and can be associated with two categories of products: standard products and singular products. Far from conforming to a single pattern, reputation possesses different mechanisms at its disposal depending on the type of product it is applied to. For standard products, reputation and profit are correlated, while for singular products, it is the level of uncertainty which determines the degree of trust.
As to Pierre-Marie Chauvin, he proposes an engaging methodology in order to deepen our understanding of reputation. According to him, reputation is governed less by an essentialist logic (réputation-reflet) than by social logics (constructivism). He endorses an approach to reputation which is rooted in contextualization and emphasizes external sources, yet without neglecting the ego’s control of its own reputation, the critique of the Manichean dichotomy between good and bad reputations, as well as the issues pertaining to transfers of reputation. From the perspective of economic sociology, Pierre-Michel Menger proposes a reflection on the capacity reputation has of guaranteeing the quality of a product within the context of a highly uncertain situation. He begins his study with an important theoretical introduction in which he points out the conditions of construction of reputation (uncertain environments, repeated transactions) which make it possible to distinguish between reputation and related concepts such as notoriety and celebrity. Through a study of the art and flea markets, Menger shows that reputation is an important mechanism through which uncertainty can be reduced: it allows shoppers to get an idea of the honesty of the other, while also enabling the sellers to modify their behavior in order to maximize their long-term profit. However, he points out that reputation can prove to be insufficient in a situation characterized by strong informational asymmetry: in this case, guarantees, notably statutory ones, are introduced in order to secure the survival of the market.
In an article analysing the fierce competition for visibility on the Web, Dominique Cardon discusses the measure of reputation. Unlike traditional mass media which measure the reputation of a program in relation to its audience, the Internet is characterized by the innovative ways through which it measures reputation. Cardon discerns two ways employed on the Web in order to measure reputation. The first one, which is faithful to the ideals of the pioneers of the Web and which gave rise to Google’s PageRank, measures the reputation of a webpage by calculating the number of hyperlinks other Web documents devote to it. The goal is to retrieve the internal links within a text by dissociating the content from the personality of the author. However, a new way of measuring reputation has emerged with the development of social networks. Twitter and Facebook’s EdgeRank measures reputation by looking at the results of the promotional strategies a website or a person has employed in order to attract the attention of its digital environment. What opposes these two conceptions is that reputation, in the first case, is seen as the unintentional result of the evaluation of the quality of a webpage’s content, while in the second case, it is understood as the intended consequence of a strategic action, on the part of the purveyor of the information, aimed at receiving some form of approbation. This transition from an Internet of documents to an Internet of people highlights the growing emphasis placed on the ways through which the ego works on its own reputation.
Finally, Jean-Pierre Cavaillé reminds us, by studying the reputation of the musician Dassoucy during the seventeenth century, that reputation can “stick”. (See also Gary Alan Fine, Sticky Reputations: The Politics of Collective Memory in Midcentury America, Routledge 2011.) Dassoucy was the victim of groundless rumors accusing him of loose morals. The origin of these rumours can be traced back to Chapelle and Bachaumont, two “reputed” authors who wrote a travel story which depicted Dassoucy unfavourably. The construction of Dassoucy’s reputation as a libertine and a sodomite therefore appears to be inextricably linked to the circulation of print within the literary and cosmopolitan circles of the seventeenth century. Far from accepting his reputation passively, Dassoucy responded to his critics by publishing his own “adventures” mixing prose with derision. It is through literature that Dassoucy found a way to engage in an attempt at re-establishing his own reputation.
We cannot but praise this issue devoted to the notion of reputation, notably since it offers an excellent introduction to the concept in the French language. However, its lack of dialogue with Anglo-Saxon scholarship is certainly regrettable. In the United Kingdom, Reputation Studies are an institutionalized discipline. (See, among others, the works of Charles J. Fombrun: Reputation. Realizing Value from the Corporate Image, Harvard Business School Press, 1996; also worth a mention is the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation.) Moreover, while it is understood that reputation can be measured socially, a deeper analysis of the ways through which reputation can be measured – through an analysis of networks, for example – would have been appreciated. But this probably exceeds the objectives of this issue which succeeds remarkably at disenchanting reputation.
Gloria Origgi (ed.): La réputation
(=Communications, No. 93)
ISBN: 978-2-02-111779-0
Price: EUR16.00
Centre Edgar-Morin, Paris 2013, 222 pages, Softcover
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