I study the social world, including the economy, and think about how it could work differently. I am interested in new kinds of political thinking, oriented to human flourishing: sufficiently radical to discard the economic structures that have warped our societies away from serving people and our planet, but sufficiently realistic to develop practical alternatives a step at a time.
My most recent book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, argues that although prevailing approaches to the economy fail to look beyond the market, we are in fact surrounded by a broad range of non-market and non-capitalist economic forms. The existing approaches are incapable of making sense of this range of alternative economic forms. In their place, the book proposes a new framework for analysing diverse economic systems, in which each different economic form is analysed as a complex of practices and these forms interact to produce systematic effects. The framework is then used to analyse a number of iconic cases in the contemporary digital economy: Apple, Wikipedia, Google, Facebook and YouTube. The book advocates not only an explanatory but also a normative programme, arguing that we can move towards a better economy by shifting the mix of economic practices, rather than simply accepting the system we have or placing our hopes in revolutionary upheavals.
I have recently finished the manuscript of a new book that investigates how value is established in the financial sector. Neither the mainstream theory of supply and demand, nor the Marxist theory of value, address the key drivers of financial value: the discourses, conventions and institutions that are used to construct expectations of future revenue from financial assets, and the ways in which these are used to construct asset circles – groups of social actors willing to invest. Once we recognise that these discourses and institutions could be constructed differently, we must question the validity of the values that are currently being ascribed to financial assets.
In the longer term I also plan to write about the role and determination of profit in our current economic system. Again, neither of the prevailing approaches gets to grips with profit as a real phenomenon, with the neoclassicals treating it as a residual outcome of market activities and the Marxists as a misrecognition of surplus value. But profit has become manipulable in ways that overflow our traditional understandings of it and undermine its privileged position as an object of economic policy.
My earlier writing was more concerned with social ontology, taking a critical realist approach and asking what kinds of entity are causally influential in the social world and how it might be possible for them to have emergent causal powers. The Causal Power of Social Structures addresses both the general theory of emergence and its application to the sociological concepts of social structure and human agency. In related publications I have discussed the implications of emergence for critical realism, for the theory of structure and agency, and for the philosophy and methodology of the social sciences.
My 2012 book The Reality of Social Construction examines the ontology of language, discourse, culture and knowledge. This provides a basis for explaining how they can contribute to constructing our social reality and hence for a synthesis of realism and constructionism. The book goes on to use this ontological analysis to evaluate the potential of some specific constructionist arguments, including claims for the social construction of institutions, categories, subjects and reality itself. In the process it engages critically with the work of a wide range of important thinkers, including Margaret Archer, John Searle, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Judith Butler.
My current ontological interests are focused on the possibility that critical realism and assemblage theory could both benefit by being brought into a fuller dialogue with each other. I have published constructive criticisms of actor-network theory and coauthored a recent paper with Tim Rutzou that develops a dialogue with Deleuze’s and DeLanda’s versions of assemblage theory.
I am an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University, where I taught sociology and an MA module on Digital Economies until 2020.