In this landmark work of economic sociology, Lucien Karpik introduces the theory and practical tools needed to analyze markets for singularities. Singularities are goods and services that cannot be studied by standard methods because they are multidimensional, incommensurable, and of uncertain quality. Examples include movies, novels, music, artwork, fine wine, lawyers, and doctors. Valuing the Unique provides a theoretical framework to explain this important class of products and markets that for so long have eluded neoclassical economics.
With this innovative theory — called the economics of singularities — Karpik shows that, because of the uncertainty and the highly subjective valuation of singularities, these markets are necessarily equipped with what he calls “judgment devices” — such as labels, brands, guides, critics, and rankings — which provide consumers with the credible knowledge needed to make reasonable choices. He explains why these markets are characterized by the primacy of competition by qualities over competition by prices, and he identifies the conditions under which singularities are constructed or are in danger of losing their uniqueness.
After demonstrating how combinations of the numerous and multiform judgment devices can be used to identify different market models, Karpik applies his analytical tools to the functioning of a large number of actual markets, including fine wines, movies, luxury goods, pop music, and legal services.
Lucien Karpik is a sociologist at the École des Mines and the Centre Raymond Aron (EHESS) in Paris. His books include French Lawyers: A Study in Collective Action, 1274-1994 and, with Terence C. Halliday and Malcolm M. Feeley, Fighting for Political Freedom: Comparative Studies of the Legal Complex and Political Liberalism.
"[T]his is an admirable book. It is theoretically rich, illustrated with many, many fascinating examples of real markets, and a wonderful read for all interested in how markets really work."—John L. Campbell, Administrative Science Quarterly
"Given the relative scarcity of theoretical models in economic anthropology in the last decade, anthropologists should not simply discard this very ambitious, empirically grounded model of markets of singular products. Taking into account the abundant anthropological literature on the production, circulation and consumption of singularities, it is puzzling and a bit troubling for economic anthropologists that the first theoretical synthesis on the topic comes from a sociologist. But working toward such synthesis is in itself already a great achievement of the book, one anthropologists would do well to emulate."—Marian Viorel Anastasoaie, Social Anthropology
"The reader will read this book for its precise and descriptive analysis of markets for which quality is multidimensional, incommensurable, and uncertain."—John Baffes, European Review of Agricultural Economics
"In demonstrating the role devices play in cases where markets are constructed against the odds—the book is an important contribution to economic sociology. In the best traditions of defamiliarisation, the book is also a beautiful book."—Monika Krause, European Economic Sociology Newsletter
"With his economics of singularities, Lucien Karpik has given researchers even more than a masterpiece of economic sociology. He introduces new methods, new concepts, and new results. He shows how the differences between markets are more important than their similarities, and how our approach to markets should deal first and foremost with qualities. This book puts economics back on the road toward generality!"—Olivier Favereau, Université Paris X and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
"Valuing the Unique is an exciting foray onto new ground for economic sociology. In studying markets of singularities, Lucien Karpik provides a wealth of fascinating examples of judgment devices whereby we value goods and services that are incommensurable. A singular achievement!"—David Stark, author of The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life
"This is one of these rare books that reveals a new economic province. Far removed from the familiar domain of customary economics there lies the realm of singularities—goods and services for which the issue of quality lies beyond any question of price. By successfully integrating culture and market, and the politics of the market, Valuing the Unique has implications for general and theoretical sociology. It presents a most lively and useful read for those interested in the manner in which markets actually function."—Philippe Steiner, Université Paris-Sorbonne
"Valuing the Unique is the most important book to be published in economic sociology in many years. Karpik develops a full-fledged sociological alternative to understanding the problem of singularities, and offers conceptual breakthroughs that make hitherto puzzling issues much easier to comprehend. No debates on the issue of the valuation of goods will be able to ignore Karpik's theoretical contribution."—Jens Beckert, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies
"This is a wonderfully stimulating book—evocative, provocative, ambitious, and certain to spark debate. It poses important questions and offers new conceptual tools for economic sociology. There is a lot to think about here."—Bruce Carruthers, Northwestern University