Immoral Business? Perspectives on Speculation, Speculators, and Scandalous Profits

Immoral Business? Perspectives on Speculation, Speculators, and Scandalous Profits

Cornelia Rauh / Karl Christian Führer / Kim Christian Priemel
Leibniz University Hanover
Vom - Bis
25.01.2013 - 27.01.2013
Karl Christian Führer, Cornelia Rauh, Kim Christian Priemel

Scholars are invited to submit proposals for original papers to be presented at an interdisciplinary conference in Hanover, Germany, in January 2013. The conference will explore how economic actions come to be labelled as “speculation” in different societies and in diverse historical periods. It will specifically address questions such as how speculative trading was and is operated, how states and societies react to the phenomenon of “speculation”, and how the incurred profits or losses are publically assessed.

The basic definition of economic speculation appears to be innocent enough: speculators anticipate changes in prices for certain goods and try to take advantage of these up- or downswings. While such deals may well be regarded as one of the most common traits of any market economy, speculation has often – and most prominently in the recent financial crisis – become a widely applied and easily understood pejorative term in political discussions. More often than not it is used in a moralistic discourse and as a synonym for “greed,” “irresponsibility,” or “recklessness”.

Defence of speculation is rare and hardly part of topical debates. However, economists, including free-market sceptics such as Paul Krugman, have frequently argued that even high-risk speculations intended to disrupt the exchange rates of currencies can have positive, if unintended economic effects. More generally, speculation is often seen as a mechanism by which technical innovations are financed and the allocation of goods and resources is optimised. In some, albeit few cases, moral counter-arguments have been advanced: from a radical free-market perspective speculation can and historically has been presented as a form of “superior individual freedom” and accordingly as an essential element of any free society.

Papers presented in the conference should not aim to decide these political and ideological feuds (although they might wish to side with one or the other). Instead they should make these perceptions of and perspectives on economic speculation and speculators the very object of their analysis. As markets do not evolve according to eternal, quasi-mechanical rules but are culturally coded and socially negotiated, economic actions take place in a social context which is shaped and influenced by human perceptions, emotions, knowledge, and beliefs – and thus liable to changes, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Profit-seeking individuals therefore do not act as (more or less well but certainly not perfectly informed) agents of static economic laws, but as members of social formations which vary significantly in time and space.

Speculation thus offers an excellent example to study economy as a historically contingent, socially constructed field of action. Its highly contested character clearly derives from a wide range of social interactions encompassing not only business protagonists (traders, brokers, shareholders, bankers, et al), but also politicians and state officials engaged in regulatory efforts as well as other stakeholders such as labour representatives, scholars, the lay public, and the media. As such, speculation offers a rich field for interdisciplinary and comparative studies. The conference, we hope, will be joined not only by historians and economists, but also by participants from Sociology, Anthropology, Theology, Criminology, and Media and Cultural Studies. Both papers on historical cases of speculation and on recent developments are welcome; internationally comparative presentations are especially encouraged. Participants should be prepared to give a 20 minutes presentation at the conference followed by discussion.

Questions to be addressed in the papers may include:
Which forms of “speculation” can be distinguished? Under what circumstances is speculation regarded as functional or as disruptive both in economic and in social terms?

What are the differences between “speculators” and “ordinary” economic agents? Do the notions of “greed” and of “undeserved profits” necessarily form part of debates about speculation and speculators? Or is speculation only scandalized once it has failed? Can greed, as Gordon Gecko has it, be good?

In what way are speculation and its protagonists perceived by the general public of his or her time? Is there a public image of “the speculator” and – if so –who shapes that image at different times, in different places, and by what means? Is speculation a topic in high-brow art, the popular arts, and/or the media? Do economic actors conceive of themselves as speculators?

Which efforts have public authorities historically made to prevent or check “speculation” and with what results? Are such policies tied to notions of a “moral economy” meant to control profits and self-interest for the sake of the “common good”?

Please send an abstract of your paper (150–200 words) along with a brief CV (one page at the most) to by December 31, 2011. All submissions should be sent as e-mail attachments (Word , Rtf, Pdf). At the moment, reimbursement of travel expanses cannot be guaranteed. However, we are optimistic that funding will be provided. There will be no conference fees.



Cornelia Rauh

Historisches Seminar, Leibniz-Universität Hannover