Illicit markets as ontological and epistemological technologies

There’s been much referencing to techno-social hybrids and as with anything else the term can lose its specificity as it becomes used to refer to any novel combination or arrangement of technologies. Almost any technology we encounter is a combination of other systems so if we are not to just use the term to identify novelty we need to understand hybridity as a process that reaches across ontological boundaries. Markets are very effective hybridising systems that connect, automate, flatten and rationalise. Classical economics seeks to treat the market as an abstract whole, while sociology looks at how it is encountered as a material, cultural entity. There are different markets overlaying each other. There is the abstract market as a set of operating concepts. There is the material market as the connected set of different exchanges which may not be directly in touch with each other. Finally there is the material implementation of specific market contexts, whether a street market, or a darknet cryptomarket.

For a long time, researchers, policymakers and law enforcement have referred to ‘the drug market’ as a generic term for aggregated global drug production, trafficking and distribution systems. This approach is useful as it allows us to understand how disparate individuals and places are connected without an organised or cartel arrangement being at work. It cannot be left at that though as markets create and normalise effects that are specific to them. Mirroring developments in capitalist societies, I recently observed the emergence of what might be called conscious markets, where drug dealers and buyers have a distinct understanding of themselves as operating within and according to market principles – seeing themselves as and expected to behave as service providers and consumers. That has implications for drug normalisation, access, pricing, quality, product diversity and availability. There is also a growing acknowledgment of the disruptive potential of technologies – notably the digital – to transform illicit drug markets and future use patterns.

In a straightforward sense all markets involve technologies. An accounting book is a technology. Even if these are not tangible, they exist and have effects: adding and subtracting mentally is a technology, amortising debt is a technology. Technologies channel, reproduce and extend human capacities. In another sense, markets conduct specific technological functions, epistemological and ontological.

Markets work as as epistemological devices. They construct drug quality, assign value to labour and risk. They assemble knowledge from different sources and also destroy or fragment some kinds of knowledge. Epistemology shades into ontology. They define illicit drug quality in specific terms that can be measured, and as they can be measured, that becomes the definition of the object. They distributed drug testing techniques and in so doing make only those qualities ‘speakable’.

They also work as ontological devices. The growing availability of a range of drugs at the same source promotes a psychoactive repertoire. That is where users incorporate a range of substances for specific context based effects. They define some use types and users as rational consumption, and others as deviant ‘rubbish’ consumers. Defining and using debt according to these principles is a technology. Strategic pricing is another approach used by many dealers. Some maintain high prices in order to show their product as a Veblen good – reassuringly expensive. Others keep prices stable in order to maintain their client base or market position. Price therefore is another ontological entity which does not necessarily signify the harmony of supply and demand. The hybrid therefore is a system that combines different logics to create new ontological configurations. Pricing as as a data surveillance technique is a hybrid, combining market intelligence and surveillance/disciplinary logics.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email Tweet @angusbancroft

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