Human Worth: The Social Logic of Valuation in the History of Slavery and Beyond

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
David STRECKER, University of Frankfurt, Germany
Economic sociology has opposed mainstream economics by highlighting the social preconditions of economic transactions. Far from being confined to analyzing how factors like personal interactions, traditions, institutions etc. influence the value formation of economic goods, this research has drawn attention to how social phenomena are commodified in the first place. The focus on understanding contemporary markets and the marketization of contemporary society, however, e.g. of death and of sex, has led to a concentration on legal markets. In order to better understand illegal markets and, moreover, to overcome the focus on markets which perpetuates the dichotomy between the social and the economic (by simply looking at their interrelations instead of questioning how such a separation became imagineable and was able to take institutional form at all), this paper presents a historical analysis of a good which has become excluded from formal market transaction: the human being.

For most of human history, conceiving of (some) humans only in terms of instrumental value (usually economic utility, often marketability) presented no conceptual problems to societies. Slavery dates back to early civilizations and only began to be challenged broadly in the late 18th century. An analysis of four different historical constellations shows that slavery rests on an underlying logic of status assignment (belonging to a specific type of ethical community); the respective processes of social valuation allow for humans to be understood only in terms of economic value. Sketching the cultural and institutional structures of status assignment in ancient Greece, at the beginning of transatlatic slavery (the Valladolid debate), during abolition and for contemporary world society, this analysis lends insight into the relation of the social and the economic as well as the functioning of illegal markets in general and specifically the persistance of slavery and the value of body capital today.