Getting Your APSA Preconference On: The Politics of Markets

2 September 2015, 1827 EDT

I just got out of a half-day APSA pre-conference short course on the politics of markets, firms, and interest groups organized by the sociologist Edward Walker and political scientist Patty Strach. Having attended Thad Dunning’s short course on natural experiments in the past, I think there is a lot to be said for alternative formats to the traditional panel of papers and discussants. This morning, 9 panelists each reflected on a common set of questions with two discussants, Ed and David Vogel, weighing in on our remarks.

Fellow panelists including a number of folks who study American politics and business interest groups (Alex Hertel-Fernandez, Benjamin Schneer, Leah Stokes), but we also had a healthy contingent of people who study the comparative politics of states and markets (Graham WilsonTasha Fairfield, Alison Post). Others are exploring the private politics of corporate social responsibility (Tim Werner). While most of us were political scientists, some had appointments in business schools (Tim Werner, Tricia Olsen). The organizers did a good job mixing people at different levels of seniority and disciplinary focus and methodological practices, though I might have been the only straight-up IR person of the bunch.

For what it is worth, I thought I’d share my remarks on transnational social movements and markets, which reflects my sense of the state of the literature and  important questions that should be asked going forward. These remarks are informed by my experience writing my previous book, AIDS Drugs for All,  with Ethan Kapstein on AIDS treatment advocacy and market transformations. Since that book came out in 2013, we’ve been been refining and distilling further our work on social movements and markets in a piece that is wending its way through the review process.

In advance of today’s session, we were asked to address a number of questions so I hope in my brief remarks, I can weave in answers to all six of them. I come at this subject matter having written two books on transnational social movements so that might be an idiosyncratic perspective on markets and interest groups. The first book dealt with states and IGOs as the primary targets of movement influence. In 2013, I published a book with Ethan Kapstein on the global AIDS treatment movement and the conditions that allowed it to succeed in changing the market for anti-retroviral drugs. While states and IGOs are still central to the story, the focus of inquiry is on market outcomes. And, though that argument is mostly an elaboration of a single case, we developed our theory in reference to other cases. Chapter 7 has a comparative dimension where we apply our argument to other cases where movements have sought to change markets.


We were asked first off to address what are the key questions the motivate the study of the politics of markets. The first one is: how does the study of politics and markets differ from the traditional study of markets? When we integrate political considerations in to the study of market outcomes, are we doing something more than examining the role of regulation and interest group lobbying on market rules and outcomes? That sounds like familiar work in IPE. Or, are we interested in efforts by interest groups to shape market outcomes directly less mediated by political actors through naming and shaming campaigns or through more cooperative labeling and certification schemes?

A second related question is how do we understand where markets start and end, what are the boundaries of markets where the public sphere begins? Do we define markets merely in terms of a paradigmatic space where private actors come together to buy and sell products? Given the heavy role of the state in market activities, how meaningful is such a definition?

When I first read the question that Edward circulated, I took this question to mean what are people studying now. My sense from is that people are mostly studying questions related to firm targeting and vulnerability, what kinds of firms are targeted or respond to interest group demands. Here I’m thinking of work by Brayden King, David Baron, Sarah Soule, Charles Eesley, Michael Lenox.



In terms of what they should be studying, Ethan and I have a piece under review at the moment that suggests that, harkening back to work from Rachel Schurman, that people should be studying (1) SECTORAL VULNERABILITY – What sectors are most susceptible to advocacy influence. We suggest that examining market structure in a given sector may help us understand differences in social movement influence. This raises further questions whether market power facilitates or impedes advocacy influence? We can think of market power as an impediment to market transformation if actors oppose advocates demands but fragmented markets are a heavier lift from a collective action perspective.

A second area of productive study is a (2) COMPARATIVE STUDIES OF STATE-MARKET relations in different country contexts.  In the climate change arena, we have increasingly come to appreciate that a handful of countries are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and that mitigating emissions is ultimately contingent on action by those key actors, namely China, India, the United States, Europe, and a handful of other polities. How states relate to market actors varies considerably between those countries and even between sectors within countries.

A third question that ought to be pursued in my view is (3) VARIATION IN MARKET INTEGRATION. Some markets are more globally integrated than others Petroleum is a global commodity while natural gas is fragmented in to more regional and local markets. How does variation in the degree of global market integration affect the influence of interest groups on market actors and outcomes?

(4) A fourth question that merits more study is related to classic debates on (4) AGENCY VS. STRUCTURE. How much does market structure versus interest group agency matter in explaining outcomes in particular cases? My recent work on social movements and markets takes market structure as a barrier that shapes/influences the scope for advocacy, but more could be done to assess how much agency actors possess relative to structural constraints and incentives.

(5) A fifth area for future study is understanding (5) COMPETITIVE INTEREST GROUP ACTIVITY.  Who wins in battles between competing interest groups over contested markets? Do monied interests always win? If not, under what conditions do other interests, such as morally motivated interest groups, get what they want?


We were also asked to reflect on what theoretical approaches you find most fruitful. I’m not sure if I’ve fulled mined the literature in this space. I found the sociology literature on social movements quite useful including work by Neil Fligstein and Tim Bartley. I really like the work on collective action and public goods provision from Todd Sandler and Scott Barrett, which has helped inform my views on the importance of problem structure.


I also find the work on transnational advocacy movements is relevant, namely work by Susan Sell. A number of German scholars are writing on private environmental governance such as Klaus Dingwerth and Philip Pattberg that though largely descriptive is clarifying and helps in developing a taxonomy of what groups are trying to do in this space.

In discrete substantive areas, I’ve found issue-specific work to be really helpful such as Anne Roemer Mahler’s work on the politics of drug markets and Brenda Waning’s research on the structure of global pharmaceutical production. Ken Shadlen’s work on pharma is also relevant. In the climate case, I find pieces of what I’m looking for, but few authors put them together so you end up drawing from IEA documents, economists, and others to draw inferences.


As for methods I’ve found most promising, some is pretty theoretical without rich empirics, in part possibly a function of data availability. We’ve employed case studies and elite interviews with success. I really enjoyed talking with Yusuf Hamied, the former CEO of the India pharmaceutical giant Cipla. I had a number of cell phone conversations with Indian and South Africa pharma companies, AIDS campaigners, the Clinton Foundation, and also did field work in South Africa and Switzerland for this last project. Talking with market actors and those trying to shape market outcomes is really helpful to get a feel for how markets are nurtured, structured and shaped by government policy and interest group influence.

I’ve seen a few efforts like King and Soule’s work which has a large N basis to assess the effects of protests on stock prices, or David Baron who has sought to formally model interest group and market outcomes. I’ve got a new project on consumer demand for ivory in China and here, I’m a big fan of experimental work and public opinion surveys that seeks to identify what messages people find persuasive that might shift consumptive behavior and market outcomes.


From this experience examining the politics of markets, one lesson I learned is that there is some confusion about the subject matter, if we are studying interest groups attempting to affect market outcomes directly (so-called private governance arrangements or private politics) or are we studying interest group influence on market processes mediated by states, IGOs. The piece I have under review embraces the latter approach but reviewers were initially confused and thought we were only studying private politics and market actors as the targets of movement influence. For that reason, I realized that I had to be a bit more careful when trying to specify what our contribution was.

One of the other lessons I’ve learned and am still learning is that it is a real challenge to find a relevant literature, particularly on market structure and political influence. I found a fair amount of work in economics on say industry concentration and the Herfindahl index but not so much connecting that to politics. That’s why I was so excited to get the invitation to this pre-conference event because I’m not sure if I yet have a community of scholars to engage with on a regular basis on this subject matter.


This raises a number of related concerns about obstacles to doing more work in this space. Unlike other subfields such as conflict studies and studies where there is a more readily identifiable universe of cases that can be defined, I think this space is really in its early stages of developing large N datasets that one could use to assess broader cross-case comparisons. Is there a unit of analysis that would be meaningful, firm-specific shame attempts? Social movement campaigns that are run? I’m sure there will be some creative work going forward, but the mechanics of building datasets of interest groups and markets eludes me at the moment.

A related issue is one of data availability. My book with Ethan Kapstein was financed by a grant from the Merck Foundation, who mercifully was very hands off and allowed us to write a book that I think was both fair and critical of the IP regime that initially limited access to medicines in the developing world. While we had access to some archival material from Merck, the process for getting approval of any material was such that we ultimately didn’t pursue it. Companies in general may be reluctant to share information. While we found that generic drug companies were generally happy to get their story out, as you move in to more controversial areas where companies self-image and reputation are at stake and where there may be a whiff of scandal, and if the issues are still live, company figures may be reluctant to go on the record.

It’s also difficult to independently verify some of their claims since the information might be based on proprietary information or data that requires really expensive subscription fees on market share, sales, and prices. And,  you almost have to become an expert in these fields to understand how they operate, which is really a challenge if you are trying to do cross-sectoral comparisons between say energy and pharmaceuticals.

Another obstacle we have found, which may be as relevant to thinking about lessons learned, is cross-case comparison. The piece I currently have under review compares/contrasts climate and AIDS advocacy. We make a strong case for why the two cases are worth of comparison, even though they are so different. The relevant differences we suggest partially explain differential success by AIDS campaigners in contrast to relative failure by climate campaigners. Reviewers had a lot of trouble accepting that these kinds of cross-case comparisons could be made. They see comparisons of apples and oranges rather than different kinds of fruit. We’ve also had some pushback from people who see our efforts to study market outcomes and universal access to education as indicative of market phenomena since so much of education is a public responsibility. That gets back to the boundaries of markets and the public sphere I alluded to earlier.