Transactions of knowledge

Working with uncatalogued archival collections is hard and time-consuming to the point of despair. Occasionally, however, the historian finds rare empirical treasures – at least it can be treasures if scrutinized against the right analytical background. While researching the early Swedish history of credit cards, I encountered the documentation of a book project from the 1970s about the history of consumer credit. It was initiated by Erik Elinder (1912–1998), a charismatic entrepreneur and owner of the credit card company, who commissioned two economic historians from the University of Gothenburg. The book project, entitled “The right to credit”, exceeded by far the scope of conventional corporate history writing. Elinder aspired to rewrite the history of credit, offering a (neo)liberal reinterpretation, in order to change the prevalent negative ideological framing of consumer debt in society. In Sweden dominant views were still in the 1970s still shaped by the longstanding credit critical stance of the consumer cooperative movement and the likeminded social democratic consumer policy.

The archival material is uniquely rich and revealing, due to Erik Elinder’s exceptionally communicative disposition and to the fact that the records have not been reorganized or screened since. Therefore, I was able to follow the intricate and multidirectional exchanges of knowledge that occurred across the boundaries of the business world, university-based research and societal-political debates, which all operate according to different logics of value. Adding a new dimension to the well-known notion of boundary work (Gieryn 1999), I propose the concept of transactions of knowledge. My chapter illustrates its analytical use by unpacking the intricate negotiations over the symbolic and economic values, costs, and benefits of knowledge circulation. I trace the hybrid exchanges between a market order of worth and a scholarly order of worth that were in fact aiming to influence a civic/societal order of worth (Boltanski & Thévenot 1999/2006).

The book project had spin-off ventures including university students writing their thesis works on consumer credit-related topics proposed by Elinder and Elinder corresponding with international and Nordic scholars. Furthermore, the economic historians undertook a long study trip to the US, gathering “valuable” information for the business leader about the American credit card industry and spreading the word overseas about the Swedish company. Knowledge (in the shape of facts, stories and arguments) was thus exchanged between the United States and Sweden, between business representatives, university researchers, students, opinion leaders, journalists, consumer activists and even politicians. While the reinterpretation of consumer credit successively gained ground in society, the two economic historians found “the academic price” for the collaboration too high and quit the project. Clearly, the efforts of creating societal acceptance for consumer credit involved intricate transactions of knowledge that went beyond typical PR activities.

 

Orsi Husz

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