Markets in Asia have in recent years undergone substantial transformations through a variety of economic liberalization policies as well as an increased tightening of global links. Viewed from the perspective of market participants, however, the most fundamental changes in the operation of markets relate less to concerns over privatization and de-regulation across economic sectors, but to regimes of communicating information, of managing trust and obligation, and of coping with as well as circumventing regulatory regimes whether imposed by the state or large corporate entities. These affect markets as much in their spatial coordinates and everyday business procedures and habits.
Market participants in Asia have been able to cope with rapid change by developing new—and adjusting traditional—moral discourses, thereby containing risks, securing trust, and maintaining information flows among the market participants. At the same time, market-based moralities have remained fluid in ways that have helped in sustaining shared ideas of belonging as well as of relative fairness in exchange.
Understanding markets as orders of communication allows us to enlarge the scope of our analysis from the ways of market governance and regulatory regimes to the field of perceived equity in exchange. Perceptions of equity impact the “rules” of conducting business in exchange relations – including informal ways of governing or managing markets – by establishing reputations for market participants. In everyday market practice, the maintenance of a market participant’s reputation and the perceptions woven around the reputation of the goods and services to be exchanged often remain highly interconnected.
Many studies of markets assume uniformity in the behavioral codes of market participants, yet an emphasis on the semiotics of markets – including the semiotics of gender, class, and other social categories – clearly diminishes the analytical value of approaches that do not foreground the experiential embedment of market participation. The panel discusses different kinds of markets, ranging from public to privately-owned marketplaces to shopping malls, as (asymmetrical) informational and communication orders, centering on a fluid web of perceptions of equity and judgments of reputation that are fundamental to the maintenance and elaboration of closely interconnected moral discourses on trust, obligation, and equity. Based on rich ethnographic work, the contributors of the panel seek to address these issues through locality-centered case studies spanning various regions of Asia and with a clear understanding of their historicity in the wake of the socio-cultural and economic processes comprising ‘Asian modernities’.