Moral Technologies of Market Construction: Multinational Firms in the Indian Bazaar

India FDI Retail WalMart-Bharti Protest

(co-authored with Amy Cohen, Ohio State University)


This paper analyzes debates over legal rules and regulatory policies governing foreign direct investment (FDI) and multinational entry into retail food supply chains in India. It argues that political and economic elites deploy competing conceptions of ‘technology’ in order to rationalize and justify new regulations allowing greater participation of multinational firms such as Wal-Mart in Indian food markets. Proponents argue that foreign firms will bring sophisticated supply chain management technologies that will rationalize and modernize the retail food sector thus generating broad based consumer welfare benefits by delivering higher quality foods at lower prices. However, the paper suggests that this deployment of ‘technology’ is less about improving the technical ‘efficiency’ of India’s largely informal retail food supply chains and more about radically reorganizing the sector by replacing historically delegitimized ‘traditional’ small-scale Indian traders and middle-men with ‘modern’ large scale foreign and domestic capital in an increasingly liberal Indian political economy. Thus we argue that the stakes are less about simply adopting new sets of supply chain management techniques but rather the fundamental reorganization of commodity markets and relations of exchange by establishing new moral hierarchies of market participants. Not only does this reflect the well-established view that ‘states construct markets’ in the literature on the sociology of markets, it further suggests that the success of the liberal state-building project depends on the creation markets that can be governed through the formal rules of property and contract. The paper draws on extensive field research in India to offer a fresh perspective on the sociology and politics of market construction.

This paper is co-authored with Amy Cohen (Ohio State University). It has been presented at the American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting (Economic Sociology Roundtable), August 2014; the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) Annual Meeting, July 2014; Harvard Law School IGLP Conference on Corporate Power, June 2014; and the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting May 2014. It is currently under review.

A second paper entitled “From Rights as Juridical Claims to Supply Chain Logistics: Some Notes on the Right to Food and Food Retail Liberalization in India” has been prepared for publication in The Future of Economic and Social Rights (edited by Katharine G. Young, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)”. A draft of that paper is available on SSRN.