“The moral self of bankers and brokers”

A recent article in American Sociological Review looks at how some bankers and brokers were able to help lead the country toward recession:

Those bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose actions helped cause the recession were able to act as they did, seemingly without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, said Jan E. Stets, a sociologist with the University of California in Riverside.
“To the extent that others verify or confirm the meanings set by a person’s identity standard and expressed in a person’s behavior, the more the person will continue to engage in these behaviors,” said Stets, co-author of “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality” in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. “If others have a low moral identity and do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from a person’s identity standard, then the person will continue to do what he or she is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”
Studying the moral self is opportune given the practices of bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose behavior, in some cases, helped facilitate the recent recession in the United States, said Stets and fellow researcher Michael J. Carter of California State University at Northridge.
“The fact that a few greedy actors have the potential to damage the lives of many brings issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust to public awareness,” they said. “To understand the illicit behavior of some, we need to study the moral dimension of the self and what makes some individuals more dishonest than others.”

This sounds like a good illustration of some basic sociological principles: personal aspects of the self can be heavily influenced by their context. Humans have agency but their options are constrained and influenced by the social environment in which they find themselves.

Here is what I wonder: can regulations alone successfully promote a higher personal identity standard?

Another question: are Americans angry/distraught/upset about moral lapses from individual actors within the financial industry or with the entire system? In other words, do Americans blame the context or the bad actors? In thinking about this, do most Americans even know who the main individuals involved in the economic recession are (beyond government officials)?

What to do with a sociology PhD: become the father of the hedge fund

A common question arises regarding sociology degrees: what can you do with that? The man behind the hedge fund, Alfred Winslow Jones, held a sociology PhD from Columbia University before going on to becoming a financial writer and inventor:

In fact, by the time the article hit the newsstands, Jones was already well in the process of setting up his own investment firm, A. W. Jones & Co. While reporting on the latest investment strategies, Jones had begun to contemplate a new approach, one that would include selling short some stocks in a portfolio as a way to protect against the market’s uncertainties.

Such a portfolio, Jones would explain to his investors, was a “hedged” fund..

In 1941, Jones received a sociology doctorate from Columbia University. For his research, he interviewed 1,705 residents of Akron, Ohio about their attitudes toward corporations and property. He found that, despite local labor unrest and political tensions, Akron was not divided rigidly along class lines. His dissertation was published as a book titled Life, Liberty, and Property, which became a much-used text in sociology circles…

Landau highlighted Jones as the man who had started this trend, noting however that the sociology Ph.D. “actually seems to be more interested in things other than finance,” including finding self-improvement alternatives to welfare and organizing a Reverse Peace Corps to bring foreigners to work with poor Americans. Jones was quoted complaining that “too many men don’t want to do something after they make money.” Many of Jones’s early investors, Landau wrote, were scholars, social workers and others whom Jones had met over the years and was trying to free from financial concerns.

Sounds like an interesting life. It would be fascinating to hear Jones talk about how his PhD in sociology helped push him toward his financial inventions and actions. Was it something about the way sociology views the world that helped him develop the idea of the “hedged fund”? Perhaps sociology gave him some unique insights into the operation of economic markets. Additionally, it sounds like Jones had some sociological thoughts about what one should do with an accumulated fortune: it should be put toward new social ideas and goals.