Markets, Morals, and Practices of Trade

Michel Anteby, Harvard University, published “Markets, Morals, and Practices of Trade: Jurisdictional Disputes in the U.S. Commerce in Cadavers” in the December 2010 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. Professor Anteby kindly provided the following thoughts on his article.

Who is the target audience for this article?

The study is of interest to anyone who cares about morals and markets. Most of us are faced on a regular basis with purchasing choices that might seem routine yet are also deeply rooted in moral frameworks. The study’s setting (i.e., commerce in human cadavers) might seem extreme, yet its findings apply to more mundane contexts as well. While I don’t expect readers to be faced with a decision to acquire a cadaver any time soon, I do hope that they will revisit the ways they engage in commerce.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Before talking about the findings, let me just pause on the setting: I honestly did not expect to find such a vibrant legal commerce in human cadavers in the United States. Most importantly and regarding the findings, I had not considered the ways by which markets are legitimized before engaging in this study. I assumed that the product (or category of traded goods) was the main driver of legitimacy, but I was wrong. The study shows that – holding the product constant (here, cadavers) – practices of trades play a crucial role in building market legitimacy. How trades are conducted (not only what is traded) matters immensely.

How do you see this study influencing future practice?

My hope is that this study will start a dialogue on the morality of markets and the role of professions in constructing such morality. On the surface, it’s easy to pit on side against the other and paint heroes and villains. After gaining a better understanding of a given market, one often needs to revisit such views. I encourage readers to go through the article and ask themselves what should be done. There are no easy answers. As scholars, I believe our key role is to enable more reflexive future practice by generating doubt and often uncomfortable questions.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

My work tends to focus on organizational and occupational cultures. I study, in particular, how meaning is built at work and how moral orders are sustained. I pursue these questions in a variety of settings (e.g., factories and medical schools) and through the lens of diverse occupations (e.g., craftsmen and clinical anatomists). In the past, however, my research had been confined to small group dynamics (c.f., my 2008 book, Moral Gray Zones) and did not explore more macro dynamics. With this new study on commerce in cadavers, I was able to bridge the micro/macro divide by examining multi-level dynamics. 

How did your paper change during the review process?

The paper dramatically improved in the review process. It’s core findings were fairly stable across the revisions, but the framing evolved considerably. Like in most inductive research, the hardest part in nailing a contribution is finding a good “dress” (or a theoretical home) that suits the core data. The editor and reviewers proved very helpful in suggesting, without imposing, possible homes. 

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

I wish I had first observed or enrolled in an anatomy class to better understand the work being performed. While I did spend time observing some of the programs I describe, I wish I had been more knowledgeable upfront about some technical matters. Second, I wish I had further expanded the scope of my data collection beyond New York State. In other states such as Florida or Arizona with perhaps large populations of retirees, whole body donation programs are fairly active recruiting future donors. These states constitute even more extreme cases to study morals and markets.

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