The Bank of Sweden (Not Nobel) Prize in Economics: An Exercise in Expropriating Symbolic Capital

Yves Gingras in openDemocracy:

I am arguing here that this prize [the Nobel prize in economics] does not exist: and moreover, that this so-called ‘Nobel prize’ is an extraordinary case study in the successful transformation of economic capital into symbolic capital, a transformation which greatly inflates the symbolic power of the discipline of Economics in the public mind.

The confusion can be traced back to 1968 when the governor of the Central Bank of Sweden decided to mark the tercentenary of that institution by creating a new award. It could have been named after a well-known ancestral economist, such as Adam Smith, or more simply, though unimaginatively, ‘The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics’. After all, every discipline has its own ‘prestigious’ prize. Their number grows every year. However, the problem is that all these prizes, though well known within the microcosms of their discipline, have little public appeal. Only the Nobel prizes have a real public impact. But they are limited to five fields: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature and, finally, peace.

Moreover, the enormous symbolic capital of the very name ‘Nobel prize’ has been accumulated over the years by a careful selection of prizewinners. Like every new prize, by definition unknown, the Nobel faced the problem of what we can call (invoking Pierre Bourdieu’s apt concept) the ‘primitive accumulation of symbolic capital’. This obstacle was overcome by giving the prize early on to already renowned scientists who would bring the prize real credibility. The idea was that, over the years, this symbolic capital would surely accrue to such an extent that it could in turn bring recognition to the chosen winners.

The organisers, conscious of this conundrum and wishing to endow the discipline of economics with as much public credibility as possible, decided to call the prize: ‘The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’. Curiously then, it was the memory of Nobel, not that of an economist, that was being recalled. This mystery can be explained if we unpack the process crystallised in that bizarre and awkward name.