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Journal of Cultural Economy
ISSN: 1753-0350 (Print) 1753-0369 (Online) Journal homepage:
Senses and artifacts in market transactions: the
Korean case of agricultural produce auctions
Eun-Sung Kim
To cite this article: Eun-Sung Kim (2017) Senses and artifacts in market transactions: the
Korean case of agricultural produce auctions, Journal of Cultural Economy, 10:6, 524-540, DOI:
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Published online: 16 Oct 2017.
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Date: 27 October 2017, At: 04:36
VOL. 10, NO. 6, 524–540
Senses and artifacts in market transactions: the Korean case of
agricultural produce auctions
Eun-Sung Kim
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Department of Sociology, Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea
This article examines the relationship between the senses, artifacts, and
trade at South Korean agricultural produce auctions. It explores the
impacts of market devices on sensory interactions between auctioneers
and buyers that are essential to market transactions. Through
ethnographic interviews and participant observations at Garak Market,
Seoul, this study compares hand signal trading with electronic trading in
agricultural produce auctions. It analyzes how the senses affect auction
price estimation and formation, as well as their contribution to
economic agency and social relationship among economic actors. The
study then examines the impact of new market devices in electronic
trading (e.g. trading screens, computer monitors, and wireless bidding
terminals) on trading’s sensory aspects of seeing or hearing. It argues
that the devices change the modality of sensory interactions between
auctioneers and buyers. This transforms power struggles, forming a
looser but more equal relationship between auctioneers and buyers and
decreasing the overall auction price in the market.
Received 9 February 2017
Accepted 22 September 2017
Auction; senses; market
devices; power; performance;
agricultural produce
It is midnight. About 70 buyers are gathering around a mobile auction booth, where one auctioneer
is preparing for a fruit auction. As soon as he starts to spur bids with an incomprehensibly fast auction chant, buyers place bids using wireless bidding terminals (WBTs). On his computer monitor,
the auctioneer is staring at bidding prices, the ranking of which continues to change. When he
feels satisfied with the highest price among them, he pushes a button to knock down one round
of auction successfully. Then, a hammer price and the serial number of the successful buyer appear
on a trading screen over the auction booth. This scene represents the electronic trading of agricultural produce at Garak Market, the largest agricultural produce market in South Korea, with similar
auctions occurring throughout the night.
This research explores the roles of senses and artifacts in agricultural produce auctions, focusing
on the change from hand signal trading (i.e. open outcry trading) to electronic trading in agricultural
produce auctions. This change has been studied in the context of financial markets (Preda 2006,
2009a, Zaloom 2006, Saavedra et al. 2011, Borch et al. 2015).1 However, with the exception of the
flower and cotton trade (Çaliskan 2007, Çaliskan 2010, Özlem and Çaliskan 2010), it seems that little
research has been done on agricultural produce auctions. This is partially because auctions are dominant in Japan and Korea, while fixed-price or private treaty transactions are more prevalent in the
agricultural produce markets in Europe2 and the United States (Kwon 2009).
CONTACT Eun-Sung Kim
[email protected], [email protected]
Kyungheedae-ro, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul 02447, Korea
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Department of Sociology, Kyung Hee University, 26
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This research builds upon the sociology of the senses, which has explored the sensory dimension
of economy (Howes 2003, Howes and Classen 2014). Since Simmel (1921) coined the term in 1908,
this field has developed as a minority tradition in the realm of sociology. However, its interest
recently extended to economy, law, politics, and social movements (Ranciere 2004, Howes and Classen 2014, Kim 2016a, 2016b, Kim 2017). Sociologists of the senses have explored the relationship
between senses and economy through studies, for example, of sensory marketing (Dronbnick
2006, Bijsterveld et al. 2013, Howes and Classen 2014). Sensory analysis, however, should not be limited only to marketing, but should also be extended to the economy as a whole.
This research also draws on the work of scholars influenced by science and technology studies,
who have drawn attention to the roles of knowledge, nonhuman artifacts, and material settings in
markets (Callon 1998, Mackenzie and Millo 2003, Preda 2006, 2009a, 2009b, Zaloom 2006, Callon
et al. 2007, Mackenzie and Muniesa 2007, Mackenzie 2009, Muniesa 2014). This research takes into
account the sensory roles of market devices by analyzing how market devices affect sensory interactions between auctioneers and buyers that are central to market transactions. Moreover, this
research contributes to the ethnographic studies of auctions that stress social interactions and performances in market transactions, including talk and conversation or gestures, touch, and material
conduct (Smith 1990, Heath and Luff 2007, 2013, Heath 2013).
This study asks the following question: How are market transactions constituted by the senses and
new technical artifacts in an auction? I posit that, in agricultural produce auctions, power struggles
operate through the senses. Senses affect auction prices considerably. New market devices in electronic trading do not remove the sensory dependence of market transactions, but change the
modality of sensory interactions. This transforms power struggles, forming looser, more equal
relationships between auctioneers and buyers, thus decreasing the overall auction price in the
First, this article presents a conceptual framework for the sensory analysis of economy. Second,
I introduce background information about the Garak Market and the history of auctions, from
hand signal trading to electronic trading. Third, I examine the use of senses in assessing agricultural produce quality when estimating an auction price. Fourth, I address the difference between
hand signal and electronic trading on the change of sensory interactions and power. Fifth, I analyze the construction of buyers as sensory, social agents and the impacts of senses on the social
relationships between auctioneers and buyers. Lastly, I focus on the impact of senses and artifacts
on auction prices.
This research is based on in-depth interviews and participant observations at Garak Market
during 2016. I conducted 17 interviews between 30 minutes and 2 hours long with auctioneers
and buyers who have more than 20 years of experience at Garak Market. I chose them as my interviewees because they have experienced the transformation of auctions from hand signal trading to
electronic trading. Snowballing methods were used to contact my interviewees. I also conducted participant observations in order to watch the auction processes. Because one round of an auction
usually ends in less than 20 seconds, I was able to monitor many rounds of auctions. I paid attention
to the number, age, and gender of buyers, as well as the behavior of auctioneers and buyers in terms
of their sensory interactions, movement, and their positioning during auctions.
Conceptual framework
The sensory analysis of economy links sensory elements with the concepts of economic action, economic agency, and the market. First, it looks into the sensory dimension of economic action and conceptualizes economic action as sensory performance and interaction. Sensory performances are a
kind of ‘embodied action’ (Heath and Luff 2013, p. 295) and are heterogeneous in that they include
encounters between market actors and devices, as well as among market actors themselves. To analyze economic action, this study addresses visual and sonic interactions (i.e. eye contact and the auction chant), physical struggles (i.e. spatial competition among buyers), and other embodied actions
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(i.e. pushing WBT buttons). It particularly focuses on non-discursive corporeal performances, in
which the senses play crucial rules, such as eye contact and the rhythms of the auction chant.
Second, the sensory analysis of economy sheds light on sensory agency as a form of economic
agency. Economics does not address the sensory dimensions of economic agency. In neoclassical
economics, new institutional economics (Williamson 1981), and behavioral economics (Kahneman
and Tversky 1979), economic agency is perceived as rational, opportunistic, or altruistic, respectively. Economic sociologists have conceptualized economic agency in relation to either social institutions or networks of interpersonal relationships (Granovetter 1985, Dimaggio and Powell 1991,
Bourdieu 2005). Intriguingly, however, ANT proposes another understanding of relational agency
in terms of ‘socio-technical agencement’ (Callon 1998, Callon et al. 2007), the idea that the agency
of someone or something depends on their configurations in actor-networks. In this approach, market devices are often considered calculative agents, thereby enabling market actors to act as homo
economicus (Callon 1998). That being said, it is still necessary to determine how senses are handled
by the homo economicus performed by neoclassical economics, when this agency is underpinned and
sustained by market devices. As such, sensory analysis adds sensory elements to the notion of economic agency that economics and economic sociology have explored thus far. Like relational agency,
sensory agency is not a cause but an effect of sensory performance as economic action. While
acknowledging market devices as central to the production of relational agency, this study focuses
more on the sensory dimensions of human and nonhuman agency by analyzing how market devices
influence sensory interactions as a form of economic action.
Finally, there have been many different notions of the market in the history of economic sociology. According to Dobbin (2005), the market has been analyzed in three legacies: in terms of
power (e.g. Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu), institutions (e.g. Max Weber and Karl Polanyi), or networks
(e.g. Emile Durkheim, Mark Granovetter, Michel Callon). These legacies are not always independent.
Bourdieu (2005) combines notions of power and institution in the concept of the market as a ‘field’
where power struggles occur under an institutional structure favorable to a particular group. Çaliskan and Callon (2010) combine the notions of power, institution, and network in their concept of the
market as a ‘sociotechnical arrangement’ or ‘sociotechnical assemblages’. They argue that ‘a market is
an arrangement of heterogeneous constituents’ (p. 3) encompassing institutional, corporeal,
emotional, textual, and technical elements, among others (p. 21), and that ‘markets delimit and construct the space of confrontation and power struggles’ (p. 3). The sensory analysis of the economy
adds sensory elements to, or emphasizes the role of senses in, notions of the market as power
struggles or sociotechnical assemblages. This study particularly favors the notion of power struggles
as central to the market, examining how power operates through the senses in market settings and
how market devices affect the power struggles that occur in the form of sensory interactions.
In agricultural auction markets, power is performed through sensory interactions among humans
like auctioneers and buyers or between humans and market devices. The exercise of power is likely to
be affected by the difference in sensory interactions between hand signal trading and electronic
trading. In this particular case, power relates to who controls the sensory interactions through
which price information is delivered. Power thus results in information asymmetry among auctioneers and buyers in trading. However, senses not only convey price information but also perform
economic actions. Therefore, the way in which power works is more than informational – it is
both performative and corporeal in that it changes emotions and the physical and spatial performance of auctioneers and buyers. It works through non-discursive performances.
Sensory performance affects interpersonal relationships among auctioneers and buyers. Here, my
analysis is different from Granovetter’s (1985) work, which argues that economy is embedded in networks of interpersonal relations. His famous concept of embeddedness deals with relations without
analyzing the situated production of social interactions (Heath and Luff 2007, Heath 2013). Furthermore, this notion of embeddedness does not deal with sensory relationships and interactions; it is
more focused on trust than power in interpersonal relationships. In contrast, I will focus here on
sensory interactions and relationships, arguing that senses and artifacts play a key role in shaping
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such relationships in the marketplace. Moreover, I will address the change of power relationships
between auctioneers and buyers and among buyers in the wake of electronic trading at agricultural
What roles do market devices in electronic trading play with regard to the power that works
through sensory interactions? Market devices play crucial roles in mediating among market actors
(Çaliskan and Callon 2010) and changing their sensory interactions. As I show below, WBTs, trading
screens, and computer monitors intercept the eyes of auctioneers and buyers, thereby having an
impact on auctioneers’ power. As visual encounters between market actors and market devices
increase, auctioneers’ eye contact with buyers decreases, eventually decreasing their power. Given
the impact of market devices on power, they influence auction prices as well as interpersonal
relationships among market actors.
This research adds a sensory component to the ethnographic studies of valuation that focus on a
multiplicity of price types to facilitate market transactions (Çaliskan 2007). Here, in agricultural produce auctions, there are three types of auction prices: an estimated auction price, bid price, and hammer price (i.e. market price). The estimated auction price is set by auctioneers and buyers themselves
without negotiation in the pre-auction stage, while bid and hammer prices are produced through
bargaining between auctioneers and buyers in the actual auction. In addition, this research views
the senses as a fundamental element of valuation and analyzes how auction prices are shaped by
the senses. Regarding an estimated auction price, I consider sensory interactions between market
actors and agricultural products, and I probe into the impact of the senses and market devices on
auction prices when it comes to a bid and hammer price.
In electronic trading, the auction price is transmitted in the form of digital signals from WBTs to
computer monitors, and onto the trading screen. The auction price in the form of digital signals
appears to be disembodied compared to hand signals; yet even digital signals still have a sensory
element, because they are seen on trading screens by the naked eyes of auctioneers and buyers.
My point is here to emphasize the indivisibility of senses and commodity value, regardless of auction
price format. This idea draws on the insight of Howes (2003), who criticizes Marx’s (1867) concept of
capital for being disembodied, arguing that Marx sacrifices senses in pursuit of a scientific, objective,
and universal rule of economics, that is, to make commodities calculable and exchangeable. Of
course, according to Callon et al. (2007, p. 3), market devices can ‘render things economically commensurable and exchangeable’. That being said, it is important to ask: do market devices sacrifice the
senses while economizing things into commodities? This case study shows that market devices do
not remove the senses from price setting. Electronic trading is still rife with sensory interactions;
however, it modifies the mode of sensing essential to price setting.
Field site: Garak Market
Garak Market is South Korea’s largest agricultural produce market and its core wholesale distribution hub, responsible for distributing 50% of Seoul’s agricultural produce. In 1985, the market
was established as the first public wholesale trade market in an effort to modernize the distribution
of agricultural produce. Auctions take place in 12 buildings at the market, which is visited daily by
about 130,000 people and 42,000 automobiles; the daily monetary value of trading is approximately
US$9.36 million.3 There are about six wholesale fruit companies, including the Seoul Fruit and Vegetable Corporation, Nonghyup, Jong Ang Fruit and Vegetable Corporation, Dong Hwa Fruit and
Vegetable Corporation, Hankuk Fruit and Vegetable Corporation, and Dae-A Fruit and Vegetable
Corporation. In general, these companies take a 4% commission on hammer prices at the market.
Representing the interests of suppliers, auctioneers attempt to raise auction prices to earn higher salaries in this performance-based annual salary system. The total number of registered buyers at the
Garak Market was 1373 in 2013 (Choi 2015).
The market conducted the first agricultural produce auction at 4 am on 19 June 1985. At that
time, auctions used open outcry trading, employing hand signals to place a bid – thus called hand
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signal trading in Korea (see Figure 1). Four persons are involved: auctioneers, recorders, a product
specification caller (hochang-su in Korean), and a person from the cargo union. When the auction
starts, hochang-su calls the specification of products ready for auction. Then, the auctioneer calls for
asking prices to bargain with buyers. After auction closure, the hammer price is recorded and the
auctioneer informs suppliers of the price via phone and fax machine (Choi 2009). Hand signal
trading had been criticized for its lack of transparency and for its malfeasance, such as collusion
of buyers and auctioneers, false selection of successful bidders, intentional modification of bidding
prices, manipulation of bidding orders, bribery charges, and the manipulation of bidding prices after
an auction (Choi 2009).
To resolve these problems, the Garak Market introduced electronic trading in 1997, with a fruitrelated electronic trading trial by the Seoul Fruit and Vegetable Corporation in May 1997. In 1998,
the Jong Ang Fruit and Vegetable Corporation used WBT-based electronic trading for the first time.
Since the 2000s, electronic trading has been the norm. At the same time, 15 other wholesale trade
markets in South Korea have also introduced electronic trading for agricultural produce auctions
(see Figure 2).
Electronic trading computerizes the auction process, which is operated by only three persons.
Recorders have disappeared, because a computerized system automatically records the result of
an auction in real time. Wholesale companies have spent a significant amount of money establishing
this computerized system, but have saved on not having to employ recorders. Auction results are
transferred directly to the management offices and suppliers via the Internet. Electronic trading is
hence believed to enhance trading efficiency as well as transparency. Suppliers can see the bidding
price on trading screens on site at the market, or can receive the information at home or in an office.
Electronic trading runs on technical settings composed of WBTs, a mobile auction booth, computer monitors, a trading screen, and CCTV (Choi 2009). Buyers push the WBT button to place a
bid, which is then transmitted to the auctioneer’s computer monitor in the mobile auction booth.
The monitor shows the suppliers’ names, the product specifications, and the serial numbers of bidders and their bid price, in descending order of price (see Figure 3). On the top of the booth, a trading
screen presents product specifications, suppliers, and bidder serial numbers in real time, as well as
successful bidders and the hammer price (see Figures 2 and 4). However, interim bid prices are not
disclosed here; they are on the computer monitor. A mobile auction booth moves as an auction proceeds in multiple rounds to various agricultural produce specifications. On the booth, CCTV records
the auction’s progress. This system, functioning since 2010, sends a recorded file to the Korea Agro-
Figure 1. Hand signal trading. Image reproduced with permission from the Seoul Agro-fisheries & Food Corporation (2015).
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Figure 2. Electronic trading.
Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation. After auction closure, auctioneers inform suppliers of the hammer price by cell phone and via the Internet.
An auction begins at 6 or 7 pm and finishes the following morning. The timing of an auction
depends on the produce type. Vegetable auctions occur earlier than fruit auctions because vegetables
are more susceptible to decay. Fruit auctions start at around 2 or 2:30 a.m. Apple and pear auctions
happen at the end in the early morning of the following day. First, the pre-auction stage starts at
around 5 p.m. Auctioneers upload the serial numbers of produce and the names of suppliers to a
picking system, which is accessed at the mobile booth. At the pre-auction stage, auctioneers estimate
the potential auction price and the price range for the traded produce. Auctioneers also decide the
order of produce being auctioned. This process is very important, because the initial round’s pricing
becomes a reference for the pricing of subsequent rounds. Buyers can also review the quality and
specifications of produce and estimate the auction price themselves. Before an auction starts, buyers
register their WBTs at a mobile auction booth to upload their serial numbers to the computer system.
Figure 3. Computer monitor. Note: The right, upper corner of the computer monitor shows the bidders and the bid prices
in descending order of price.
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Figure 4. Trading screen. Note: The red number 317 and 346 on the trading screen are the serial numbers of bidders and 11,300 is a
hammer price.
Auctioneers conduct auctions with a fast auction chant after a trading screen presents the types,
quantities, and suppliers of agricultural produce being traded. Then, buyers start to place bids
using WBTs. As the real-time bid price reaches an estimated auction price that satisfies the auctioneer, he pushes a button to close the auction. Then, cargo workers deliver the produce to the winning
buyer’s store. Auctioneers also phone suppliers with the auction price and suggest ways of increasing
the price later.
Sensory interactions at the pre-auction stage
Before an auction starts, auctioneers and buyers estimate the produce’s auction price – the estimated
auction price. It is affected by economic factors, including the previous day’s market price, the leftover stock, the quantity traded, auction price information of other markets, new demand from retail
companies such as discount sales, and the reputation of suppliers. Weather is another very important
factor affecting the price of, for example, watermelon.
Moreover, sensory interactions between agricultural produce and auctioneers (or buyers) have a
significant impact on the price, which is created by sensory expertise used in auction price estimation. It takes years to acquire the skills and experience necessary to assess fruit quality and understand the production status and flow of circulation. Auctioneers work as product specification callers
or recorders for three or four years (sometimes longer) prior to becoming auctioneers in order to
acquire such expertise. Buyers have to learn trading skills for almost two years before they participate
in auctions.
Before an auction starts, auctioneers and buyers investigate the produce quality. Auctioneers
examine the quality of fruits and fill in the ‘basic table of sales’ document, while buyers also record
a grade and suppliers’ names. This examination is required to predict the estimated auction price.
When real bid prices reach the estimated auction price, buyers place a bid or auctioneers finalize
the auction.
Their expertise for this examination is sensory. Most auctioneers and buyers have their own way
of using their senses to assess produce quality. Only experts with sensory expertise can participate in
an auction, otherwise they risk losing money. They examine the quality of agricultural produce,
including freshness, color, gloss, shape, size, and hardness by seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting
the goods; the sense of sight is the most useful in this process. One buyer told me, ‘we see it with the
eye, eat it with the eye, and weigh it with the eye’ (Interview, 21 April 2016). The color of fruits
enables buyers and auctioneers to estimate their sugar content. Touch is also used to examine the
size, hardness, and weight of fruits such as apples and pears, as well as the humidity of vegetables
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such as mushrooms. If the item is large but weighs little, it indicates a low degree of hardness. The
sense of smell is used to examine the storage quality of fruits such as strawberries and oriental melons. If fruits smell fragrant, their storage quality is low.
Their expertise is a form of ‘tacit knowledge’ (Polanyi 1966), embodied in their senses and experience. Distribution companies such as department stores use a mechanical sugar tester for the seemingly worst products or for products from new suppliers. The sugar tester can also be used
because of worsening weather. However, in general, auctioneers and buyers rarely use it. In fact,
they believe that a mechanical method would be less accurate than their senses. They state that
even if fruits are high in sugar, their taste is affected by other factors such as mouth-feel and acidity.
Here, they use a ‘mouth sugar tester’, which means testing sugar content by eating the fruit. According to one auctioneer:
How do you use your senses to assess the quality of grapes?
For most products, we eat them with the eyes, and check the hardness, touch, and taste.
What does it mean to eat them with the eyes?
We can assess 60–70% of the quality of grapes using our eyes. By seeing, we are aware of
whether they are delicious and for how much these grapes will sell.
Have you ever used a scientific method?
No, we haven’t. A mouth sugar tester is more accurate than a [mechanical] sugar tester. Even
though sugar content amounts to 15 brix, sugar content and acidity affect taste differently. So,
taste can differ depending on the degree of acidity. So, we use the mouth sugar tester a lot.
(Interview, 22 April 2016)
Such sensory interactions between auctioneers (or buyers) and agricultural produce affect the estimated auction price. This price is not mechanically assessed, but is constructed by the expertise of
auctioneers and buyers through their sensory interactions with the produce. Auctioneers of course
argue that economic factors such as stock and demand are the most important factors affecting an
estimated auction price; however, the sensory factor also significantly influences this price. Given the
same economic conditions, the interviewed auctioneers estimated that sensory factors in quality
assessment could result in a 10–20% fluctuation in auction price. The production process of the estimated auction price is the same in hand signal trading and electronic trading.
Senses, power, and artifacts in the auction
In general, agricultural produce trading takes place over a number of rounds in an auction, each lasting 10 to 20 seconds in the case of electronic trading. As with hand signal trading, auctioneers call for
an asking price to bargain with buyers. However, the difference between hand signal trading and
electronic trading is the apparent and inevitable face-to-face contact between buyers and auctioneers
in hand signal trading. Little eye contact occurs in electronic trading because auctioneers are looking
at computer monitors, while buyers are looking at trading screens or produce. Such market devices
have a significant impact on visual interactions between auctioneers and buyers. Power relations
between auctioneers and buyers have changed as hand signal trading has shifted to electronic trading
with market devices. This change leads to differences in auction price setting and the social relationships between auctioneers and buyers.
Eye contact and the power of auctioneers
In hand signal trading, eye contact is vital to the power of auctioneers. Auctioneers should have fast
eyes to see all the hand signals and identify the highest price bidder. They move their eyes in various
forms, for example, in an S-shape or Z-shape, to capture the hand signals of all buyers. However,
there can be many buyers (e.g. approximately 50–80 buyers at an apple auction), in which case
the auctioneers do not see all the hand signals simultaneously. Selective sight toward certain buyers
therefore occurs at the discretion of auctioneers. Because auctioneers are aware of the purchase
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patterns of buyers according to the produce quality, they watch those who can buy the produce being
traded, and they can therefore overlook some buyers. Unless buyers use hand signals and make eye
contact with auctioneers, which is achieved by shouting, they will not be successful.
Auctioneers are able to see the hand signals of all buyers, but the buyers cannot see each other’s
hand signals because they hide signals using clothes or documents (see Figure 1). Thus, there is an
unequal power relation between auctioneers and buyers: auctioneers can overlook or even pretend
not to see the hand signals of some buyers. With this power, an auctioneer becomes a powerful man
in hand signal trading. One auctioneer told me a joke he heard about hand signal trading, saying that
‘even the president cannot touch an auctioneer on an auction booth. […] Hand signals of buyers
should follow the eye of auctioneers’ (Interview, 14 June 2016). According to one buyer:
At that time [hand signal trading], the auctioneer is an absolute king and an absolutely powerful man to buyers.
Buyers cannot buy anything if they have trouble with auctioneers. If auctioneers do not want some buyer to bid
successfully, auctioneers pretend to overlook the buyer and stare at other buyers. However, there is no such case
in electronic trading. In the past, the power relationship between the auctioneer and buyers was unequal, but we
are equal these days. (Interview, 21 April 2016)
Hereafter, the term ‘visual power’ is used to denote the power which operates through selective sight.
The visual power of auctioneers in hand signal trading provokes spatial competition among buyers
on benches in front of a mobile auction booth for capturing the gaze of auctioneers. Buyers are
keenly aware of auctioneers’ habits in terms of the direction they look when watching buyers’
hand signals. Thus, buyers compete for the best position where the auctioneers’ eye can direct
their hand signals. Most buyers gather in the front benches, except for a few who stand away
from the crowd to be seen. Physical struggles often happen when jostling for a better position; buyers
are crowded in a narrow alley where powerful persons are pushing and pulling one another. As one
auctioneer puts it, hand signal trading is closer to fist fighting than law. It is filled with shouting
(Interview, 17 May 2016). Buyers shout at auctioneers because, as one buyer states, a ‘crying baby
gets more milk. Shouting buyers were better than calm ones in hand signal trading’ (Interview, 21
April 2016). In this sense, males have an advantage; hand signal trading is more masculine than electronic trading. Auctioneers and buyers agree that female buyers would feel more comfortable with
electronic trading than with hand signal trading because of the lack of physical struggles. However,
male buyers are still dominant in electronic trading, with approximately 10% of buyers being women.
The new market devices of electronic trading have transformed the power relations between
buyers and auctioneers. No physical struggles and spatial competition occur in electronic trading.
Owing to WBTs, buyers do not need to be in front of auctioneers, and many stand apart. Some
are positioned near the agricultural produce they want to buy. There is no bench around which
to stand; instead, they move around the produce and watch the trading screens. Eye contact rarely
occurs, because WBTs transmit bid information wirelessly to the computer monitor of auctioneers.
This is in stark contrast to buyers in hand signal trading, who are crowded near auctioneers.
Computer monitors and trading screens also decrease the visual power of auctioneers, since they
have to watch the monitor as the bid price increases. Buyers do not have to see the auctioneers and
look at trading screens or agricultural produce. Some trading screens provide information on the
serial number of the current highest bidder, which continues to change until the auctioneer closes
the auction. This contrasts with hand signal trading, in which only the auctioneers were aware of
the highest bid, while buyers had difficulty obtaining this information. In addition, there were
cases of fabricating the hammer price after an auction because handwriting is easily modified. For
example, the number nine can be changed to an eight. However, such changes are not possible in
electronic trading because the availability of the hammer price on the trading screen. In other
words, informational asymmetry between auctioneers and buyers is higher in hand signal trading
than in electronic trading. As informational asymmetry decreases in the wake of electronic trading,
the visual power of auctioneers declines. The rule of an auction is that the hammer price goes to the
first person to register the highest bid price. Because this rule is set by a computerized system,
auctioneers cannot utilize their visual power by ignoring bidders. CCTV also contributes to reducing
the visual power of auctioneers because it monitors the behaviors of auctioneers and computers.
CCTV has been used since 2010 to prevent auctioneer misconduct, such as changing the order of
bid prices on the computer monitor. In fact, today, computerized systems do not permit changing
this order, forcing the selection of the highest bid price.
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The auction chant and the power of auctioneers
When an auction starts, a product specification caller makes a sound called hochang, which conveys
the specification information of products, including their grade, quantity, and supplier. This signals
the start of the auction, followed by hoga calling, which refers to asking price – the price offered by
auctioneers, but which is subject to bargaining.4 Auctioneers try to make the bid price as close to the
estimated auction price as possible. Auctioneers create their own tempos and rhythms for the auction chant, which is sometimes more important than product information itself. The auction chant
sounds like rapid rap, too fast for the public to comprehend. One auctioneer says that the auction
chant should be very fast to minimize the time available to buyers to calculate their bid (Interview,
8 April 2016). The more time buyers have, the cheaper their bids can be. The auction chant plays a
key role in preventing auction prices from falling sharply. The fast sound aims to direct the flow of an
auction by adding to the amusement and excitement and to stimulate buyers to purchase. In this
sense, the power of the auction chant results not merely from price information carried by this
sound but also from sonic energy, which is related to a ‘thing’ (sonic wave) rather than words
(price information).
Hereafter, the term ‘sonic power’ will be used to denote the power that manifests in the auction
chant. Sonic power works because buyers have to attune their ears to its content and rhythms. The
duration of the auction chant depends on the auctioneer. If necessary, the auction can be delayed
until a certain favored buyer places the highest bid. Each auctioneer has his or her own content
and habit for the auction chant, which buyers need to learn. As the auction chant is completed,
the auctioneer finalizes a round of auction. Therefore, it is important for buyers to know how
long the auction chant will last; they tender their bid accordingly. If auctioneers prefer a short auction, buyers have to place a more expensive bid early, and vice versa. It would be absurd to do so if
auctioneers tend to take a long time to finalize the auction. In this case, buyers start at a lower price or
find the proper timing for a bid.
In the aftermath of electronic trading, the auctioneers’ gaze has lost importance, but the auction
chant still occurs and still matters. However, buyers using electronic trading tend to be less immersed
in the auction chant compared to hand signal trading. This is because trading screens show the hammer price and the current highest bidders, in some cases (see Figure 4). Some buyers just monitor
trading screens and place a predetermined bid when ready. According to one buyer, buyers’ dependence on trading screens in electronic trading has become much higher than on the auction chant
(Interview, 18 May 2016).
The construction of a sensory agency and social relationships
What is the role of the senses and new artifacts in constructing a buyer as an economic agent? Of my
particular interest is the sensory dimension of material agency in terms of how artifacts affect sensory
interactions among market actors, rather than the relational agency of artifacts in terms of the ‘agencement’ of human and nonhumans (Callon et al. 2007). I am more interested in social relationships
among market actors; specifically, the impact of the senses and market devices on social
In this vein, I address the difference between economic agency in the electronic trading of financial and agricultural produce markets. The economic actors of electronic trading are relational
agents, or actors embodied with tools and instruments, resulting in more calculative actors than
hand signal trading – this is common to both markets. However, the difference lies in the sensory,
social interactions between auctioneers and buyers, or between buyers, in terms of whether the actors
are asocial and atomized.
For financial markets, Zaloom (2006) argues that electronic trading contributes to the construction of more rational, atomized individuals; this is close to the neoclassical economics concept of an
economic actor (see Smelser and Swedberg 2005). She says:
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Electronic dealing rooms foster more technical modes of conduct. The trading screen encourages a calculating
rationality, cooler conduct, and the external trappings of self-control. […] In their performances, traders enact
an asocial subject, conducting themselves in accordance with the competitive, atomistic ideals of self-interest.
(Zaloom 2006, pp. 112–113)
Is this also true of electronic trading at agricultural produce auctions? How has the economic agent
changed as auctions changed from hand signal trading to electronic trading? Zaloom’s (2006) analysis is only partially true of agricultural produce auctions. Apparently, new artifacts in electronic
trading facilitate a cooler conduct by buyers, as Zaloom (2006) sees it, but it is not evident that buyers
are asocial and atomized individuals. Unlike financial markets where dealers are isolated in different
spaces, buyers in the agricultural produce market still gather in the same space and interact sensibly
with one another.
Hand signal trading is full of power struggles that are performed in sensory interactions. As one
buyer puts it, it is ‘trading with five senses’ (Interview, 21 April 2016). Buyers make sensory interactions with auctioneers, other buyers, and agricultural produce. Seeing and hearing are important
senses during an auction. Together with the sensory interaction between auctioneers and buyers,
watching other buyers’ hand signals enabled the snatching of bids. One auctioneer told me that a
skilled buyer could estimate the bid price of others by watching the motion of their wrist muscles
when they raised hand signals (Interview, 14 June 2016). This story sounds somewhat exaggerated,
but it illustrates the directly competitive interactions among buyers.
Such sensory interactions have changed with the advent of electronic trading. However, interaction between auctioneers and buyers, or among buyers, has not been removed; instead, it changed
from physical to technology-assisted interaction. We are witnessing an increasing number of sensory
interactions between buyers (or auctioneers) and artifacts, such as trading screens and computer
monitors or WBTs. While visual interactions between humans and artifacts are increasing, those
between buyers and auctioneers or among buyers are now decreasing.
Buyers who engage in electronic trading are calmer, while buyers in hand signal trading tend to be
more emotional. In electronic trading, buyers are less moved by the auction’s atmosphere. Some
buyers merely focus on what to buy without paying attention to other products. However, buyers
are anything but atomized individuals, alone and isolated in a room without any interaction with
buyers or auctioneers. Sonic interaction between buyers and auctioneers still matters in electronic
trading. Buyers attune their ears to the auction chant of auctioneers. They are sensory subjects
who interact with auctioneers and other buyers through the technical settings of electronic trading.
Cheating other buyers occurs less often in electronic trading, but also occurs more openly. Buyers
can identify other buyers and see their bids by looking at the serial numbers on the trading screen.5
In particular, they watch high-price bidders. Prior to an auction, buyers try to find out how much
fruit is in stock or whether other buyers have greater demand, such as at a sales event, to avoid competition with such buyers. Buyers also estimate how many other buyers participate in an auction,
because this will affect the auction price. Thus, interaction among buyers is still substantial. As
noted by one buyer:
We imagine how many boxes other buyers will buy. We feel it while doing an auction. There is a kind of feeling.
If they are not in a hurry to buy, it means there is little demand. We hold each other in check. We sometimes
feint our bid. (Interview, 14 June 2016)
In this sense, rather than being isolated, their purchases are still social and sensory. They are not
atomized, all-knowing actors, as neoclassical economics assumes. Some guile is still required in
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order to capture the necessary information about other buyers. The relationships among buyers are
mostly competitive, and less frequently collusive; however, according to one auctioneer, there was an
illegal case in which successful buyers shared or sold their winning fruits with other buyers (Interview, 8 July 2016).
How do senses and artifacts affect the relationship between auctioneers and buyers? The selective
sight of auctioneers in hand signal trading creates intimate relationships between auctioneers and
buyers, which, in turn, affect auctions considerably. Without such relationships, buyers find it difficult to complete bids. Auctioneers need be aware of buyers’ characteristics, which make it possible to
attend to the most relevant buyers. Moreover, selective sight creates a hierarchical relationship
between auctioneers and buyers. Auctioneers are authoritative, and they hold much power over
buyers in hand signal trading systems.
Several criteria determine the selective sight of auctioneers in hand signal trading. First, auctioneers tend to favor a buyer who is expected to buy greater amounts of produce, because less remaining
stock increases the auction price of the next day. Selective sight also enables auctioneers to classify
buyers into high-price and low-price buyers. Thus, when auctioneers sell high-quality products, they
tend to ignore the hand signals of seemingly low-price buyers, and focus on high-price buyers. Moreover, the past record of buyers, such as deposit rates or business cooperation, affects selective sight.
For instance, if no buyers want to buy products, auctioneers try to force successful bidders from the
previous round of the auction to buy by offering rewards or incentives. According to one auctioneer:
Agricultural products can make high prices, but the price can also fall below the cost of production, because
most buyers are not eager to buy products. Nevertheless, there are some buyers who help us and take part
in an auction while accepting their loss (with a higher purchase price). Next time, when several buyers bid
the same price, I gave a bid to those who helped us to sell products previously. (Interview, 17 May 2016)
In this way, hand signal trading shapes reciprocal relationships between auctioneers and buyers. This
relationship is impossible without the visual power of auctioneers. In turn, buyers had difficulty making successful bids in hand signal trading without this relationship, leading them to seek to gain favor
with auctioneers. In contrast, electronic trading creates a more equal relationship between auctioneers and buyers. Auctioneers become less authoritative and more service-oriented, and the relationship becomes looser. However, the previous relationships of give-and-take between auctioneers and
buyers have not disappeared. Some buyers are still suspicious of collusion between auctioneers and
buyers. In fact, auctioneers can still delay closing an auction at their discretion until their favored
buyers place the highest bid, although they cannot use their visual power as they once could.
Age is an approximate variable determining the relationships between auctioneers and buyers.
Older buyers were skillful in hand signal trading, because they had experience and long-term
relationships with auctioneers. In contrast, novice buyers found it very difficult to succeed in
hand signal trading because they lacked these reciprocal relationships, and auctioneers could use
their visual power to favor older buyers.
However, the situation has changed in electronic trading; it entails a substantial change in sensory
interactions, which have a profound impact on transactions. The visual power of auctioneers has
weakened in the aftermath of electronic trading, due to visual interactions between auctioneers
and computer monitors and between buyers and trading screens, and the subsequent decline of
eye contact between auctioneers and buyers. At the same time, as the buyer bids by replacing
hand waving with pressing the WBT button, the speed at which the buyer’s WBT button is pressed
becomes very important. Ironically, young buyers are faster than old buyers. One buyer states that
old buyers in their sixties are physically retarded (Interview, 14 June 2016). Another buyer told me:
Now, I am in my fifties. I cannot overtake the speed of young buyers in their thirties when pushing a WBT button.
To be honest, because of this, in the case of truly good products, we used to place bids KRW1000 higher than the
prices young buyers are willing to pay. […] in the past, in hand signal trading, auctioneers often offered one or
two bids to us with compassion, but nowadays, the ability to react instantly is very important to get my bid done
successfully. At times, we used to buy nothing if we did not pay attention to this. (Interview, 22 April 2016)
Old age was a virtue in hand signal trading, but has become a drawback in electronic trading. Coincidentally, the generation of buyers has become younger. Prior to the early 2000s, the average age of
buyers was 50 or 60. Today, most buyers are in their thirties and forties, with buyers in their sixties or
seventies comprising less than 10%, according to my interviews with auctioneers and buyers. Of
course, there are other reasons for generational changes. The second generation has inherited
their parents’ jobs as older buyers become physically limited due to late-night trading. Moreover,
younger buyers feel that this job is better than working in a company because it offers freedom,
more income, and job security in the current economic climate. Young buyers are also more skilled
in communication with young partners in distribution companies. At the same time, it makes sense
that electronic trading is more suitable to young buyers due to their skill in the mechanical operations related to computerized systems.
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Senses, artifacts, and auction price
There are three types of prices in this auction: an estimated auction price, bid price, and hammer
price. The determination of the estimated auction price is still sensory and did not undergo any
change in the wake of electronic trading. In contrast, the determination of the bid and hammer
price changed from hand signals to digital signals, as bid price information is transmitted wirelessly
from WBTs to computer monitors. However, I would emphasize here that even bid and hammer
prices have never been disembodied in electronic trading, because senses and artifacts are at interplay
in electronic bargaining between auctioneers and buyers.
However, the impact of senses and artifacts on the auction price differs between hand signal
trading and electronic trading. In the former, face-to-face contact forces buyers to concentrate
and heats up the atmosphere. Much of the bargaining and negotiation between auctioneers and
buyers occurs via eye contact or verbally, increasing the auction price. Auctioneers demand buyers’
cooperation or at times force a compulsory sale in order not to have stocks remain. According to one
auctioneer, when an auction starts, auctioneers can signal a certain buyer through eye contact or by
making a remark indicating that a product would be worth buying (Interview, 17 May 2016).
Occasionally, auctioneers ask buyers to buy products at a high price, resulting in buyers sometimes
buying more than they need.
In contrast, buyers are scattered around in electronic trading, which makes for a calmer atmosphere. Some of the ways of raising the auction price in hand signal trading are almost impossible in
electronic trading. There is little eye contact between auctioneers and buyers. Auctions cannot be
closed unless buyers push a WBT button and the auction price can fall.
The hammer price in the first round of an auction influences the prices in subsequent rounds,
because the previous price becomes a reference point for a subsequent auction. This is related to
the prospect theory of behavioral economics (Kahneman and Tversky 1979), in which people are
affected more by loss than by earnings. No matter the form of trading, auctioneers are still concerned
about the initial rounds of auctions. Therefore, they tend to auction good products initially. However, higher correlations exist among the auction prices between rounds of auctions in electronic
trading. This is because buyers have access to the hammer price from the previous round on the
trading screen, enabling them to consider it in subsequent rounds. This price can affect subsequent
auction prices considerably because buyers do not want to pay more. In contrast, buyers other than
the final bidder of an auction are less aware of the previous hammer price in hand signal trading,
because auctioneers call it verbally and very fast. In this case, the correlation between rounds of auctions is relatively low, and the previous hammer price does not affect buyers as much as it does in
electronic trading. This reflects the roles of senses and artifacts in auction price: the visibility, or not,
of the hammer price through trading screens influences auction price.
Moreover, when auctioneers call the hammer price in hand signal trading, they intentionally used
to call a higher price in error in order to increase the auction price of subsequent rounds, even
though recorders still filled in the accurate hammer price. This is called heotgeobal (fake high-
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price calling) in Korean, and it is illegal. It was made possible because auctioneers could see all hand
signals of buyers, but buyers could not. However, the incidence of heotgeobal has decreased in electronic trading because the hammer price is disclosed on the trading screens, and the sound of auctioneers is recorded. Of course, during the auction process, the auction chant still includes heotgeobal
to some degree. Here, heotgeobal refers to a high difference between the asking price and the bid
price. This is not illegal. According to auctioneers, this occurred more often in hand signal trading
because the calmer buyers in electronic trading are not easily swayed by heotgeobal. Auctioneers who
abuse heotgeobal would lose the trust of buyers, who would sometimes protest vehemently about it.
Owing to the calmer nature of buyers and the loss of auctioneers’ power in electronic trading,
price fluctuations within an auction are narrower. However, according to auctioneers, price differences among fruits with different grades have increased for the same reason. All fruits are subject to
separate auctions, depending on their grade, and the prices of fruits with the lowest grades therefore
fall sharply. According to one auctioneer:
In electronic trading, the unit price and successful bidders are disclosed on the trading screen, so that the price
becomes the market price. Sometimes, the market price falls sharply. However, in hand signal trading, auctioneers can control the fluctuation width of the bid price. This is the difference. (Interview, April 18 2016)
On the other hand, price information in hand signal trading is transferred from the hand signals of
buyers to the eyes of the auctioneers. Auctioneers can choose the buyers they favor. They can also
pretend to overlook buyers they do not favor. However, in electronic trading, WBT replaces hand
signals with digital signals. Price information is digitally transmitted directly from WBT to computer
monitors so that auctioneers have no choice but to delay the knock down or to select the highest bid.
They cannot change the bidding price order on a computer monitor. Their button to close the auction off can only knock down the highest and fastest bid price. As such, because the power of auctioneers is constrained by computerized systems, they find it difficult to raise the auction price for
suppliers. Ultimately, electronic trading yields a loss for suppliers.
This article has stressed the roles of artifacts and senses as important aspects of market transactions. I
have compared hand signal trading and electronic trading associated with agricultural produce auctions from at least five perspectives. First, senses are vital to commodity values. Whether it is hand
signal trading or electronic trading, auctioneers and buyers utilize their senses when estimating the
potential auction price in the auction preparation process. Here, in addition to the market information
of agricultural produce, the sensory interactions between auctioneers (or buyers) and agricultural produce affect the estimated auction prices. Auctioneers and buyers use their sensory information more
effectively than mechanical instruments when inspecting the quality of agricultural produce.
Second, hand signal trading was characterized by power struggles that work through sensory
interactions. The operation of power has changed as hand signal trading moved to electronic trading.
However, electronic trading has not removed the role of senses in trading, but has changed the way
in which power works through the senses. With the growth of technology-assisted interactions
between auctioneers and buyers, electronic trading has weakened the visual power of auctioneers
over buyers. This is because visual interactions between auctioneers and computer monitors and
between buyers and trading screens have increased. The preference of sight over other senses is ubiquitous with technological advancement, although buyers still listen for the auction chant of auctioneers in order to predict the timing of a knock down.
Third, senses and market devices contribute to the construction of buyers as particular economic
agents. Whatever the form of trading, buyers are not atomized, asocial individuals. Buyers in electronic trading become calmer in auctions as a result of technological settings in electronic trading,
such as trading screens and WBT. They are more rational and calculating, but they are still social
human beings who are sensuously interacting with auctioneers and other buyers.
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Fourth, electronic trading transforms social relationships between auctioneers and buyers. In
hand signal trading, there were hierarchical and close relationships between auctioneers and buyers,
which frequently resulted in malfeasance or abuse of power. Older buyers, who had built up a longterm relationship with auctioneers, were skilled in hand signal trading. However, with the decline of
the visual power of auctioneers, the relationship between auctioneers and buyers has become more
equal and looser. As a result, younger buyers, in spite of having a less intimate relationship with auctioneers, have become more skilled in electronic trading because they are bodily more adept at using
market devices.
Fifth, senses and market devices affect auction prices considerably. Electronic trading has changed
the sensory interactions that matter in the auction process. On one hand, regarding auctioneers’
senses, auctioneers utilize their visual and sonic power to raise the auction price in hand signal
trading. However, in the wake of electronic trading, new market devices such as trading screens,
computer monitors, and WBTs have disabled the visual power of auctioneers over buyers. On the
other hand, when it comes to buyers’ senses, the transition has also gone from the aural (buyers listening to prices called out) to the visual (reading prices on the screen). As a result, overall auction
prices in electronic trading have tended to fall, while also fluctuating more among fruits with different grades than they did in hand signal trading. Ultimately, electronic trading is more profitable for
buyers than for suppliers.
I do not intend to exaggerate the role of the senses in our economic life, while underestimating the
economic factors in the market. As a matter of fact, macro-economic changes and daily micro-economic supply and demand are still of great importance in the market. However, I am emphasizing that
the role of senses and the impact of market devices on our senses in our economic life have, thus far,
been underrated. Economic sociology needs to take a more sensory turn by considering the relationship between the senses and artifacts in the market.
1. Nonetheless, open outcry trading is not disappearing. Box Options Exchange has recently won approval to set
up an open outcry exchange in Chicago, which began operations in late August 2017 (Louis 2017).
2. As an exception, the Netherlands holds flower auctions, such as the Aalsmeer flower auction.
4. The asking price is different from the current bid price. Auctioneers are not allowed to disclose bidders’ prices.
5. Not all types of trading screens disclose the serial numbers of bidders during an auction.
The author is very grateful to anonymous referees, Joon Han, and Kiheung Kim for their thoughtful comments. Also
special thanks to In Seok Choi for his assistance. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Fall Conference of
the Korean Sociological Association and the Korean Association of Science and Technology Studies in 2016.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea under [grant number NRF2015S1A5A8011106].
Notes on contributor
Eun-sung Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea. His recent research is
focused on Korean modern sensescapes associated with apartment complexes, protests, agricultural produce auctions,
and energy transition. His papers have appeared in Social Studies of Science, Journal of Material Culture, and Science as
Culture, among others.
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