Performativity, for or against?

February 14, 2007

These past two months have seen a fascinating debate on performativity in academic blogs. The occasion was the recent launch of Donald MacKenzie’s latest book, An Engine, Not A Camera.

What are these blogs, what do they say? The discussion was sparked by a virtual “book seminar” organized at, a very prominent blog on economic sociology. One of them, Teppo Felin, is quite skeptical of performativity.

The problem of performativity essentially is that the argument suggests that theory pre-exists or creates, rather than describes or explains, reality, at least in its strong version (e.g., Latour and Woolgar, in Laboratory Life, argue that microbes do not really exist, only as they were “created” and realized through scientist interaction – Kuhnian extremism). The effort in the strong program of social construction is to take knowledge out of the domain of the universal and real and bring it into the domain of the contingent and social (Martin Hollis edited a great book on the matter – Rationality and Relativism – with contributions by Bloor and Barnes – early developers of the “strong program” to which MacKenzie contributes).

If we take the definition that “performativity is the idea that theories and models bring about the very conditions that they attempt to explain,” then, the immediate question is – why? It seems that theories take effect where there are justified reasons for believing that they are true. Thus, not just anything can be asserted (and thus created) as reality, which seems to be the case based on performativity. In short, performativity lacks meaningful boundaries for what can be asserted and why it is taken to be true and real, rather it simply in post hoc fashion labels whatever happens to emerge in reality as: performativity.

Now, can theories be wrong and nonetheless be acted upon (and thus become real)? Of course they can. But, this however in no way provides evidence for performativity, even though MacKenzie hopes to make these links. Theories over time get “checked” by reality, and continually adjusted over time, with increasingly better explanations of given phenomenon. Now, does the fact that theories affect reality provide evidence for performativity? No. Of course true theories can affect reality (the natural sciences provide plenty of robust examples), but, theories only affect reality within the limits of their actual explanation, impact and improvement (without quotations marks) on that reality – a distinction that performativity does not seem to make. That is, the truth of theories and associated progress is not mere rhetoric, but rather, real.

As a final comment – performativity is also extremely ad hoc in that when predictions of theories and models are not found to be true (the thesis of performativity is that theories, whether false or true, create reality), they are simply labeled counterperformativity. That is ad hoc, and suspiciously convenient for retrospective story-telling.


One Response to “Performativity, for or against?”

  1. cpptrader Says:

    If I understand performativity to be similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy, I would venture to say that this argument has been made about technical analysis. While many argue that common indicators, such as moving averages, stochastics, etc., were derived from empirical observation, they are by and large proven unprofitable (at least on their own). There is the possibility that the profit they generate has been arbitraged out of the market due to the premises in EMH, but it is also entirely possible that their use permeates only because the idea is put forward. Thus, what is used (real) is created by what is theorized (this can also get us into counterperformativity, when the indicator fails). Given the assumptions (big assumptions) above hold, it is still a stretch to prove that performativity exists. Black-Scholes is a perfect example – it was profitable until it was published. Therefore, we deduct that the premise existed (was real) and the theory created from that – which is the opposite of performativity.

    I believe the choice of the words “suspiciously convenient” was a wise one, and probably applies to many “ideas”…

    Great post… many of these “social” and “organizational” topics are just above my head, but not too far for me to take a stab at. Look forward to more.

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