Performativity, for or against?
February 14, 2007
What are these blogs, what do they say? The discussion was sparked by a virtual “book seminar” organized at Orgtheory.net, 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.