Conferences as performative utterances

May 11, 2008

Two weeks ago, Daniel and I ran a workshop in Columbia business school about Social Studies of Finance. I really enjoyed the workshop and in many respects it exceeded my expectations. But, being one of the organisers, I thought I was too involved in the event to write about it. So, I asked Alison if she could produce a text for the SocFin blog. She agreed and here it is.

I recently attended the Social Studies of Finance Conference organized by Daniel and Yuval.  I was delighted to be at Columbia with a dozen others who came to see what’s next, and perhaps to be who’s next.

I am new to the field: neither sociologist nor finance expert, but a strategy PhD candidate. My acquaintance with the field had come from reading, Peter Levin’s Rethinking Markets, and of course, this blog. I plunged into it throughout the last 8 months, eager to read everything I could get my hands on. (Luckily, it’s a much smaller body of literature than, say, institutional theory.)

When notice of the conference was posted, I wrote to the organizers and told them I needed to determine if their theories applied to my setting:  social and environmental ratings and rankings of firms. Could they help me figure it out? Word came back that I could come to the conference and work with the others to push the theories out into our settings. I was unnaturally excited.

The morning it started, I arrived at Columbia with my shiny new copies of two volumes in the Orthodox Performativity Canon (An Engine not a Camera and Do Economists Make Markets?)  in my back pack.  I was ready for school.

The room filled with people from universities in Barcelona, Paris, Berkeley, New York City, Ithaca, Toronto, London and Chicago. As we circled the room with introductions, we discovered people interested in art markets, the creation of third party life insurance contracts, the value of wine in Saint-Émilion, the use of consumer credit ratings in mortgage markets, the principles of denominational mutual funds, and other questions that seemed wild and vexatious and intriguing.  We were all trying to understand how evaluation creates markets.

No one seemed to find their research setting or theoretical framework easy. No one had slipped comfortably into paradigms that allowed for normal science and a straightforward PhD thesis. All of us were onto something that few others could see or smell or taste. The pattern recognition was simultaneous and thrilling. “That’s like my research!”

Daniel began, as New Yorkers do, with the twin towers, a juxtaposition of the symbol and embodiment of finance. Yuval spoke of the core, the Ur stories. They called to mind Latour, Bourdieu, Callon, Barry Barnes, Richard Rorty, Judy Butler. They reminded us of MacKenzie’s work on Black-Scholes like some people evoke the Exodus from Egypt.  They spoke fluently in the language of philosophy and social studies of science, and we responded in kind. As events for the geekiest of souls go, this was an intoxicating few hours of theory and argument.

And then it all shifted suddenly. We were plunged into working through the difficult issues in our own research at tables with 4 others. The spiral of theory and meta-theory suddenly tightened into pragmatics: does this really explain what I am seeing? How can I test for performativity effects here? Who designed my market? What are its materials and tools? The researchers at my table were not yet convinced. We forced ideas out into the open, challenged each other, wrestled a bit. At our table, Daniel smilingly encouraged more thought and confirmed our desires to test new hunches. We were able to enjoy the rarest of learning experiences: making close connections between bench science and philosophy

This cycle of tight focus and broad perspective recurred. We had a wild romp through the boundaries of economic sociology and SSF, a quick look at actor-network theory and an overview of the roots of SSF in the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Martha Poon gave us a glimpse into her groundbreaking research on FICO ratings, an American instrument that measures consumer creditworthiness that has been used instead to predict the likelihood that a borrower will repay a mortgage.  Tight, practical, performativity theory practised by a peer.

By the time Yuval led us through an academic geography of SSF-where you can learn it or teach it, where you can publish it or read it-we were no longer spectators. The theory had become ours to adopt, reject or rework.  Where once we had been mere acquaintances with the performativists, able only to vousvoyer, we were now intimates, able to tutoyer casually with the field and its proponents.

We had been transformed in a few hours, objects of a stream of performative utterances (and smiling encouragement).

There will be papers and coffee meetings and books and seminars and every other kind of collaboration that conferences generate. But this one may also have generated something more. We shall see.


2 Responses to “Conferences as performative utterances”

  1. […] overview of that columbia performativity conference […]

  2. danielbeunza Says:

    A wonderful account.

    In organizing the workshop, Yuval and I were aware that — as Latour reminds us — scholarship is, in the end, essentially social. Fields start out with renegades from the mainstream. Research programs come to life over coffee. Friendships are forged as intellectual alliances.

    In reading Alison’s account, I utter to myself the infamous words of George Bush — Mission Accomplished!

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