Conference Report: “Performativity as Politics: Unlocking economic sociology”

December 11, 2008

For those who would be interested in more information, please to refer to the papers’ abstracts (, as well as to the issue(s) of the Journal of Cultural Economy that will arise from the conference ( /17530350.asp). You can also contact us at:

Organization committee: Franck Cochoy, Martin Giraudeau, Jean-Pascal Gond & Jacques Igalens

Here is an account of the “Performativity as Politics: Unlocking economic sociology” conference that took place in Toulouse (France) a few weeks ago. The least we can say, as organizers of the conference, is that everything went on very well, and we thank the participants for that! Our idea, when we decided to organize the conference, was to have the ANT approach to performativity troubled by other uses of the concept. A good way to do so was to investigate the political dimensions of the performativity of economics, by bringing together key authors who developed either the concept of performativity in sociology or a political perspective on markets and/or economics, in order to reintroduce politics within the market analysis. An approach of performativity as politics could move the debates around the performativity of economics beyond their present location in economic sociology, and consequently contribute to: (1) develop a more robust and general theory of performativity; (2) reinforce the political analysis of markets; and (3) cross-fertilize economic sociology with other fields of sociology.

As Franck Cochoy stated it in his introductory speech, the time was adequate for such a conference. The present financial turmoil suggested that the performative relationship between financial economics and the economy was somewhat broken, at least temporarily, which opened a new space for state intervention. Barack Obama, at the same time, stressed the amount of political efforts that had been required throughout history, and would be required again, to perform political ideals: “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our constitution, he said. (…) And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time” (Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race, March 18th, 2008).

The question of there being specific historical times for performativity – and not only for conferences on performativity! – came up repeatedly during the talks. The present financial crisis, dealt with for instance by Karel Williams and his coauthors, as well as David Martin, was not the only critical moment that proved to be historically favorable to the “bricolage”, or the destruction and reconstruction of actual worlds by human minds and words. In her conclusive speech, about Arendt and Maruyama, Judith Butler insisted precisely on how the experience of fascism opened a space in the post-war era for the emergence of a new subject that would take responsibility for constructing the future, and be engaged in thinking as a both self- and socially constitutive practice. Various other papers focused on major moments of change throughout history, like the 1973 oil crisis (Tim Mitchell) or the French Revolution and first industrial revolution (Martin Giraudeau). These papers raised questions over what may be called, in a new way, “critical performativity” – i.e. a performativity related to times of crisis. Beyond the notion of “conditions of felicity,” there were discussions about the possible existence of “conditions of opportunity”, or even “conditions of necessity” for performativity, in times when worlds and actions are being rapidly reinvented. Some of the speakers also questioned the part played by theories in the precipitate redefinitions of political and economic order that are observed when change occurs in a strong and rapid way.

The main common issue in all of these papers, however, was not that of the actualization of certain political or economic theories in times of crisis, but that of the historical constitution of “politics” and “the economy” as autonomous entities, separate from one another and meant to be governed by their own laws, and their possible re-articulation today. The examples of post-fascist (and post-Marxist) thought, of the oil crisis, and of the invention of economic liberalism in the late eighteenth century showed how crises in the articulation of politics and the economy were solved by a divorce, a decoupling of the two previously inseparable entities. More recent cases such as those studied by Philippe Steiner (human body parts exchange systems), Petter Holm (Norwegian fisheries) and Michel Callon (carbon markets), tended to show, on the contrary, how politics and the economy could be entangled anew. The markets for natural resources indeed appeared to be an interesting laboratory for the possible re-“civilizing” of markets.

Another rich line of thought suggested that politics could actually be traced in seemingly pure “economic” practices: in the British system of industrial branch assurance (Liz McFall); in the “ethics of office” supporting the instrumental rationality of Weber’s bureaucracy (Paul Du Gay); or in the construction of the Euro zone, which participated in reconfiguring the political frontier between Greece and Turkey (Sarah Green). The idea here was to demonstrate that some form of politics was necessary inside of the markets for “the economy” to be performed efficiently as an autonomous entity. Further than that, Hans Kjellberg and Claes-Fredrik Helgesson showed how markets could contribute, thanks to marketing, to realizing different values, with possible political implications for businesses and customers. Such implications were explored by Jean-Pascal Gond and Jacques Igalens in the case of Corporate Social Responsibility discourses, which may be analyzed as enacting a ‘brave new world’ within which corporations would save the planet and as producing the legitimacy needed to justify corporate political actions. A specific type of politics could thus be generated by markets themselves, and have effects out of them.

Whatever the form of politics that was being dealt with, inside or outside markets, the question of the possibly intentional character of performativity was inevitable. The deliberate implementation by the United Nations Development Program of a “Human Development” measure in Brazil, studied by Peter Dixon, was a good example of that: when the performation of an economic theory – in this case Amartya Sen’s – happens to be deliberate, the possible gap between claimed goals and actual results becomes a political stake in itself and gets evaluated. Such issues raised interrogations over the risks and especially the democratic desirability of some form of “squared” performativity – i.e. a performation of Callon’s theory of performativity, through the deliberate and organized action of social scientists acting as “performative entrepreneurs” who would engage in the actual design of exchange systems and markets.

Finally, our focus on performativity as politics led to interesting debates over the nature of the discourses that are performed. The role of fictional discourse, or even literary depictions of the future, in the performative invention of new worlds for men to live in was for instance questioned. Various papers, and especially that of Christian Licoppe and Laurence Dumoulin on the opening of distributed courtroom hearings by video-conference, demonstrated the performative effects of gestures, images, and visual technologies in mediated interactions. Studying the promotion, by the professional press, of new sales techniques for small, mid-twentieth century retail shops in the US, Franck Cochoy also suggested that the formulation of such discourses, through various combinations of texts and images, but also thanks to humor, contributed to their adoption by actors and thus to their actual influence on the actions of retailers. Such ideas contributed to moving the study of performativity away from the sociology of finance focus on mathematical formulas, moving it toward what Kjellberg and Helgesson call “mundane markets,” and opening it to non-verbal forms of discourse. Paradoxically, the micro technical equipment of mundane judiciary or market activities, far from moving the attention away from political stakes, invite the analyst to penetrate the heart of performativity processes, thus unveiling the “politics of performativity.

This is of course too brief and too personal an account, given the number of papers and ideas that were discussed during the conference.


2 Responses to “Conference Report: “Performativity as Politics: Unlocking economic sociology””

  1. […] socializing finance blog has a very informative summary of the “Performativity as Politics: Unlocking economic […]

  2. […] was hopping this autumn. Hot on the heals of the “Performativity as Politics” conference in October another interesting gathering took place in Toulouse between 17-19 […]

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