Zelizer’s perspective

July 16, 2010

It is interesting to see that the debate on performativity has energized economic sociologists from all over the world. Just yesterday I was made aware that a brilliant sociologist as far removed from derivatives as is Viviana Zelizer has honored the concept in a chapter forthcoming on a book edited by Craig Calhoun. In the chapter, titled “Culture and Uncertainty,” Zelizer and draws interesting links between performativity and the work of Merton.

Because this has been the topic of an exchange between Yuval Millo and David Stark, I thought it would be all the more interesting to blog readers.

To be sure, already in 1936, Merton had pondered the impact of unanticipated consequences on social planning and betterment. In the closing pages of his article, he left us an ambivalent, yet fundamentally optimistic legacy. He called for a systematic study of the limits of purposive social action with the hope of identifying specific conditions that would allow such planning. So too in “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” Merton contended that “a deliberate and planned halt can be put to the workings of the self-fulfilling prophecy and the vicious circle in society” (1948:208). The solution lay not in well-meaning but often futile moral sentiments, he tells us, but institutional change. “The self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby fears are translated into reality,” Merton declared, “operates only in the absence of deliberate institutional controls” (1948:210). Presciently, following up his “sociological parable” of the Last National Bank of Millingville, he offered the example of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and other Roosevelt-era banking legislation as mechanisms that effectively reduced “panic-motivated runs on banks” (Merton 1948:209).

Performativity scholars offer their own twenty-first-century version of cautious optimism. If the world can be performed, then performances— and markets—can be improved. In the last few lines of his 2006 book, MacKenzie leaves us with a crucial concern. “The notion of performativity,” he notes, “prompts the most important question of all: What sort of a world do we want to see performed?” (2006:275).

These concerns transcend mere academic speculation. Consider the 2008 global financial debacle. Certainly, among other factors, neoliberal theory’s pervasive, unwavering belief in the efficiency of free markets created a “self-fulfilling” reality. By fostering rampant deregulation, free-market economic doctrine led to financial practices that, in turn, appeared to confirm the initial theory of a “natural” free market. In that sense, free-market theory “performed” a deregulated economy. Indeed, starting in the 1970s and for much of the 1990s and 2000s, politicians and economists were able to design a world of self-regulated markets (see Bourdieu 1998:94–105; Harvey 2005)

In the end, economic reality tore into the neoliberal fantasy. Even its staunchest advocate, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, famously conceded in October 2008 before the House Committeeon Oversight and Government Reform that he had “found a flaw” in his free-market ideology. With the breakdown of the housing market, record home foreclosures, and multiplying bankruptcies, economic theory’s freemarket prophecy transmuted into its counterpart, a frightening case of what MacKenzie labels “counterperformativity” and Merton called a selfdefeating or “suicidal” prophecy, “which so alters human behavior from what would have been its course had the prophecy not been made, that it fails to be borne out” (1968:477). Far from its scenario of market-driven efficiency, neoliberal ideology led to profound economic disruption, and paradoxically, to momentous governmental intervention. No doubt Robert Merton would have found a way to establish connections between his own analyses of uncertainty and contemporary extensions of Mertonian principles more elegantly and comprehensively. But surely he would have recognized in these more recent efforts, echoes of great themes that activated his monumental work.

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