Let’s give performativity some teeth!

July 30, 2010

¬I’d like to pick up on the performativity discussion that has been raging in recent posts, and see if we can take the issues a little further, albeit in very general terms. Let me kick the hornets nest and see what happens.

My challenge is this. Can performativity be developed into a critique? Can we produce something that outdoes critical studies not only in terms of quality of empirical work (no contest here) but also in moral force? Can we move beyond a defence of performativity studies that is based upon the credit crisis as an ex post justification?

Let’s start with Yuval’s pithy summary of performativity, per the SSF school. He says: “although the fundamental mechanism in performativity of economics is similar to that of Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy, our innovation lies, I believe, in the fact that we reveal and analyze the crucial role that market devices play in the process.” The problem is that this account implies that the devices themselves are morally neutral, and that the role of the researcher is primarily documentation. Sometimes indeed, documentation is what is needed, but it plays into the hand of the performativity-bashers by appearing to be no more than “nerdy studies of bankers”, as Karel Williams is reported to have said.

It seems to me (and to better-known scholars too, I think Marion Fourcade in particular) that the performativity thesis demands a wider reading. The crux of the performativity thesis is that economics has the power to make a world in its own image. We don’t expect this to be a simple process, for the world is not a simple place. We expect to see the interplay of politics, power struggles, rival theories, chance and circumstance.

Performativity is not like a Mertonian self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton’s self fulfilling prophecy is trivially true. Everyone who dismisses performativity as just-like-Merton knows that – it’s the force of the criticism. Because it is trivially true, it does not have any implications. Performativity, on the other hand, is a careful study of the mechanisms through which certain parts of the social world (the economy) are constituted. A Mertonian talking-ourselves-into-a-recession form of social imitation may be a part of this, but is certainly not all. Performativity does have implications, because it gives us a chance to understand how we constitute our world, and to interfere in that process. Performativity has a methodological bite, because it transcends the critical reduction of everything to social relations, but on the other hand it cannot exclude the social; we need to combine a methodological emphasis on devices with an understanding of the broader context of social relations.

A developed reading of performativity might run as follows: the economic is a socially constituted realm; we see border struggles over the boundaries of the economic; within the economic realm agents are constructed as economic agents through the use of economic devices, over which there are also power struggles; this is a self-reinforcing and irreversible process. So as Yuval says, we come back to devices. SSF insists – following ANT – that macro level social worlds are constituted (performed) by repeated use of devices that are calibrated according to economic rules. Following Latour, to look up, we must look down; generalized explanations such as “greed” simply won’t do. It is the economic devices (and we have to be quite catholic in our use of the word “devices”) that constitute the economic agents with whom they co-produce the economic world. But in this developed version of performativity, the word that bothers me is “irreversible”, and I feel that the irreversibility of economization has been neglected in some discussions.

When SSF sets out to discover how parts of the social world are organized as they are, it tends to confine itself to areas that are already characterized as “economic”. There is not, as far as I’m aware, any surprise registered in Donald MacKenzie’s work – or Yuval’s or Daniel’s – that derivative markets exist at all, or are considered amenable to economic practice; the contribution is instead to show how some sets of economic practice gain hegemony over others. The decades of “minting work”, of cultural and organizational effort that have gone into making CMOs a reality are lost to view; to capture the sheer absurdity of our ability to buy and sell the risk of Mervin Finkleberger’s home loan in small town America, we do better to look at another ethnography, Liar’s Poker. For studies that think about the labour which goes into the colonization of new areas, we have to look at areas far removed from performativity, such as Zelizer’s work. Within the performativity canon, it is ironically Mirowski and Nik-Khah on telephony auctions, and Holm on fisheries, neither of which are seen as mainstream defences of a narrow account of performativity, that really engage with the process through which economics constitutes the social in a broad sense. The beauty of Holm’s study is that it shows how economic agents self-generate without the blessing of regulators, once the conditions for economic practice are established.

One particular area where performativity research finds some bite is the business of organ transplantation. It’s a very complex area, one that is being economized as we speak. Kieran Healey’s work shows just how much money matters in the procurement business; alternatively, US readers might recall a scandal in California as the LA coroner’s office exercised its rights to remove and sell corneas from any cadaver passing through and earning over $1m in the process. That’s a lot of eyeballs.

Yet transplantation is an area where many resist the economic, while others, mainly economists, campaign for unfettered marketization. The dispute over the boundaries of the economic is good ground for performativity-type studies. Devices matter in the economists’ campaign, and are used to produce justifications for the introduction of economic organization (though this is rather like invading someone’s country to show them how they might benefit from your rule!). So, for example, an early study uses a contingent valuation methodology (as discussed by David Stark on this blog) to find out how much a cadaveric kidney is worth. A figure of $1,000 is produced and, despite the manifest unreliability of the CVM, sticks. Then we can argue, in economic terms, about whether incentives are more efficient than education (at $1k a cadaver, they are) and whether illicit organ trade will be a problem in a marketized system (at $1k a cadaver, it won’t be worth the gangsters’ while, apparently!). By a sleight of hand the economists have transformed questions that have bothered moral philosophers for decades into a simple question of arithmetic.

Interesting. But does it matter? Marketized structures may indeed by more effective at procuring organs than education, donation and organization (though I doubt it). I still haven’t produced a critical blow against economization. However, there are two sides to transplantation: procurement and allocation. It is procurement that gets the media attention, but allocation is where the bite comes. The algorithms that govern allocation procedure quite literally hold the power of life and death. Any economist who begins to speculate on the efficient allocation of organs – as some do – needs to be aware of the ramifications of their work. For example, if one wishes to be efficient in the allocation of kidneys, one gives them to young healthy people, those who have waited least long. (Economics knows, inter alia, that queuing is sub-optimal). And if one is old and sick? Too bad.

Economists are not, one imagines, heartless and cruel on a personal level. The problem is that economics (more specifically neo-classical economics) conceives of the moral world in its own particular way. In a mini-grand narrative, we can trace modern economics to Bentham and Mill and the founders of classical utilitarianism, for whom happiness is countable and quantitative. Economics is predicated on a version of classical utilitarianism where willingness to pay and accept signify happiness in varying degrees. So we could (if we wished) morally justify sweatshop labour in terms of welfare gains; the pain is felt keenly, but only by a few.

Where Bentham et al. had the good sense to restrict their ethic to the business end of the social world, modern economics wishes to go all the way. We understand, thanks to performativity, that this extension of economic practice has consequences, and thanks to performativity we can begin to see how those consequences play out. It is indeed devices that make such a world, and to get to grips with it properly, one has to look at those devices (on allocation algorithms, watch this space). But I think it’s important that in staking claims for performativity, we don’t forget the big picture. Who cares if economics rules healthcare? I do. That’s not a kind of humanity that I recognize, or want a part of.

8 Responses to “Let’s give performativity some teeth!”


  1. Excellent post!

    Do you know Mulkay, Ashmore and Pinch’s work on the sociology of health economics? They have a fantastic paper on the history of the Quality Adjusted Life Year that gets at some of what you are talking about here. I think performativists, if they want to get a bit imperial, would do well to move into health economics – it’s a lot easier to see the changes in the local politics with the introduction of economic devices into a world previously ruled by doctors.

    Also, in terms of irreversibility – why is that a necessary feature of performativity accounts? Where are you getting that bit from? That being said, do we have any good accounts of a good or service being moved out of the economic realm? Would Zelizer’s work on children fit here? Also, another example I’ve thought a lot about without knowing what to do with it – we now take for granted software as a commodity. In 1970, this future was not entirely certain, and was resisted with some success in the form of the Free Software/Open Source movement. Is there a way to use performativity to help unpack what happened there?

  2. joseossandon Says:

    Nice post and no doubt it points to important stuff. But I think there are already good guides in this direction, I’m thinking especially about works developed by authors that combine a SST approach with postcolonial or widely foucaultian issues. Really good examples are some stuff by Andrew Barry and Timoty Mitchell. For them performativity is always a (powerful) act of demarcation. Funnily my PhD dissertation was on health economics and privatization, and I discussed these form of understanding performativity and the issue of irreversibility. It can be seen here: http://www.icso.cl/images/Paperss/enactment.pdf ( mainly pages 56-76). Best.

  3. Philip Roscoe Says:

    Thanks to both for the references and comments. @ Dan, I don’t have any thing save conjecture for the irreversibility point, so I’ll check out the reference suggested below! All I can add is that I’m wanting to talk about performativity from an ethical perspective, and I’m not sure how much that has been covered…

    Cheers

    Philip

  4. danielbeunza Says:

    Philip — Great post. I disagree with your characterization of what makes a concept have bite. I think MacKenzie and Millo 2003 more bite, and far more impact, than the authors you cite in international political economy. As someone interested in discovery rather than confirmation of my own views, I don’t even see it as my role as an academic to go around denouncing others for moral insufficiencies — would I be able to experience genuine ethnographic surprise if I did?

    Having said that, i agree that exploring how the “non-economic” becomes economic offers tremendous gains. In my own work with Fabrizio Ferraro (coming soon!) we look at precisely what are the mechanisms whereby tools shape the political change agenda of activists. What we find is that in turning to market devices such as indexes or social reporting, the activists ended up opening the door to Wall Street firms to jump on board and create more powerful tools that also redefine “responsible investment” as just a slightly more socially aware form of investment.

    • Philip Roscoe Says:

      Hey Daniel, thanks for your comments. I’m looking forward to your responsible investment presentation in Montreal! On the first point, though, I have mixed views. I do believe that the kind of work you do, and of which MacKenzie and Millo is the archetype, is vital and of the highest quality, much more so than the political economy brigade. We both agree on the importance of nuts and bolts research too. But I wouldn’t characterize the kind of work I had in mind as the priggish confirmation of my own views. I don’t even know what my own views are; it’s a life project to work them out. What I would say is that at some point in, for example, the writing of financial history, we need to step away from the ethnographic detail and to be able to take a stand on the implications. It may be the case that we cannot properly see what those implications might be, but we can have a go. What is the likely outcome of financialization of carbon market, for example – this is an important topic, and one that we have an authority to pronounce on that comes from the attention paid to the mechanisms of performativity. I’m really trying to drive a wedge between the political economy brigade and what we might do (a clarification – when I said we had to look tho the PE authors, I mean that they are so far the only place that we can look). If your comment is more broadly that we shouldn’t be doing moral philosophy, then: a philosopher colleague jokes that when he reads economists these days he doesn’t know whether he is reading economics or philosophy – I’m only suggesting we stay in the game😉

  5. danielbeunza Says:

    Agreed on the idea of contextualization. The methodology that I have developed with Fabrizio and (separately) with Yuval is the two-part ethnography. One year of network ethnography of the field, and one year of focused research on one organization. The results of the org ethnography are then reinterpreted in the light of the field ethnography.


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  7. […] to broader questions about the size of the financial system. Indeed, as Philip Roscoe notes in a 2010 post on this blog: “There is not, as far as I’m aware, any surprise registered in Donald […]


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