performativity: the future of economic sociology?
The performativity literature has been getting lots of attention in organization theory and economic sociology. The performativity argument, essentially, is that theories — well, economic theories have received the brunt of the focus — do not just explain or describe reality but also participate in creating or constructing reality. The strong form of the performativity argument suggests that the ex ante content of theories themselves does not matter: theories could even be false and nonetheless fulfill themselves. Thus theories can, as argued by Callon, be “arbitrary conventions” ex ante. With the content of theories set aside, performativity focuses on the social, political and technological factors that drive outcomes.
Has economic sociology embraced performativity? I’ve heard some say that the future of the field is strongly wrapped up in the performativity argument.
Now, the performativity argument might appear innocuous enough — certainly it is extremely intriguing — but here are some open questions related to performativity:
- Is it feasible to completely throw out ex ante judgment related to the content of theories, essentially the scientific apparatus itself? Surely we can make some ex ante judgments about the falsity or truth of statements and theories? Solely focusing on the socio-political-technological machinery does not seem very satisfactory nor convincing.
- How does the rationality of humans (the ‘performers’) factor into performativity?
- How does performativity address (real) change and progress?
- Why does performativity “work” for explaining economics but then the argument is not turned on the performativity program of research itself? In other words, how do performativity researchers somehow step out of the performative water that social science is presumed to be in? How are performativity scholars somehow able to be more “meta” than, say, economists?
- What are the boundaries for theories fulfilling themselves? If the ex ante content of theories is arbitrary then there seemingly are no boundaries.
- How are the range of ex ante possible theories accounted for in performativity research? The ex post labeling of theories as performative (which captures a bulk of extant work) and the ex post rationality of performativity scholars is one thing — but seemingly one needs to appropriately specify the constraints (informational and otherwise) and choice sets of the actors involved at the time of the ‘performance.’
- Really — how do we distinguish between performativity and counter-performativity? What is the difference? Counter-performativity appears to question the whole validity of the perspective.
On the margin, I think the performativity argument has some merit. Sure, yes, we can point to how we, perhaps foolishly, may have adopted certain conventions or theories that in restrospect prove “arbitrary.” But, the full-blown strong version of the performativity argument, that seemingly is the norm in org theory and economic sociology, is quite problematic as it cannot meaningfully address the above questions. That said, undoubtedly there’s lots of opportunity to explore these and other issues in future work — maybe performativity indeed is the future of economic sociology! (Unless it somehow gets counter-performed.)