In response to Kieran and Ezra’s posts, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology and STS wrote a lengthy post about the nature of performativity arguments. A representative clip:
To put in yet another way, the difference between constructivists and realists is over the issue of prediction, and in particular over the issue of long-term prediction. Short-term predictions are possible for both the realist and the constructivist. But long-term predictions, say, about housing prices or computer prices 50 years from now, will be more difficult for constructivists to make than realists. It is difficult only because even objective factors that determine prices can be changed by long-term cultural work; and this cultural work is impossible to predict. The more confident you are about prediction, you shift to the realism side of the spectrum. The less confident about prediction you are, will make you more of a constructivist.
And this explains, finally, some of the arguments that have been happening in the Orgtheory comment threads. Would you like your regulator to be a realist or a constructivist? Realists argue that even the existence of regulators is premised on realism; for if there were no objective factors constraining social facts (like prices) then how would one even begin to regulate something in the first place? I would disagree. I think it depends on the time-frame that the regulator is supposed to regulate. A regulator who is thinking about the future 50 years from now is simply deceiving himself or herself. For a regulator who is thinking 5 or 10 years down the line: it simply doesn’t matter whether he is a realist or a constructivist.
Check it out.
These questions came up during orgtheory training last week. I did not have good answers:
- A lot of performativity research focuses on stock options, less on futures. Why?
- Are there good studies of performativity of theory that aren’t about the economic profession?
My lame answers: 1. Everyone is taught Black-Scholes first, but no reason performativity theory couldn’t be applied in other types of markets, 2. economics is the most influential intellectual group that has a theory of social behavior that is inaccurate (which makes performativity possible) . Post your answers in the comments.
Prompted in part by some conversations at the ASA meetings, in part by Gabriel’s discussion of the Social Structures author-meets-critics session, and in part by some gentle prodding from Cosma Shalizi, here’s a current draft of a paper of mine, The Performativity of Networks, that I’ve been sitting on for rather too long. Here’s the abstract:
The “performativity thesis” is the claim that parts of contemporary economics and finance, when carried out into the world by professionals and popularizers, reformat and reorganize the phenomena they purport to describe, in ways that bring the world into line with theory. Practical technologies, calculative devices and portable algorithms give actors tools to implement particular models of action. I argue that social network analysis is performative in the same sense as the cases studied in this literature. Social network analysis and finance theory are similar in key aspects of their development and effects. For the case of economics, evidence for weaker versions of the performativity thesis in quite good, and the strong formulation is circumstantially supported. Network theory easily meets the evidential threshold for the weaker versions; I offer empirical examples that support the strong (or “Barnesian”) formulation. Whether these parallels are a mark in favor of the thesis or a strike against it is an open question. I argue that the social network technologies and models now being “performed” build out systems of generalized reciprocity, connectivity, and commons-based production. This is in contrast both to an earlier network imagery that emphasized self-interest and entrepreneurial exploitation of structural opportunities, and to the model of action typically considered to be performed by economic technologies.
The usual disclaimers about work-in-progress apply.
I believe someone on this blog banned the word “performativity” some time ago — but, I’m going to lift the ban for a second and give a quick report on the performativity session at the Academy of Management in Montreal last week.
The session was well attended and good fun. It involved Fabrizio Ferraro and Daniel Beunza, Yuval Millo, Nicolai Foss and me, and Bruce Kogut. As I’m sure that the Socializing Finance folks will also give a report, I’ll just give a quick summary of our presentation.
First, we (this is co-work with Nicolai) discussed some good news (slide #1) about the performativity argument vis-a-vis markets:
- It attempts to open the black box (construction) of “markets.”
- Performativity focuses on actors and their subjectivity, along with the specific tools, devices and socio-political machinery of market construction.
- Often provides rich histories of economic phenomena.
Then the bad news about the performativity of markets argument:
- Simply: it’s wrong (this was slide #2).
More seriously, one way to perhaps summarize the issue with the performativity argument is that it suffers from a serious endogeneity problem. Namely, the performativity approach selects a particular model (theory, device, etc) and traces it’s “effect” (diffusion, use) through history, post hoc, without looking at the set of possible models (or devices) that might have been chosen or created. In fact, performativity assumes that models, a priori, are “arbitrary” and thus ignores (even rejects) the underlying “reasons” for why the particular model (or device etc) has an effect or perhaps is better than feasible alternatives. So, let me elaborate:
- The performativity argument mistakes uncertainty for performativity. In other words, what seemingly looks like performativity is actually the “best efforts” and guesses of actors to understand states of the world or create devices to explain it. Given this uncertainty it is unfair to simply label this initial work by actors as a performance, though this is precisely what the performativity argument does: it takes imperfect models, developed by informationally-constrained actors, and traces the diffusion, uses and aberrations of these models (the data of performativistas).
- Put differently, performativity samples on the dependent variable by only focusing on the successful models rather than the set of possible models (or looking at how, given heterogeneity, a particular model emerges).
- Furthermore, performativity not only dispenses with notions of truth, but also comparative notions such as “better.” According to performativity, there is no way to judge a priori, the truth of models is directly linked with the diffusion or social acceptance of these model, and their self-fulfilling nature.
- So, performativity, then, essentially confounds social acceptance and diffusion with performance itself without recognizing the rationality and informational constraints of human agents. That’s a problem.
- Performativity rejects any notions of being (granted, subjectively) able to assess the environment. To get more concrete — Fabrizio for example talked about how socially responsible investment vehicles (tools, markets, etc) were created, and cited performativity as the explanation. But clearly the construction of this market is not impervious to an actual, real market opportunity. Or? Can any market be performed?
- The whole counter-performativity notion directly refutes performativity itself. The performativity argument is self-refuting in several ways. First, performativity has to logically allow, though doesn’t, for some kind of a priori reality that is being modified by the performance. Second, if performance is the only act in town, then there is no way for counter-performance to emerge. For example, the notion of a bubble (well, specifically the “pop” of a bubble) is logically not explainable from a performativity perspective.
- I have often wondered how the performativity program reflexively sees itself. So, for example, if, as performativistas say, economists are engaged in an arbitrary performance, what is the performativity program itself doing? It seems to implicitly take on a rather privileged stance vis-a-vis itself, though this stance (again) is self-refuting given the assumptions that performativity makes about the exercise that others are engaged in.
- Yuval kept talking about “testable reality” and “prediction” vis-a-vis performativity. His point, I think, was that social acceptance is the test, but note again that agents are deliberating about the potential uses of a model or device under uncertainty, with feasible alternatives and informational constraints, and that is quite different from performativity. One can’t simply point at Ptolemy’s geocentric model and tell a performativity story.
- A final concern is that the performativity of markets/finance argument builds directly on the Edinburgh strong programme of research (and science and technology studies), which fundamentally dispenses with the very notions of science and knowledge (a la Barnes and Bloor: prediction and explanation, reason and rationality are thrown out the door).
OK, that’s my quick laundry list.
Overall, despite my pessimism about performativity argument, I do think that we need additional theorizing and empirical unpacking of the notion of “markets” — something that the performativity program is attempting to do. There are clearly important processes of social construction going on in markets, and understanding the actors, their subjective assessments and models, influence processes and mechanisms, tools, devices etc seems central for a proper understanding of markets. So, I’m glad the performativity folks are also addressing these types of issues and are willing to engage in friendly interactions and lively debates.
Happy thanksgiving. Here’s a holiday snack: performativity and critical race theory come together, via Andrew Sullivan.
Hello Orgtheorists! I am new to blogging but I have been enjoying this blog for a while so I am really excited at the idea of joining your conversations. Thanks to Teppo, Brayden, Kieran, Fabio and Omar for letting me blog here.
I was not planning to start with a long post on the pro and cons of performativity, self-fulfilling prophecies, etc…but after Teppo’s recent post, I couldn’t resist…so here is my 2 cents on this debate. Going through the comments that followed Teppo’s posting on performativity, and similar debates on orgtheory (here, here, and here), socializing finance, organizations and markets, and old- fashioned journal articles (AJS, AMR, OrgScience), I was struck by the number of different conversations/debates/questions we manage to weave around this one perspective (notice I don’t use the t word). I started listing them and I counted at least eleven major debates:
- Realism and Constructionism
- Positivism and Interpretivism
- Nature and nurture
- Materialism and Idealism
- Voluntarism and Structuralism
- Rationality debate
- The debate on economics (and economists): How did economics become the dominant social science? Is economics wrong? Is it evil? Are economists self-interested? Are B-Schools spreading dangerous (economic) theories?
- Is the crisis ultimately the failure of Chicago-style economics? Are economists describing the economy or designing it? Or both?
- The Materiality debate: What is the role of technology (and other material artifacts) in the functioning of markets (and organizations)? What is the role of models, formula, in shaping the functioning of markets (and organizations)? Did a formula kill Wall St.?
- Do financial incentives in organizations work? When? What are their limits?
- Is performativity a theory? How is performativity different from traditional self-fulfilling prophecies? How is it different from institutional theory? Commensuration? Is performativity the future of economic sociology?
I am sure I am missing some of the key debates, and I hope readers will jump in and add to the list of debates and questions that the performativity debate has touched. It feels like performativity has become a sort of Rorschach test for organization theorists, economic sociologists, (few) economists and other social scientists who project on it their worldviews, their knowledge, their biases and enter heated intellectual duels without clear winners. Taken individually, these questions are all interesting and could be treated scientifically but all together they become a hairy mess of (ideological) assumptions, ontological and epistemological positions, methodological preferences, and ultimately the debates generate a déjà-vu feeling that might actually only reinforce our original positions (a classic example of Lee Ross’ biased assimilation).
I wonder if we are not asking too much from performativity?
Debates one through six have been discussed for centuries and will never be “resolved,” and I personally hope they will never be resolved, because the creative tension between these positions drives theoretical imagination, and, in my opinion, generates more interesting social science (see Abbott’s Chaos of Discipline for a wonderful discussion of this process). Also, why should we expect performativity to provide “the” answer to these debates? Also, why should we expect “one” answer? For instance, among scholars in the performativity arena, I bet that you will find both hard core constructionists-interpretivists, and scholars who would tend more towards a realists-positivists approach (for instace, I don’t consider myself a pure constructionist, but I know Teppo and Nicolai label me as such…), so which one is the “performativity” position?
Critics will point out that the root of these problems is that performativity has not clarified its theoretical mechanisms, defined its scope conditions well enough, and of course, provided enough empirical evidence, so it is easy to poke holes into it. My AMR paper with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton was, among other things, an attempt to tease out the mechanisms and define the scope conditions of self-fulfilling prophecies. Much of the debate that followed was focused on the polemical qualities of the paper, on whether we like or economists or not (not a very interesting question: of course we do! of course we admire their work! And btw, last night I had dinner with three academic economists, all Princeton PhDs!), rather than its modest attempt to systematize some of the performativity ideas. Furthermore, not enough good quality empirical work has been published to better articulate the theoretical ideas and test them. The good news is that there is much development on both fronts, and I am optimistic about the future development of these ideas (many orgtheory readers are working on these problems, and this is already a key sign that something is moving!)
At the same time, I don’t think we are ever going to solve many of the debates listed above, and definitely it is not productive to address all of them together. So my suggestion will be to narrow down the scope of the discussions around performativitiy, and to do that, in my postings here, I will start from a different set of questions from the one Teppo asks. Rather than asking whether performativity is the future of economic sociology, or whether performativity is a good theory (or a theory at all), I would rather ask:
- Has performativity research been useful in my understanding of organizations and markets?
- How can perfomativity research inform my own work on organizations and markets?
I believe that these questions might help us identify whether and how performativity is helping us do better social science. I will address these questions in future posts but for now I would like to get your answers: What has performativity done for you?
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.)
From the most recent issue of the journal Human Relations, here’s a piece on performativity and management by Spicer, Alvesson and Kärreman. The piece makes links between the area of critical management studies (CMS) and performativity.
We argue that critical management studies (CMS) should be conceptualized
as a profoundly performative project. The central task of
CMS should be to actively and pragmatically intervene in specific
debates about management and encourage progressive forms of
management. This involves CMS becoming affirmative, caring,
pragmatic, potential focused, and normative. To do this, we suggest
a range of tactics including affirming ambiguity, working with
mysteries, applied communicative action, exploring heterotopias and
And, here’s another piece by Adler, Forbes and Wilmott summarizing CMS, from the Academy of Management Annals.
Heads up on an upcoming (Oct. 2008) workshop in Toulouse — “performativity as politics: unlocking economic sociology.”
Either-or intensities and infinitely sharp criteria of membership have been assumed in defining nets and cats. The realities of social structure are more blurred. The most revealing approach to these realities is through analysis of the validation and legitimation structures and processes which settle issues of existence and intensity of ties and attributes in social systems. One special case are the procedures of social research, which to an increasing extent are being built in as an accepted part of the validation and legitimation procedures in current American society, for better or worse.
Yuval Millo sent me a note about an upcoming workshop he is co-organizing with Daniel Beunza at Columbia Business School —- “From Bodies to Black Scholes: A Workshop on Performativity and the Social Studies of Finance.” Looks very interesting. And, this is a timely conference as performativity is getting lots of attention in journals and more generally in extant organizational discourse.
More details about the conference here, or, click below.
O&M links to an interesting interview of Eugene Fama. Here’s a quote from the interview:
Fama: I start my class every year by saying, “These are models. And the reason we call them models is that they’re not 100 percent true. If they were, we would call them reality, not models. They’re simplifications.” But the acid test is, How good are the simplifications for your purposes? And for almost all purposes, market efficiency is a very good approximation. There is very little evidence that money managers can beat the market.
[Hmm, thats my second use of "performativity" this week --- its just such a versatile tool --- I need to lay off.]
We’ve had “just theory” (theory-observation link) discussions here before. Here’s a related quote by Donald Knuth that I like:
Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.
[Hmm, how would "counterperformativity" work in this case?]
Glancing through the contributions of this newly released volume on performativity, economics and science studies, I quickly realized that there is an entire performativity “debate” that I had been blissfully unaware of until now. In our previous discussion of performativity, we mostly focused on the coherence and claim to uniqueness and innovativeness of this fuzzy concept. Yet, in the interdisciplinary matrix of “social studies of the economy” the notion that economics does not only describe and represent markets but also “performs” them has led to an entirely different and raucous conflict.
In essence, say critics of Michel Callon’s (1998) version of the story, if the main role of economics is to directly intervene in reality and construct markets in direct interaction with (and direct modification of) human, non-human, textual and socio-technical realities and their interrelationships, and if the primary weakness of older takes on the relationship of the social sciences to economics (such as economic sociology) had been their sole focus on the adequacy (or lack thereof) of economic theories as representational tools, then does that mean that the “critique” of economics is no longer possible and does that imply that we have to accept economics as an all powerful master capable of bending the world to conform to its dictates? Does that mean that an alternative to the “economic worldview” is therefore no longer even possible to imagine?
Anti-Callonistas reject the sole focus of the perfomativists on the all-powerful ability of economics (and economists) to bend reality’s will to conform to its specifications. Instead, they attempt to bring back the social sources of economic magic, and argue that the “construction” and “performance” of markets still requires a good deal of good ol’ fashioned access to political power. Without this, no performance and re-arrangements of human and non-human socio-technical networks is forthcoming.
It seems to me that this debate seems to conflate some important issues. First, there is the question of whether economic theories and economic models are adequate representations of market phenomena in the abstract. After all, while in agreement with Callon, it is true that economists have played a part in the construction of various contemporary markets, this has not always been the case, since as every economic historian would point out, markets as social structures are older than economics as an intellectual pursuit. Thus, pace Callon, I would say that the “critique” of economic theory is still certainly valid when it comes to actually existing historical markets. So that economic theory (and economic history) can certainly be challenged as a representational device in its claim to represent all market phenomena past and present, even those that did not owe their existence to the intervention of economics as a technological bundle and a profession.
Second, there is the conflation of the various senses of performativity and the limits of economic theory. I find the performativity story convincing in the following sense: it is possible–within limits–to refashion, the communicative, relational, cognitive and informational nature of a given social structure so as to move it closer to the simplified market model that economists usually trot out. That is, one can go from an informationally inadequate, cognitively limited, communicatively segmented social structure to one that features actors with the requisite cognitive prostheses, quasi-instantaneous access to information, lower transaction costs etc. that approximates the actors and thin social environment postulated by economic models. You can then “seal off”–in Thompson’s sense–this socio-technical system from environmental disturbances (this usually takes some political doing) and voila you’ve got a (neoclassical) “market.”
However, this will only occur in certain very delimited circumstances, which might explain the reason why the toy case studies that have become Kuhnian exemplars in performativity research (i.e. the partitioning of the FCC spectrum, Norwegian fisheries, the Chicago stock exchange) all kind of “look alike.” The are single-industry cases in which something that was previously uncommodified (waves, futures, fish) became commodified. Yet, I wonder whether the Callonian exhortation that we should stop worrying about economics as a representational device and come to love the utility function would be very useful for those who are interested in “big” market phenomena: those dealing with multi-industry, multi-site (upstream and downstream) arrangements of producers and consumers (the market phenomena that Harrison White is interested in modeling in Markets from Networks for instance) and the systems that are of interest to both industrial economists and organizational ecologists.
When it comes to those type of market phenomena, the study of the “performance” of which cannot be easily fit into the busy schedule of a Parisian anthropologist of science, the representationalist critique of economic sociology is completely justified: economic theory is simply not a good descriptive (or even predictive) device, and economic professionals with their experimental models and computer simulations were not responsible for their construction nor are they currently responsible for their continuing functioning. Those are the markets that get milk to your breakfast table (or Pizza to your dinner table), not the fancy ones that the Parisian folk like to study (they don’t like Pizza), but probably the most important ones nonetheless.
A new edited book (by Donald Mackenzie, Fabian Muniesa, Lucia Siu) published by Princeton University Press further discusses ‘performativity’ (a frequently discussed and mentioned concept here at orgtheory.net):
Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics (here’s a pdf of the first chapter). More potentially later as one of us runs into a copy.
Update: Here’s an earlier version of the Callon chapter, which Swedberg calls the “most important statement on performativity” – Callon, M. What does it mean to say that economics is performative?
This quote comes from an extremely interesting essay by Max Weber entitled “Marginal Utility Theory and ‘The Fundamental Law of Psychophysics’” translated by Louis Schneider for the June 1975 issue of Social Science Quarterly. In the paper, Weber reviews Brentano’s (1908) The Development of Value Theory, and he criticizes Brentano for suggesting that psychological experiments were relevant to establishing the scientific status of marginal utility theory (I guess Weber wouldn’t be a big fan of Neuroeconomics) and he sides with Menger’s view of the purely analytical status of economic generalizations and their autonomy from psychology (for more on the Weber-Austrian connection see Zafirovski 2002).
More interesting is of course Weber’s YAAP:
Yet, the historical peculiarity of the capitalist epoch, and thereby also the significance of marginal utility theory (as of every economic theory of value) for the understanding of this epoch, rests on the circumstances that–while the economic history of some epochs of the past has not without reason been designated as “history of non-economic conditions”–under today’s conditions of existence the approximation of reality to the theoretical propositions of economics has been a constantly increasing one. It is an approximation to reality that has implicated the destiny of ever-wider layers of humanity. And it will hold more and more broadly, as far as our horizons allow us to see (1975: 33, italics in the original).
A few lines on the mechanics (and in defense) of performativity by Yuval Millo (co-author of this AJS piece on performativity).
Brayden pointed out a new blog to me today - Socializing Finance: A Blog on the Social Studies of Finance by Daniel Buenza and colleagues.
Their most recent post – performativity, for or against – resurrects some issues raised in our recent book seminar on MacKenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera. After reading the MacKenzie book, along with a host of related published articles, and writing several blog posts, and reading others (including the mega-one), and discussing the arguments with colleagues of various stripes - I am still at a loss as to what performativity is. I am not losing any sleep over the matter, but, was glad to see the question raised again.
Rubinstein: As in the case of a good fable, a good model can have an enormous influence on the real world, not by providing advice or by predicting the future, but rather by influencing culture. Yes, I do think we are simply the tellers of fables, but is that not wonderful?
Lucas: I’m not sure whether you will take this as a confession or a boast, but we are basically story-tellers, creators of make-believe economic systems.
McCloskey: All models are metaphors, and all metaphors are lies.
I presented a paper in an interesting ASA session a couple of years ago with several people who did qualitative studies of financial markets. I was the lone quantitative oddball. The discussion that followed our presentations drifted to the topic of performativity. As someone who was relatively unfamiliar with the concept, I was intrigued to hear someone in the audience confidently declare that “economic sociology would soon be the study of performativity.” I took the statement as hyperbole but also as a warning that I needed to pay more attention to the work of people like Callon and MacKenzie. If there was going to be a sea change in economic sociology, I wanted to be aware of it.
Perhaps it was due to this moment of (re)definition at the ASA meetings that made me so surprised to read MacKenzie’s own lukewarm ambitions in changing economic sociology. MacKenzie claims in An Engine, Not a Camera that economic sociology is not the target of his scholarship. He makes a point of differentiating his research on financial markets from what is typically done in economic sociology.
This book is plainly not economics…Nor is it economic sociology, at least as traditionally conceived….Economic sociology, for example, has been strong on its emphases on matters such as the embedding of markets in cultures, in politics, and in networks of personal interconnections. It has traditionally been less concerned with the systematic forms of knowledge deployed in markets or with their technological infrastructures…(pg. 25).
This statement seemed strange to me at first reading. If we don’t study the systematic forms of knowledge deployed in markets, then what do economic sociologists study? This has been, in my mind, the point of much economic sociology since Weber. But after taking a few deep breaths, I began to see the purpose behind the comment. It’s not that economic sociology isn’t concerned with various forms of market knowledge (see for example the work of Mitchel Abolafia). Rather, MacKenzie is just trying to orient his topic to a broader audience, who might include but would not be limited to economic sociologists. His broader audience inclues anyone interested in the sociology of science. Thus, limiting the implications to economic sociology is far too narrow.
Still, I felt like MacKenzie downplays the contributions this book makes to economic sociology. If performativity truly will be the organizing concept of economic sociology in the future, then this book will play a pivotal framing role. Let me point out a few ways in which MacKenzie’s work contributes to important discussions occuring elsewhere in our subfield.
One of the highlights of my visit to Northwestern was a chance to sit in on Paul Hirsch’s “Macro-Organization Behavior” doctoral seminar (well, and the subsequent dinner pictured below – sorry, that was the best shot we were able to get). Paul’s seminar consists of first and second year students in the organizations and/or sociology PhD programs. The level of discussion was high – frankly, surprisingly high. Fantastic students.
Beyond the regular discussion for that day (we read Zajac-Westphal ASR, Davis et al. ASR, Oliver AMR and Thornton-Ocasio AJS — important papers), Paul asked me to send him some recent work of mine. I was hoping we would get into some issues related to performativity and markets – but Paul had the students read about the Jepperson and Meyer debate. The classic agency v structure (or, actor v non-actor) debate was a good fit for the seminar. The discussion was very lively. We had a great discussion about whether the two sides simply represent extremes, about the history of methodological debates like this (going back to the German Historical School, Weber etc), the practical implications of these debates for understanding social phenomena, questions of “pushing your cookie” versus pluralism, etc, etc. Great discussion.
As a quick side comment – what is very cool about Northwestern is that everything seems to scream “inter-disciplinarity” of some sort. Very cool. The orgs and soc people are extremely well linked, attend each other’s seminars etc, micro and macro folks work together (e.g., Brayden has a recent piece with the notorious Adam G in a psych outlet), you’ve orgs folks like Jeannette Colyvas at the Ed School, and you’ve got fascinating interdisciplinary centers like the one Brian Uzzi co-directs (Nico).
So, bottom line – if you are considering an orgs phd (I know we have a few readers in this boat), then Northwestern better be at the top of your list. I don’t think you can go wrong there – fantastic scholars and an interdisciplinary, collaborative environment. Two orgtheory thumbs up.
The photo was taken at the restaurant Prairie Moon. (Again, sorry about the photo quality – it was the best shot we got, even with my all-powerful 4s.)
I’m pretty enamored by many things (including performativity). One of them is social choice theory. I think the intuition developed by scholars like Condorcet, Arrow and Sen is fundamental for any social, political or economic setting. Now, the theory of course does not capture many issues: social influence, the origins of preferences, and more generally, contextual issues. Some might even say that social choice theory scarcely corresponds with reality. But I think it nonetheless is a very powerful theory.
What I like about social choice theory is that it fundamentally is about social aggregation. And one beef I’ve had for some time is the lack of consideration for aggregation-related issues in organization theory (and strategy for that matter). Now, sure, aggregation isn’t everything – of course contextual/organizational factors and the environment matter. But there used to be a brand of organization theory that also dealt with questions of aggregation – a portion of the Simon-March line of work was dedicated to this issue. A nice articulation of a few of the key issues can be found in Jim March’s (1962) classic (and definitely under-cited) Journal of Politics piece “the business firm as a political coalition.”
So, with colleagues I’ve been working on some papers that try to apply and amend social choice intuition in the context of organizations. In one paper we develop a formal model of organizational strategy as a social choice. In the model we specifically allow for particular influence structures to condition and shape social choices in organizations. So, ok, this post is a bleg – my colleague (in electrical engineering) and I would like feedback on this particular paper.
It’s a rare book that usefully links Bob Sutton and Jar Jar Binks. Well, that’s what Martine Syms manages to do in “Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film.” Martine is an artist/curator/generally artsy person in Chicago. I met her at the MDW Fair in April (see my write up here) and she told me she was finishing up a book on Black film. I decided to check it out.
Implications and Distinctions is a short text that falls in the realm of cultural criticism. The theme is how Blackness appears in film as a topic, reference, marker, and audience. It touches on a number of fascinating topics, ranging from the history of Black film to the struggles of black owned theaters in Chicago (which I have been to).
The funnest section is a passage discussing the origins of the “ghetto talk” scene in the movie Airplane! The directors were looking for Black actors to satirize the kind of talk found in film Shaft. Norman Gibbs and Alvin White invented their jive talk for the audition to appeal to the director. Now, ironically, a lot of people probably believe that’s the way that people really talk. Another point for performativity theories.
Implications and Distinctions is a good read for anyone interested in film and race. It’s also a great example of what socially engaged humanities should be. Serious, yet accessible. Finally, in case you were wondering, Sutton is mentioned because of his writing on swearing in the workplace.
I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality. I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role? For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.
But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?
One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology. Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember. The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality. But, the color research shows otherwise. Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color. (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)
Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.
Here are some links to this literature:
- Berlin & Kay. 1991 (2nd edition). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press.
- Lindsey & Brown. 2006. Universality of color names. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103: 16608-16613.
- Terry Regier, Paul Kay, Aubrey Gilbert, and Richard Ivry. 2010. Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: Perspectives on the Language-Thought Interface. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ke Zhou, Lei Mo, Paul Kay, Veronica P.Y. Kwok, Tiffany N.M. Ip, & Li Hai Tan. 2010. Newly trained lexical categories produce lateralized categorical perception of color. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 9974-9978.
- See Paul Kay’s web site.
- Also check out the World Color Survey @ Berkeley.
Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction. But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point. And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.
There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction. And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings. But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.
Here’s a very interesting observation that I recently came across:
The history of say, the sociology of nationalism or the sociology of religion might be written a one in which an initial competition between Marxist, Durkheimian and Weberian approaches to nationalism or religion–which were also Marxist, Durkhemian and Weberian approaches to anything else—has gradually given way to internal debates about nationalism or religion among specialists in those areas and the development of in-house “theories of” nationalism or religion. From there it has sometimes been a short step to the jettisoning of the formal theoretical apparatuses altogether and a readiness to embrace increasingly interdisciplinary inquiries into the phenomenon of nationalism or religion. Indeed, it is now possible to devote an entire career to one specialist area without worrying too much about the integrity of the [theoretical] tools one deploys to study it. This sequence–sociological inquiry into X on the basis of established disciplinary procedures, expansion of the discipline by means of the increasing proliferation of specialist areas, development of localized substantive theories within those areas, abandonment of formal theory altogether, and embrace of interdisciplinary methods and the establishment of departments or centers of ”X studies”—was what the German sociologist F. Tenbruck had in mind in his essay on “the law of trivialization” (Turner 2010: 30).
This seems to me to do a good job of intuitively describing the fate of many fields in sociology and their relationship to their more mature “interdisciplinary” cousins. For instance, there is the sociology of religion, and there are “religious studies.” There is the sociology of race and ethnicity and there are “race and ethnic studies.” There is the sociology of gender and there are “gender studies,” (sociology of organizations versus organizational studies?). This also seems to agree with my impression that the work done under the interdisciplinary banner tends to be a little loosey-goosey, more descriptive and generally less interesting (with exceptions) than its more disciplinary classical or post-classical counterparts. I wouldn’t go so far as calling this type of work “trivial” but I’d have to agree that there is certainly something of a transformation towards less compelling, more delimited and generally more circumscribed questions as we move along the gradient from classical, to post-classical to interdisciplinary “X-studies.”
Conversely, we can surmise that areas that are successful in partially resisting the move, may keep their original appeal. I think the recent move towards performativity in economic sociology represents the first attempt to move the field from its postclassical, disciplinary form to a more interdisciplinary format (e.g. “social studies of the economy”; just like Mertonian “sociology of science” was transformed into “social studies of science” during the 1970s and 1980s). If successful in reorienting the field we can predict that work on social studies of the economy will become less tied to classical or post-classical questions (e.g. Zelizer’s running argument with Marx, Simmel and Weber; Granovetter’s via media between under and over-socialized conceptions of the actor, etc.), more concerned with relatively minute conceptual, epistemological and methodological issues, and more dependent on micro-descriptive case study material. If unsuccessful, we get to keep economic sociology as it now stands, but it is likely that post-classical “fatigue” will soon set in.
This is already what has happened to much that goes by the name of “organizational studies” in Europe and the U.S. which contrasts sharply with what used to go by name of “the sociology of organizations” along the same dimensions (e.g. circumscription versus ambition, descriptivism versus substantive theory, etc.). The much ballyhooed “crisis” of organizational theory (which we have devoted some attention to here in the past), may then be recast simply as an abortive transition towards interdisciplinary “trivialization” manifested as (the lingering feeling of) being stuck in an intermediary status quo: neither here (sociology of organizations) nor there (organizational studies). Organizational theory is in crisis because this type of “theoretical” concern (tethered by an umbilical cord to big or medium-sized classic questions) simply does not fit the organizational studies mold.
Two weeks ago, I reviewed Between Movement and Establishment, an institutional analysis of youth advocacy groups. My big complaint was that institutional scholars needed to get up to speed and work on policy. Lots of good work on describing youth advocacy organizations, not enough on the outcomes. So what can institutionalists add to debates over organizational outcomes and policy? A few suggestions:
- Institutionalism is pretty useful for coming up with hypotheses about the creation and adoption of policies. The movement/institutional literature has good descriptions of how interest groups affect the policy environment. For example, one hypothesis is that movement generated policies usually have to be watered down to be accepted. Another hypothesis is that policy adoption waves are like management fads. There’s already a decent literature on this in org studies and public policy.
- Institutional theory has promise on the issue of implementation. Once the organization adopts policy, how does it get translated into practice? The new research on institutional work I think has promise. You have to consider what organizational leaders do to make something acceptable, or to reframe the rules so that new policy is possible.
- Outcomes – here the link is less obvious. One way that institutionalism could contribute is to discuss how culture affects the definition and monitoring of outcomes. Another insight, drawing from our former guest Michael Sauder, is that the ranking/rating of outcomes creates new incentives for organizational behavior, “teaching to the test.” I wonder if there’s an interesting story about how institutional processes change the behavior of people targeted by policy (performativity strikes again!!!!). It’s a stretch, but worth considering.
#1 isn’t bad and #2 is a straight forward application of current institutional theory. Doing #3 for real would be a home run.
Management and organizational scholars of all types are congregating in Montreal this weekend for the Academy of Management meetings. The city has been overrun by nerds like me. Although I’ve only been here once before, I thought Montreal was a great host city. The restaurants are interesting and the city is very walkable. I haven’t spent enough time here though to really know where the cool places to eat are. I’ve been told that Au Pied de Cochon and Eduardo Duluth are worth a try. Any advice from our readers?
As for the Academy experience, as always, there is a lot to choose from. If you’re interested in social movements and organizations I recommend that you attend our session Monday at 3 pm (518B in the Palais de Congres). Or if you’re into a duke-it-out style session, I recommend attending “Theory, Performativity, and Social Reality,” which is in the same room Monday at 4:45. Teppo, Fabrizio Ferraro, Nicolai Foss, Bruce Kogut, and Yuval Milo will be exchanging (friendly) blows. Post other session recommendations in the comments.
I noticed an issue flare up over the last two months – the hatred of science and technology studies (STS). This first popped up when Nick Rowland was guest blogging. He wrote a post about technology as a sort of field of action rather than a specific object, a new idea is STS. Ezra responded with this comment:
Hmm… with all due respect, seems to me that I should be able to understand this post. But I cannot. Then again, I confess not to understand the prior “waves” of STS either. In general, it seems to me that one should evaluate a theory (if that is what STS practitioners produce) based on whether it can it account for more facts with as minimal a conceptual apparatus as possible, where such an apparatus obviously needs to be coherent. But STS seems to be more trouble than it is worth on all three of these scores– (a) not clear how it does in accounting for facts (in part because practitioners generally seem allergic to establishing facts independent of theory [of course, facts are theory-laden but there must be some establishment of facts independent of theory if the theorist wants to convince us to accept her theory rather than some other); (b) proliferation of concepts [often with an obvious attempt at sexy labels; e.g, 'agora'; 'mangle of practice']; and (c) [consequently] very hard to understand. I confess though that I do not read much STS because it long ago seemed to fail miserably, at least by criterion (c). Though I’m open to the suggestion that I’m just not smart enough to understand STS theory or that there is better work that I’m not aware of. (I’m not particularly open to the possibility that my criteria are inappropriate). FWIW.
Later, in a discussion of performativity, Ezra also played the skeptic:
But I did not hear why the emerging research you described does any better. Is there something that it can explain that existing theory cannot?
So what is it about STS that is so infuriating? I think it’s this: Most STS folks openly reject the normal science model where you stick with a variable or issue and then work on it. The normal science model allows you to clarify, simplify and then expand. Think “human capital” or “structural holes.” It’s easy for outsiders to quickly grasp the concept and for newcomers to use it.
STS works with a continental model of knowledge – thick description and, as Ezra points out, proliferation of concepts. Rather than hammer a variable home, they jump from interesting case to case. They revel in new phenomena. It’s very ecological – new empirical observations suggest new ways of combining concepts, creating a mangled web of theory. Of course, this is very anti-normal science. You end up with a cabinet of curiosities than a deep and precise knowledge of a specific issue.
I’ve always been tolerant of STS, I was on Nick’s dissertation committee after all. There’s something deceptive about technology and science. When it works, it looks simple and it’s easy to take it for granted. This has often been true of academics who study science, especially in the pre-Kuhn/Latour era. The odd concepts of STS shake me out of my complacency and see things in a new light.
Economic sociology these days seems preoccupied with “performativity.” That attention is well-deserved because the notion that the use of a model can improve its predictive fit is a powerful idea. (For a graphic representation of the concept, see the excerpt by Brooke Harrington.) But perhaps it’s time for a corrective look.
Graduate seminars are a useful barometer of when a concept starts to run past its purposes. Some decades ago it was “socially constructed,” next “embeddedness” took its turn, and then for a brief while “boundary object.” (I can’t begin to list all the things that students told me were boundary objects.) Today it’s “performativity.” The problem was not just that the terms were used, but that instead of being asked as a question (“how is it socially constructed and why does that matter?”) reference to the concept becomes the quick answer to almost any kind of question regardless of how far away from the original idea. People who have experience leading graduate seminars will recognize what I’m talking about. There’s a pretty good discussion going on, and just when things are getting perplexing and difficult (i.e. good, as in potentially productive), someone voices the solution (“It’s a clear case of performativity, right?) and it suddenly seems to close the conversation.
With all the talk about economists performing the economy and models performing markets, perhaps we are losing site of skilled performance. Charlie Smith addresses such skilled performances in a recent paper, “Coping with Contingencies in Equity Option Markets” (forthcoming in The Worth of Goods:Valuation and Pricing in the Economy, edited by Patrik Aspers and Jens Beckert, Oxford University Press). Smith distinguishes among three strategies for confronting uncertainties. The first, “Making Sense” entails imposing some kind of narrative account on events initially experienced as chaotic. “Routines,” the second strategy imposes some sort of behavioral order. The third, “Acting Sensibly,” the least common but the most interesting, doesn’t seek to impose an overall order. It is a method for handling the contingent and the disorderly. In this rich study of option traders, Smith analyzes the practices of juggling multiple rules of thumb in managing option positions.
Daniel Beunza and I take a similar analytic approach when moving from how models make markets to understanding how traders actually use models. We conduct an ethnographic account of merger arbitrage as a reflexively skilled performance, with reflexivity socially distributed inside and outside the trading room. “Models, reflexivity, and systemic risk: a critique of behavioral finance,” available here, is a paper with a twist. When the system lacks requisite diversity (or dissonance), the unintended outcome of the attempt to deal with the fallibility of financial models is systemic risk.
I’ve also been exploring these themes in a presentation called simply Performance. It’s one of several ‘silent lectures’ — a genre I’ve been working on for my undergraduate teaching. They’re intended to evoke the multiple, intertwined meanings of some basic concepts. As I’ve discovered in my teaching, sometimes silence on my part is the best way to stimulate students to become active in the process of making associations. Each silent lecture is a PowerPoint slide show, typically with about 100 images and few words. The presentations are self-timed. Load the PowerPoint, click ‘view slide show,’ and it runs itself, usually under 10 minutes.
I’ve found silent lectures to be a very effective way to stimulate discussion, even in a relatively large lecture course with as many as 80 students. There’s clearly no “right answer” (a dagger that kills good discussion) and the students get that right away. One can sense that there’s lots of energy in the room, people really want to talk, and so I just get out of the way and listen in amazement at the connections they’re making.
Silent lectures are available for download on my website here. Please feel free to use them in your teaching. I ask only that you credit the source and that you send me an email to let me know that you’ve used one. Of course, I’d appreciate feedback: I continue revising and tweaking them. But I know that folks are busy. It’s enough just to drop me a one line note (“used your slide show in my course”) so I can track usage.
Performance opens with musicians, dancers, and actors performing. Then athletes. Audiences applaud. We see judges, report cards, stock tickers, measurements, Top Ten lists, and online ratings of restaurants, movies, politicians, and professors. Various performance venues, material and virtual — from stadiums and lecture halls to surgeries and Second Life. Students get it that the images of the CEOs of the big automakers and investment banks testifying before Congress refer to a kind of performance about performance.
The slide show explores the interplay of the real-time skilled achievement of effective performance and the evaluative principles of measurement. From the bedroom to the boardroom, pharmaceutical companies and management consultants promise enhanced performance. We live in an age of performance anxiety.
orgtheory.net “burst” onto the scene four years ago today. Here’s a few highlights and observations:
- We’ve had some brilliant (34 to be exact) guest bloggers.
- To date, there have been a total of 2,436 posts with 12,141 comments.
- We’ve had some vigorous debates about the legitimacy of blogging, what is bloggable, etc.
- orgtheory.net posts (Brayden just pointed this out to me) have now been cited in forthcoming scholarship, see this RSO [pdf] piece by Ezra.
- Fabio’s grad school rules have gotten lots of attention.
- The economics versus sociology debate remains a hot one.
- Performativity is a frequent topic (very frequent).
- We don’t shy away from long, article-length blog posts.
- Neither do we shy away from obscure sociological theory.
- orgtheory.net is both loved and hated.
- We’ve made presidential predictions/nominations.
- And, rubbed shoulders with the political elite.
- We like good books.
- Our evil, younger twin continues to pick on us.
- Scatterplot also teases.
- Sadly, this post by Fabio, about ferrets, remains extremely popular.
- There is one photo of the orgtheory crew (pre-Sean), well, and there’s this photo, fanny pack and all.
Beyond the above, there have been many gaffs, excellent posts, moments of brilliance as well as mediocrity, quite excellent (and not so) exchanges of ideas, fun debates, etc. Hopefully the blog will continue to provide a welcome distraction to readers, as it does for us. Thanks for engaging!
A commenter in a recent thread said that sociologists should attack economic problems, and not in the way the economic sociology currently does (i.e., treat markets or prices as another social construction). Sociologists should come up with some distinctive behavioral models and then show that they work. That comment inspired me to blog about an idea that’s been in my head for a while: The field of macroeconomics is ripe for a sociological take over.
Here are the reasons:
- It is a field where traditional economic models are widely acknowledged to be a massive failure.
- It is a field where historical contingency seems to matter a hell of a lot (see the Lucas critique).
- It is a field where non-linearity, complexity, and emergence matter. Scale shifts and feedback loops are common.
- It is a field where performativity matters – economic and political ideas get built into economic practices, which then affects business cycles and later policy.
In other words, macroeconomic systems display all the qualities that beg for sociological analyses. They are also the same properties that make micro-style theory of limited value. If you need a new topic to work on, email me.
John Searle has written a new book that should be of interest to many of you. Following the line of thought of his earlier The Construction of Social Reality, Searle’s Making the Social World tries to explain how we create a world of institutions, like organizations and culture, from a physical world that seems to play by a different set of principles. He starts by identifying a simple principle that he thinks can explain much of what counts for social reality. Here’s an excerpt from the introductory chapter:
It is typical of domains where we have a secure understanding of the ontology, that there is a single unifying principle of that ontology. In physics it is the atom, in chemistry it is the chemical bond, in biology it is the cell, in genetics it is the DNA molecule, and in geology it is the tectonic plate. I will argue that there is similarly an underlying principle of social ontology, and one of the primary aims of the book is to explain it. In making these analogies to the natural sciences I do not imply that the social sciences are just like the natural sciences. That is not the point. The point rather is that it seems to me implausible to suppose that we would use a series of logically independent mechanisms for creating institutional facts, and I am in search of a single mechanism. I claim we use one formal linguistic mechanism, and we apply it over and over with different contents (7).
The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) [Status Function] Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations (13).
Searle isn’t saying that every speech act makes the world change and therefore has a declarative effect. But some sorts of speech are intended to “change the world by declaring that the state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence” (12). These declarative speech acts, then, are the fundamental units of any institution because without them humans would be completely constrained by reality as it stands now. They would be unable to create anything new.
Needless to say, the performativity folks will eat this up.