what can performativity do for you?

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:

  1. Realism and Constructionism
  2. Positivism and Interpretivism
  3. Nature and nurture
  4. Materialism and Idealism
  5. Voluntarism and Structuralism
  6. Rationality debate
  7. 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?
  8. Is the crisis ultimately the failure of Chicago-style economics?  Are economists describing the economy or designing it? Or both?
  9. 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.?
  10. Do financial incentives in organizations work? When? What are their limits?
  11. 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?

Written by Fabrizio Ferraro

June 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm

17 Responses

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  1. Ask not what performativity can do for you, ask what you can do for performativity.


    Peter Klein

    June 4, 2009 at 2:37 pm

  2. of possible interest is this discussion of performativity in medicine and economics. the argument basically goes that when science is made a direct an explicit part of the political allocation of resources, the scientific process becomes corrupted. apparently economists refer to this as “Goodhart’s law”. this seems to be a special case that could be restated as the prediction that performativity will be an especially important concern when theory is most directly connected to resource allocation.



    June 4, 2009 at 4:22 pm

  3. Thinking about performativity (as a broad set of concerns rather than a specific theory) has been quite helpful in my work on the history of macroeconomic statistics. In all of the hoopla over the sexy truth and falsity of theories, most of the debate on performativity (that I’ve seen, anyway) has ignored some of the key insights of Callon’s formulation: that economics (and related fields) frame the world into calculable bits and then teach us how to calculate with them. There’s been a lot of emphasis on whether or not the calculative tricks (e.g. BSM) are “true” but relatively little on the, to me, perhaps more important part of the story: the kind of objects economics frames, and that we then take for granted. For example, in MacKenzie and Millo (2003), implied volatility becomes something much more real, manipulable and tradeable because it can be measured. Similarly, Holm (2007) has a nice story about the construction of individual transferable quotas for fishing – he shows how fish that had already been transformed into natural resources by one kind of scientific discourse were further framed into these quotas and thus a market was made possible. There’s not much space for “true” or “false” theories in that story, but there is a lot of space for performativity.

    So, to summarize, performativity has been very helpful for me in thinking through how economics, statistics, etc. frame the world into new kinds of objects.


    Dan Hirschman

    June 4, 2009 at 5:05 pm

  4. Hey Gabriel, why not link to the source of the discussion there.



    June 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  5. Fabrizio,

    I appreciate how your post ends with what I think are the two most important questions, both converging on the criterion of usefulness.

    Dan’s moved ahead with an answer, but in addition, I want to take a moment to value the questions themselves.

    Is that performative, or just sensible?


    CV Harquail

    June 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

  6. Great first post!

    A few quick thoughts:

    “What can performativity do for you?”

    I like the pragmatic angle, though I struggle a bit with the “theories-as-swiss-army-knife” approach to theorizing and understanding phenomenon — feels a bit too garbage can-like.

    “I wonder if we are not asking too much from performativity?”

    You’re potentially right — the performativity angle is relatively new in org theory and economic sociology. That said, the intuition that the current performativity research in org studies builds on (rhetoric, philosophy of language, science studies, SCOT, ANT, etc) now has a history and some of its fruits can be readily evaluated, and some forecasts and questions can also be raised in the application of this work into the economic/orgs/markets domain. Though, I think its a very healthy dialogue in all.



    June 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  7. I think Dan has it right.

    Performativity is a new way of looking at how things are made calculable. The rhetorical and technical transformation of uncertainties into risks is an important historical question that has received much attention in history and sociology. We have no problem understanding the history of double-entry bookkeeping (cf. Carruthers and Esperland 1991) in this way. Why the hang up when it comes to Black-Scholes?

    For my own work, I adopt the “material sociology” approach of Callon and MacKenzie to help explain how uncertainties common to vintage music instruments are transformed into calculable parameters in new music equipment that digitally emulates old gear. Not quite what they had in mind, but interesting nonetheless.



    June 4, 2009 at 6:40 pm

  8. kieran,

    sorry about that. i read it on RSS and so the formatting cues that it was one big quote weren’t as obvious.



    June 4, 2009 at 8:04 pm

  9. tf,
    while I believe that exploring the genealogy of a theory is critical to better understand it, develop it, criticize it, etc. I feel that by always bringing back science studies and ANT in the picture, we
    might inhibit any healthy possibility of conversation with important mainstream theories in sociology and organization theory (ie, structuration theory, institutionalism, commensuration).
    I am personally more interested in what we can learn in economic sociology and organization theory by building on the insights of performativity, rather than in a “performativity-takes-over-the-world” purist approach. These contributions will probably build on some of the insights developed in performativity research, but will also leverage what we learned in other traditions of research.
    At the end of the day, performativity will leave its mark only if it helps researchers (and practitioners) better understand important social processes, regardless of whether it comes from.

    Dan, dr,
    thanks for sharing some insights on what you are working on. this is exactly what I was hoping from this exchanges learning about exciting new empirical projects building on some of the insights of performativity. I will get back to the theme of calculability in a future post…


    Fabrizio Ferraro

    June 5, 2009 at 11:47 am

  10. […] la performativité des théories Très bon billet sur sur le problème de la performativité des théories, rédigé par Fabrizio […]


  11. Right — I certainly see the point.



    June 5, 2009 at 5:49 pm

  12. Benvinguts Fabrizio!



    June 5, 2009 at 7:54 pm

  13. Very nice opening post, Fabri!
    I completely agree with framework that Dan is hinting at; that is, that performativity is based on successful attempts (some more than others, it has to be said) at making things measurable and calculable. I want to elaborate here with two more points. First, once a calculable representation is recognized as being useful (note ‘useful’ is not necessarily ‘accurate’ or ‘valid’), the road is open for the establishment of phenomena such as positive performativity. The crucial part, I believe (again, as Dan implied) is to examine the mechanisms and conditions that give rise to measurability and calculability. Better understanding of such processes would allow us to develop better predictions of market behaviour and, more broadly organisational and inter-organisational changes. Second, measurability and calculability are most readily understood as processes in the realm of the quantifiable, but they should not be limited to this realm. Referring to the notion of performativity as a conceptual sociological concept (and not merely an empirical one) we can think of qualitative performativities. For example, agreeing that a neighbourhood is ‘trendy’ may set in motion sets of occurrences that would increase real estate prices in that neighbourhood and shift its demographics. Admittedly, this description simplifies the causality involved, but it does indicate how performativity can expand beyond the strictly qualitative.



    June 6, 2009 at 7:32 pm

  14. […] have a “perfect excuse” for their management failures? In a way, their defeatism might thus performatively cause their eventual defeat. Just consider this an alternative […]


  15. […] concept of performativity is a can of worms, but it needed to be brought up, even if I can’t say everything that needs to be said about […]


  16. […] is a frequent topic (very […]


  17. […] and practice appear to have co-evolved quite closely, which raises interesting questions for the performativity crowd. Modern financial economics is in many ways similar: theories of market efficiency were both shaped […]


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