Posts Tagged ‘performativity

put your money where your mouth is

Few days ago the Wall Street Journal reported that the hedge-fund Universa Investments LP, advised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan, was betting that despite the Fed’s best effort things will go terribly wrong (again) and we will end up in deflation or hyperinflation (here, see also Bloomberg here).  Universa’s investment strategy is based, among other things, on buying deep out-of-the money options, with the assumption that the market is underestimating the probability of extreme events. So, for instance, in September 2008, Universa was purchasing out-of-the money options on the S&P 500 index at 90 cents, and when the market crashed they were selling them at around $50. Needless to say they have been quite successful with the crisis.

Taleb is not the only scholar putting his money where is mouth is. Behavioral economists Dick Thaler (Chicago) and Daniel Kahneman (Princeton), are on the board of Fuller & Thaler Asset Management, Inc.,  and leverage their research on behavioral biases to assess market reactions to news and identify mispriced assets.

After reading about these ventures I started wondering: what would an “Economic Sociology” fund look like?

Our field has been studying markets for a few years now, and maybe we already know a things or two that could be “translated” in investment strategies.  Zuckerman’s  “illegitimacy discount” and “structural incoherence“, for instance, might be an interesting starting point to develop an investment strategy on volatility.  Rao, Greve and Davis‘ work on security analysts’ coverage initiation and abandonment, and the literature on social influence among analysts, might help predict analysts’ behavior and stock reactions. Yuval Millo, Daniel Beunza and the Socializing Finance crowd must have discussed this problem, and I bet they will launch a “Performativity fund” one day: what would that fund look like?

I am sure that the “translation” of theoretical insights into investment strategies is a complicated task, but we can learn a lot about our theories and their limits with this thought experiment.

And who knows, maybe in a few years one of you will be profiled in Bloomberg, or GQ, as the new Taleb, hopefully with a better attitude!

Written by Fabrizio Ferraro

June 6, 2009 at 4:18 pm

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