Performing performativity


Ekaterina Svetlova, associate professor of accounting and finance at ULSB (, and Ivan Boldyrev (Humboldt University, Berlin) recently published an edited volume “Enacting Dismal Science: New Perspectives on the Performativity of Economics” which is concerned with the question of how the concept of performativity (still) matters. In this post, she discusses why her book matters.


Sixty years since the famous lecture series by the philosopher J L Austin, fascination with the idea of ‘performativity’ has not subsided. The idea that language performs the world has become a central part of linguistics and the social studies of science, and now also in social studies of finance and accounting, marketing as well as in management and organization studies. The number of publications on the topic continues to grow.


At the same time, the idea behind performativity is seemingly very simple: language and knowledge do not merely describe reality, but also actively shape and even create it. I personally think that the ongoing fascination with the concept relates exactly to this “wonder of creation”: performativity seeks to explain how social reality (social facts such as money, marriages, prices etc.) comes into being. It invites a glimpse into the nature of a generative, world-producing power which allows to create something that was not here before. The deep philosophical problem of how things “come into being” has fascinated human kind for centuries and performativity seems to bear some of this fascination.


Indeed, in order not to be just a truism (people talk and thus change the world, or economists design markets and intervene in policy, so what?), performativity must relate to the emergence of novelty. The contributions in the book we have edited are concerned exactly with the performative mechanism of bringing various economic phenomena into being. Juliane Böhme uses the sociological perspective of ethnomethodology to show in rich empirical details how economic actors are performed in economic laboratory experiments. Francesco Guala addresses the creation and formation of agents’ beliefs as conventions in game theory. Carsten Hermann-Pillath suggests an account of performative mechanism that explains the functioning of managerial incentive schemes. Fabian Muniesa investigates the very nature of economic reasoning and economic phenomena, phenomena that do not “exist” such as “economic preferences”, “transaction costs”, “credit risk” or “cost of capital” and are, at first sight, purely scientific constructs.


Also in the book, Philip Roscoe relates performativity to this act of description: the way that economic methods of analysis describe a certain problem and thus determine aspects of it. For example, the efficient allocation of transplant organs for maximum benefit of the entire population as settled by economic and medical modelling excludes other considerations such as justice, sympathy or right of rescue. Or, the algorithmic matching mechanisms that underlie the online dating co-define “love” and “happy marriage” in tangible terms; thus, a particular reality – “one where a happy marriage exists as a specialised knowledge, and can be operationalised by economic protocols” – has been created by a series of descriptions. Similarly, macroeconomic models such as the IS-LM model discussed in the contribution of Hanno Pahl and Jan Sparsam can also be considered as such performative descriptions.


Finally, in my chapter, I claim that performativity has the potential to address the issue of novelty in economics by shedding light on the emergence of institutions. In particular, performativity cannot be understood without paying attention to its theatrical nature (performance). The process in which institutions come into being is not strictly constitutive: A new state, a new political party or a firm do not appear at the very moment when somebody declares them as existent. There is always a time lag between the theatrical declaration of their existence at the social stage and their emergence as a social fact. In between, rhetorical processes of persuasion, becoming accepted, i.e., processes of formation of common beliefs and expectations, take place. At the heart of every institution is the theatrical creation of a common fiction.


The cover of our book with the chess playing Turk on it, the mysterious automaton with the open door, reflects the preoccupation of the volume with the “black box” of the performative mechanism. Indeed, we hope that the book allows a glimpse inside the performative practices of various fields. Importantly, the picture on the cover also highlights that performative practices are by far more complex than solely descriptions, declarations, classifications and theories. There is no unambiguous causal mechanism behind performativity. In the fields of markets and economic policy-making, scientific models may be important, but they also fail or become negligible due to the institutional environment, regulatory framework and bureaucratic constraints as well as due to political considerations. In other words, theories and models are not always and automatically performative exactly because they are a part of the non-linear contexts of their application.


Our book supports the recent shift to more pragmatic understanding of performativity in speaking, interacting and performing (also in the sense of theatrical acting and performance) and continues, of course, to perform performativity.

Originally published at

The Business of Bikes, and Cycling for England



Charlotte Smith, a lecturer at ULSB and world class cyclist, discusses the tensions between amateurism and commercialism in the world of international cycling.


On the 27th of August I rode for Great Britain Masters at the Gran Fondo World Championships in Albi, France. I’ve competed in various sports all my life and have often dreamed that I might represent my country one day. So when I qualified as a cyclist at a fast ride in June I was elated even though I am primarily a long-distance triathlete. The race soon came around and as I sat in departures at Gatwick and the British camaraderie grew exponentially, with blue, red and white kit donned everywhere, my excitement was only just about containable. Cycling is known for its spectacles and Grand Tours (e.g, Tour De France) and this event which is also organized by the Union Cycliste Internationale was hopefully going to be one of them. The series even has its own sports marketing agency.


As I arrived in France I was starting to feel a little torn though. I was still ‘living the dream’, but at the same time the whole thing was starting to epitomise what most of us academics detest about corporate branding: lots of shiny logos and expensive items with the consumer being inordinately out of pocket. This race had already cost a small fortune too. Some mandatory purchases I had to make included: £200 for compulsory British Kit, a €90 race fee and £40 for a GP medical certificate declaring I was fit. This was before the flights and accommodation which had evidently been increased threefold, it being an August bank holiday.


I am an amateur and despite probably being good enough and often needing it, I have not applied for the growing commercial sponsorship programmes on offer. These require further commitment from an already time stretched amateur such as twice weekly reporting and physical presence at many exhibitions. As I continued my transfer, something else was also bothering my obsessive cyclist self. Race day would only be 59 miles (plus 10 warming up), all over in about 3 brief hours. It would be a very hard effort, but it would fall significantly short of the 100 miles that I ride most Sundays. Nor was it the distance I should be riding for the solo 24-hour bike race I will be doing on the 16-17th September.


I couldn’t help but wonder if I had myself available at UCI’s convenience, paid a large sum of money for a short-glorified bike ride, albeit on perfect roads, but one that didn’t fit my race schedule. I understood my participation meant nothing to this organization, my place could have very easily been ‘rolled down’ to the next qualifier. As I walked around the event village and Albi town before race day, amidst the ‘Festival of events’ put on and hundreds of other pasta seeking cyclists, I was enjoying myself but was still hoping I hadn’t paid for some pleasurable but very expensive miles come Sunday morning.


And then Sunday came, I’m an athlete, racing makes me ‘tick’. This was a different type of race excitement though. I was riding for my country. As I pinned my race numbers on my GB jersey, I realised I had to accept this meant a lot to me and in this moment I needed to forget about the assumptions deriving from being a critical academic.


The race didn’t go exactly to plan but I finished and have a world ranking of 46th. I’ve written and blogged elsewhere about ‘what happened’ but it was very hot, fast and I was in a bit of pain. The result though in no way detracted from the special occasion. I am glad that I gave myself those moments of pride, glory and euphoria of riding for my country. Those who I know who would have given everything to go, those who couldn’t afford to, all of us who have sacrificed sleep for training before and after a day’s work. I was reminded of this by the constant roars: ‘Go on GB’, ‘Allez allez allez GB’ from the multi-national spectators lacing the roadsides. They didn’t know me but evidently appreciated what I was fortunate enough to be doing.


Some might that say the amateurs are the true heroes. We don’t have the resources or many helping hands to deal with the laborious work and organization that goes into being an athlete, but instead a huge amount of passion. I’m not comfortable with the commercialisation of sport, despite having an Ironman M-Dot Tattoo branded on my wrist, holding a Bronze Ironman All World Athlete status for 2017 and owning several very expensive bikes. So I suppose I had embraced commercialism, with the compelling performative promises of kit, a beautiful setting and potentially ‘the best race ever’. This turned out to be a small but very meaningful return on investment. So much so that my application for 2018 qualification in Italy is already in.


Originally published at

Google made me do it

I recently watched the footage of Dylann Roof’s police interview on the New York Times. Roof killed nine African Americans in their church

I found the whole thing fascinating. But what really struck me was the seemingly banal role of Google Search in the story. As the Times reports:

He said his “racial awareness” had been inspired by a Google search of the phrase “black on white crime” after the reaction to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. ”That was it,” he said.

Later he talks about how he came to see things in racial terms and I wonder whether and how Google supported this. Did it confirm what he already thought or give Roof the impression that his beliefs were fact because Google said so? And Google doesn’t lie. They aren’t evil.

Let’s ask a counterfactual question:

What if, when Roof searched, he’d found some different results? Would it have changed things? We know that Google matches results to a users interests. So, if someone demonstrates latent “fascist potential” (as it’s called in the Authoritarian Personality studies) what if Google used this to restrict their access to provocative material? I’m not saying they should but things might be different. Doesn’t that mean Google Search has some active role in this crime?

As regular readers (all zero of them) will know, the logic behind this matching of search results is largely driven by an appeal to advertisers and a need for Google’s business model to work for the myth of matching to be applied across Google Search. I don’t want this to fall into yet another “aren’t algorithms evil” post but I think it’d be interesting to consider Google Search’s role in radicalisation. As I understand it, in the UK it’s a crime to encourage terrorism.

Originally published at

Ad blocking

It’s a few years old now but I just came across this series of posts by Ad Block Plus  in which they surveyed users of their Adblocker about the service. One of the questions asked why people used Adblocker. The results are quite interesting.

They gave respondents 7 possible reasons and forced a choice through a four point scale (ie there was no ‘neutral’ option). Forcing choice in this way can distort results as it, obviously, forces people to express an opinion on a matter they might not care about.

I think we can group 3 items as ‘content issues’ (distracting animations and sounds, offensive or inappropriate content and missing separation of ad an content); 3 items as ‘provider issues’ (security concerns; privacy concerns and page load times); and one as a personal issue (ideological reasons). If this was done more robustly we might separate each of these items out into multiple dimensions and see how they inter-relate. But it wasn’t.

Just eye-balling it, it seems that most of the motivations for Ad Blocking relate to a lack of trust – provider issues.  This is followed by content issues. Although ideological reasons motivated about half the sample (and given the selection bias you’d expect this is an over estimation), that leaves about one-third of the sample who block ads not because they are “anti branding” but just because they don’t trust advertisers to act responsibly and because their ads are kind of annoying.

If I were a brand I’d find this very hopefully as these are much easier to fix than overcoming ideological opposition to ads. In fact, the same problem has already been solved on other media through regulation initatives (see my other blog on advertising governance).


Originally published at

Professor Alan Bryman: 1947-2017


Alan Bryman, Emeritus Professor in the of the School of Management (now Business School) at the University of Leicester died on Thursday the 20th July 2017 at the age of 69. According to his wife, Sue, the cancer progressed very quickly in the last few weeks. He was not in pain, was very peaceful, and his family were with him.


Alan joined the School of Management in August 2005 after working for 31 years in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University. He was Head of School at Leicester from January 2008 to December 2009. His main areas of research and writing were leadership and other issues in organizational sociology; books on Disneyization and McDonaldization; and a long-standing interest in social research methods. In the latter area he was the author and co-author of two of the best-selling texts on methodology – Social Research Methods and Business Research Methods (with Emma Bell). More recently he was researching material on the explorer Ernest Shackleton for a piece on leadership.


These books, together with a great deal of work published over forty years, led to him being an extraordinarily well cited and internationally renowned social scientist. He was a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and had recently been given a lifetime achievement award by the International Leadership Association.


But Alan was never just an academic. Alan and Sue enjoyed travel, cocktails, and red wine. He watched county and international cricket, often walking down from his house in West Bridgford to Nottingham Trent Bridge Cricket ground, where he was a season ticket holder. He even had his 40th wedding anniversary at the club house, overlooking the pitch. Several colleagues will know he liked all sorts of music, from Bob Dylan to Neil Young, Human League to Roxy Music, and Arcade Fire to Fleet Foxes, and went to many concerts.


Alan will be remembered by his friends at Leicester as a careful and thoughtful colleague. He was someone who was prepared to take public responsibility as well as showing private kindness and humour. His fascination with popular music and culture (lately ‘Game of Thrones’ and Scandi-Noir), his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, and his claims about his lasagne skills will be missed. Even his puns will be missed. Most of all though, his humility. For someone so renowned to be so modest is remarkable, and a measure of the man.


He is survived by his mother, his wife, Sue, his daughter, and two young grand-children, whom he and Sue adored.

Originally published at

Is informal workplace learning always invisible?


ULSB Research Associate and graduate Dr Kath Atkinson ( reflects on a new report about older workers, and the assumptions it makes about their learning.


How can a prominent UK government initiative to keep ageing workers in employment fail to incorporate a major form of workplace learning? The Department of Work and Pensions 2017 report ‘Fuller Working Lives’ aims ‘to support individuals aged 50 years and over to remain in and return to the labour market.’  The government has published several documents over the last few years, however, none of the work adequately addresses informal learning, the undocumented knowledge that comes with experience. This is a form of learning valued by all ages, especially many of those in the 50-plus bracket. So why does the report ignore it? Is informal learning being overlooked because it is ‘invisible learning’?


As is well known, the population in the UK is ageing, retirement ages have been abolished and the state pension age is moving ever further away.  It is not surprising therefore that expectations of retirement in the late 50s or early 60s have dwindled and there has been an increase in the over 50s in the workforce.  Although some continue working by choice, many need to remain in paid employment into their 70s.


In the workplace, the majority of learning is informal. It is incidental to the work taking place, it is not planned and nor is it examined or certified.  Despite being valuable, employers and researchers often overlook it. My research suggests that two main issues contribute to this.  One is that often the participants, and also their managers, do not realise learning is taking place, so they don’t mention it to researchers.  The second is that surveys often use attributes of formal learning, such as course registrations or certification completion, as a proxy for all learning undertaken.  Although convenient, this fails to collect any informal learning activity.  The consequent invisibility of informal learning is particularly significant for employees over 50 years of age in the knowledge economy. Learners in this sector tend to seek content rather than certification per se and therefore rely heavily on informal and non-formal learning.


With the learning activity of over 50s not adequately captured for analysis, it makes it harder for employers to know how to approach the development of this growing segment of their workforce. Indeed, the under-reporting may contribute to negative stereotypes of older workers not engaging in workplace learning at all. Supporting their learning will help older workers maintain and update their knowledge and enable them to be productively engaged in the labour market. In other words, understanding how older employees learn at work, and facilitating their learning, is essential for the success of policies to extend working lives.


So how come Fuller Working Lives does not cover this aspect? The reason appears to be the choice of underlying data, taken from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). This survey does not capture informal learning sufficiently well. The questions on workplace learning are mostly worded to suggest formal learning activities by use of words such as ‘training’ and ‘education’. Even in the question where informal learning could be captured, and despite the interviewer notes clearly explaining what informal learning is, the question wording steers the respondent towards more formal learning episodes.


The quick solution would seem to be to amend the LFS. However, this would involve a lot of extra work in an already long survey, and would only tell us what we already know.  We know informal learning takes place in workplaces and we know it is valued by all ages. So why not just ensure informal learning is considered when examining workplace learning?


Well one problem, as mentioned above, is that it is not as straightforward to identify because there are no easy-to-count courses. However, for those who therefore claim it is too hard and can only be captured by labour intensive qualitative study, owing to the need to educate respondents to identify such episodes as learning, think again. A team from the Centre for Labour Market Studies at Leicester proved it could be done in 2005 via a quantitative survey and construction of scales from pertinent variables. I successfully adopted this approach a few years ago in my doctoral thesis and am about to use it again. The supposedly invisible can be captured and analysed.  Informal learning really is visible, if you know how to look and if you want to see it.


So, if we, as researchers, are aware of the definition of informal learning and also the value placed on it by learners, it is surely our responsibility to ensure informal learning is incorporated into research on workplace learning. Regardless of the political and economic levers being manipulated to extend working lives, employees need to learn at work. We must therefore acknowledge the importance of ‘informal learning’, for all ages, and stop treating it as ‘invisible learning’.




Atkinson, K. (2015) ‘Does the Concept of Expansive-Restrictive Learning Fit Knowledge Workers Aged Over 50? An Examination of Selected Features and High-End Knowledge Workers in a UK Public Sector Organisation’ University of Leicester. (unpublished Doctoral Thesis)


Originally published at

The secret peacemaker: A quiet leader of our time

Professor Mark Stein of the School of Business mourns the key intermediary between the British government and the IRA with Leicester connections, who has died aged 80.
The secret peacemaker: A quiet leader of our time

Brendan Duddy


Brendan Duddy, the ‘secret peacemaker’ and intermediary between the British government and the IRA during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, has died aged 80 in his hometown of Derry on 12th May of this year. Duddy was someone who pursued dialogue and peace with extraordinary doggedness and perseverance, and played a key role in negotiating the settlement.


Duddy began his working life in modest circumstances in Derry in the late 1960s, running a fish and chips shop to which a young Martin McGuinness – subsequently the IRA Chief of Staff – delivered hamburgers. Following the terrible events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry in 1972, Duddy became the principal, secret link between McGuinness/the IRA and the British authorities. Codenamed ‘Soon’ by the British authorities, he retained this role over a two-decade period, meeting regularly and in clandestine and difficult circumstances, sometimes at his Derry home.


Duddy’s life, and the lives of his family, were constantly in danger: he recalled, for example, one secret meeting in a hotel during which he overheard IRA men in a room below discussing whether they should kill him there and then. But through sheer grit and determination, his efforts bore fruit: Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, is one of many who has acknowledged this pivotal role, saying that without Brendan Duddy, there may never have been a peace deal. Duddy’s role and significance only became clear in later years, especially following a BBC documentary entitled ‘The Secret Peacemaker’, broadcast in 2008.


So, what is the connection with Leicester? Well, during the time of his secret work, Duddy attended –  and subsequently was on the staff of – the ‘Leicester Conference’, a two-week group relations and leadership training programme. First run in 1947, the Leicester Conference is the longest-established group relations training programme anywhere in the world, one that has trained thousands of leaders, and become a model for countless training programmes elsewhere. While the conference began as a joint project between the University of Leicester and the Tavistock Institute, subsequently it has been run by the Tavistock alone, but it continues to be run at the University of Leicester on an annual basis. The University – and especially the School of Business – has recently established closer links with the Tavistock, with further plans to reinvigorate the collaboration.


Duddy had a long association with the Tavistock Institute and the Leicester Conference, and especially with the Tavistock’s Gordon Lawrence, who was his coach and mentor throughout the time of the troubles. Although the nature of his work was highly secret, Duddy used the ‘Leicester Conference’ as the place to learn about group dynamics, and develop his already considerable group and leadership skills; subsequently, he helped train many others using these methods.


Anyone who had the good fortune to come across him at group relations training events and conferences, as I did, will remember him as someone who was unassuming, highly focused, with great passion and presence. With the exception of Gordon Lawrence, none of us had the faintest clue about his secret, double life, and about the profound but dangerous work he was engaged in. Subsequently, he has given talks about this work, always delivered modestly, never boasting about what he did, but focusing rather on the challenges and difficulties he faced. These talks were invariably followed by standing ovations in his honour, and one left with a feeling that one had been in the presence of a truly remarkable person.


Especially in the wake of the ‘Secret Peacemaker’ BBC documentary, Duddy’s reputation has spread, and he has become a role model for negotiators and mediators elsewhere. Martin McGuinness reported that, during the troubles in Colombia with the rebel group Farc, President Juan Manuel Santos told him that the chief back channel negotiator was codenamed ‘Brendan’.


Duddy’s funeral was attended by people from all over the political spectrum, including members of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and Irish President Michael D Higgins. As the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland (Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh) has said, ‘in a world of violence, conflict and threats of war, we need more people like Brendan Duddy. Rest in peace’.

Originally published at

Google’s YouTube Battles with Big Brands

Here’s a short article I wrote for The Conversation on Google’s current battles with brands… More on this to come I think.

Originally published at