Performing performativity

 

Ekaterina Svetlova, associate professor of accounting and finance at ULSB (es285@le.ac.uk), 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 http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

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