Performativity, yet again

This critique, by Omar at OrgTheory, has the dual distinction of being snidely pissy and wrong. First the pissy. Omar suggests that the apparently “busy schedule of a Parisian anthropologist of science” doesn’t accommodate the study of “big” markets, where representational critique is much better than performativity. I also enjoyed the dig that fancy Parisians don’t like pizza, and so understanding markets that bring milk to your breakfast table are also quite outside the pale. Whatever, guy. Particularly because this snark is outside the problems discussed in the rest of the critique, it’s just gratuitous. Talk to one or two of the people you’re thinking about here – do they really seem stupid?

Second, the wrong. Substantively, I’m not a huge fan of performativity myself, but Omar’s problem is not its problem. Look at the historical agora and fairs – both of which encompass ‘big’ markets and put the food on the table – described by Richard Swedberg (in Chapter 6 of Principles of Economic Sociology): the Greek marketplace had physical boundaries, inspectors, stamped currency, and judges. What is all of this infrastructure, if not the dis-entanglement and re-fashioning of social arrangements into a rudimentary ‘market’-ish environment?

If you take Callon et al on its face, there were not economists, nor was there much economic theory. And if that’s the only takeaway from this strand of research (that economists make markets) then yes. I’ve made this critque myself, that there are markets that pre-date economists. But I have also come to be convinced that this is a too shallow reading of the possible research impulses of the social studies of finance group. Economics makes markets today because in today’s markets, they are the actors who theorize and make markets. Current finance is an extreme example of a phenomenon that has much wider applicability. I imagine that NAFTA and immigration laws that conceptualize immigrants as ‘workers’, or ‘citizens’ or some combination; anti-trust policy; environmentalism (carbon credits most recently); Carruthers and Babb wrote about how in S. Africa in the 19th century ‘labor’ had to be theorized and created rather than just discovered. The list, IMHO, goes on. I’d love to see, e.g., an analysis of the 1940s bracero program and the subsequent ‘operation wetback’ which conceptualized Mexican men as pure labor units, and its success and/or failure in transforming people into these categories.

Once one assumes settledness of the categories and actors, then we can do analyses of upstream/downstream market-making. But even this settledness falls apart, or at least requires continued maintenance.

In short, it’s more complicated than simply differences in choice of empirical object, and while performativity does have problems, the ones Lizardo identifies are not among them. STS would certainly do itself a service by analyzing some of these non-strawberry markets, but I think it wouldn’t kill the insight.

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