In Science and Technology Studies (STS), there is an interesting analytical frame that positions economics and economic knowledge as performative (Mitchell 2007; Callon 1998a; MacKenzie 2008). STS scholars are using this term in a very specific sense; in this post, I want to outline what I think they mean1.
The idea that economics is “performative” starts with Callon (1998a); however, MacKenzie (2008) gives perhaps a clearer explanation of the term. According to to MacKenzie (2008), the term “performative” is adopted from philosopher J.L. Austin2, and is meant to distinguish phrases that do something in the world from phrases that merely report on some state of affairs (Austin 1975). A typical example of a performative statement is “I apologize”. In saying this, I am not merely reporting on some state of affairs, but rather bringing that state of affairs into being — I am making an apology. Hence, to say that economics is “performative” is to say that economics likewise “does things” in the economy, rather than simply describe or represent it (MacKenzie 2008, p. 31). Hence, per Mitchell (2007), sociological critiques that accuse economists of “misrepresentation” are missing the mark — the use of economics was never in representing, but rather in “doing things” that help markets function.
What is it that economics can “do” for markets, exactly? One example from Callon (1998b) is that economics can do the crucial work of framing economic interactions. This concept comes from Goffman (1971) who explains it in the context of a theatrical metaphor. In this setting, the frame is the set of rules, norms, and materialities that form a boundary that allow a stage performance to proceed more-or-less independently of the surrounding context. This includes, for example, the sets of expectations on both performers and audience on how to act as the performance proceeds (such as for the audience to quiet down while the curtain is opened, and so on), as well as the physical infrastructure (the stage, the curtain, the dimming lights, the seats) that reinforce it. Per Callon (1998a), economic interactions likewise require a frame which demarcates “a clear and precise boundary… between the relations which the agents will take into account and which will serve in their calculations and those which will be thrown out of the calculations as such” (16). This work of demarcation renders economic decisions tractable for participants by constraining the space of consideration, limiting complexity and ultimately allowing economic activity to proceed. Economics may support the work of framing for example through the provision of tools (e.g. accounting tools which manage the boundaries of attributing profit and loss) or ideas (e.g. the concept of a “commodity” which inform sameness-difference judgments and facilitate the frame).
Stepping back, I would like to think more about the usefulness of “performativity” as a critical lens on economics. I worry to some extent that it winds up aligning the critic and the economist too much, and so winds up with limited critical distance. This is most clear in spaces like “market design”, where economists increasingly think of their work very much in line with the performative perspective – i.e. they agree exactly that they are providing tools to help make markets work better. However, in other economic areas, “performativity” is perhaps a more novel angle. I also think that this gets into deeper conversations about what is the nature and purpose of critique, which I would like to think about more.
Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford university press.
Callon, M. (1998a). Introduction: the embeddedness of economic markets in economics. The sociological review, 46(1_suppl), 1-57.
Callon, M. (1998b). An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology. The sociological review, 46(1_suppl), 244-269.
Goffman E. (1971). Frame Analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Chicago: Northeastern University Press.
MacKenzie, D. A., Muniesa, F., & Siu, L. (Eds.). (2007). Do economists make markets?: on the performativity of economics. Princeton University Press.
MacKenzie, D. (2008). Material markets: How economic agents are constructed. OUP Oxford.
Mitchell, T. (2007). The properties of markets. Do economists make markets? On the performativity of economics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
This writing was originally part of a longer essay about the FCC Spectrum Incentive Auction; perhaps someday I will finish and share that piece as well. ↩
I am actually a bit confused on the genealogy here. MacKenzie attributes this idea to Austin (as do MacKenzie et al. 2007 in the introduction to the book containing Michell 2007); however, Callon (1998a) seems to be typically cited as introducing it to science and technology studies and does not cite Austin. ↩