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The Future of Performativity

Nicolas Brisset
p. 439-452
Référence(s) :

Muniesa, Fabian, The Provoked Economy, New York: Routledge, 2014, 170 pages, ISBN 978-041585713-0

Boldyrev, Ivan and Ekaterina Svetlova (eds), Enacting Dismal Science, New York: Palgrave, 2016, 206 pages, ISBN 978-113749210-4

Texte intégral

You are more than entitled not to know what the word “performative” means. It is a new and ugly word, and perhaps is does not mean anything very much. But at any rate there is one thing in its favour, it is not a profound word. I remember once when I had been talking on this subject that somebody afterwards said: “You know, I haven’t the least idea what he means, unless it could be that he simply means what he says”. Well, that is what I should like to mean. (Austin, 1979, 233)

  • 1 Hereafter, “Boldyrev and Svetlova” is used to designate the edited volume and the set of articles t (...)

1Two recent publications have deepened the ongoing debate on the uses and abuses of performativity in the social sciences and specifically the way it has been erected as a comprehensive epistemic scheme for economics. The Provoked Economy(2014), by Fabian Muniesa triggered lots of criticisms and debates that are well echoed in the collective work edited by Ivan Boldyrev and Ekaterina Svetlova, Enacting Dismal Science (2016a).1 The goal of this review is to present and discuss both and, as a by-product, to advocate for a pragmatic and institutionally grounded use of the concept of performativity in economics.

2The claim that economics influences more than passively describes the social world has been argued in so many ways that one but feels that there is a need for clarifications before to embark on further investigations. In his review of The Provoked EconomyDan Hirschman’s (2015) launches the probing question: “Has performativity lost its punch?”, whereby he underlines that the concept is now in a turmoil. The two main architects of a performativist sociology, Michel Callon and Donald MacKenzie, seem to have moved on to other subjects, while the critical power attached to performativity is now firmly rejected by several heterodox economists precisely because of its lack of a critical spirit with respect to economic theories (e.g. Fine, 2003, 2005; Mirowski 2013, 2015; Ambroise, Salle and Sobel, 2015). Undoubtedly, the concept has been a victim of its success. In this context, ten years after the publication of the last programmatic book on performativity (MacKenzie, Muniesa and Siu, 2007), the book by Muniesa and the collected article edited by Boldyrev and Svetlova are very welcome to shape debates and indicate new directions for research.

3Let’s get start with a quick overview on the different contributions. The collected articles edited by Boldyrev and Svetlova contain eight contributions that cover a large range of issues. Chapter one is a deep and helpful introduction, providing simultaneously an introduction to the idea of “performativity” and a rationalized overview of individual contributions (Boldyrev and Svetlova, 2016b). Chapters 2, 3 and 8, by Francesco Guala (Guala, 2016), Carsten Herrmann-Pillath (Herrmann-Pillath, 2016) and Ekaterina Svetlova (Svetlova, 2016) get involve in a debate on whether the effect of economic theories on the social world can be analyzed through the concept of performativity without denaturing the austinian analysis. Each author proposes a new conceptual approach to performativity. Guala suggests to see performativity as a process of coordination on economic theories, Herrmann-Pillath’s article combines the literature on performativity and the one on social mechanisms, while Svetlova puts the light on the way performativity can help us understand the emergence of social institutions.

4Julian Böhme on the one hand, and Hanno Pahl and Jan Sparsam on the other one, respectively give in chapters 4 (Böhme, 2016) and 7 (Pahl and Sparsam 2016) some illustrations of how performativity can be used as an investigative tool within the fields of ethnomethodology and history of economic thought. The contribution by Philip Roscoe (Chap. 6, Roscoe, 2016) intends to take a moral perspective on the issue of performativity: economic theories do not only shape the social world, they are laden with normative force. Chapter 5, by Fabian Muniesa (Muniesa, 2016) is particularly stimulating since it deals with the heterodox critique of performativist sociology.

5As far as Fabian Muniesa’s book is concerned (Muniesa, 2014), it is divided into two parts. The first one provides a set of new conceptual tools with which Muniesa intends to give a new perspective on the performativity thesis. The second part applies these tools in different contexts (stock pricing, marketing, education and performance indicators).

6In the following, I focus on some of those new directions opened to performativity and to the bunch of fierced debates that led to them. In this Review, I will first tackle the question of the fidelity to Austin (1), before addressing the different ways performativity is used as a concept within the various contributions one can find in the books under review (2).

1. Performativity as a Philosophical Object

7The concept of performativity originated in Austin’s now classic of the philosophy of language: How to Do Things with Words (1962). Decades later, Callon (1998) and MacKenzie (2006) would apply the concept quite freely and far from the field of philosophy of language. This provoked several debates on the legitimacy of the use of this concept in the social sciences. So far, the question is still debated: Does the Callonian approach to performativity match Austin’s original views? Uskali Mäki (2013), for instance, considers that the Callonian use is inappropriate. Following Austin’s definition, a performative utterance is a speech act that is constitutive in nature: If I declare that the bonds of marriage unite two people, my speech is constitutive of the specific conventional state that I produce. To Mäki, this is not what is at stake in economic sociology, i.e. economists’ speeches are not constitutive speeches, instead they are speeches of persuasion or speeches that provoke certain beliefs. Mäki’s point of view rests on the well-known austinian partition between three different properties of a speech act: a locutionary effect (the meaning of the speech proper), an illocutionary effect (performed action that is constitutively associated to the speech act) perlocutionary effects (external consequences caused by the speech). The illocutionary act—the one that is performative—should not be confused with the perlocutionary act. Otherwise stated, there are two different ways for language to affect the external world—in a constitutive manner and in a causal manner. According to Mäki, in taking all kinds of effects produced by economic theories as “performative” ones, performativist sociologists brought vagueness in a clear and useful theoretical framework.

8This is precisely this Austinian distinction that is challenged by recent literature on the uses of performativity, giving a new impetus to lively reflections.

9Notably, the contributions of Guala (2016) and Svetlova (2016) contradict Mäki. Guala and Svetlova show that it is possible to claim to be an Austinian, and to use the concept of “performative” utterance beyond the writings of Austin. Before going further in these contributions, it is appropriate to recall that Austin, in proper Maieutician style, does not offer an ultimate definition of performatives. He recognizes that:

Now we failed to find a grammatical criterion for performatives … . It is time to make a fresh start on the problem. We want to reconsider more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something (and also perhaps to consider the different case in which by saying something we do something). (Austin, 1962, 91)

10He then adapts his vocabulary from “performative utterance” to the tripartite of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionry acts. It is important to specify that these acts are not mutually exclusive—Austin speaks about various “forces”—so that the same statement has a kind of performative thickness: it makes it possible to deploy all three forces. These three forces are closely entangled to such an extent that there is no such a thing as a pure illocutionary speech act.

  • 2 Similarly, Searle claimed that institutions are merely “placeholders for patterns of activities” (S (...)

11For Mäki, the Austinian definition of the illocutionary act rests on a constitutive relation whereas the perlocutionary act relies on a causal relation. This distinction has been challenged, and it is well recognized that it is difficult to differentiate these acts (see Searle, 1995 and Millikan, 2014). In line with this, Guala concludes that the institutional facts of which the acts of language are constitutive “are nothing but sets of actions and expectations about actions” (Guala, 2016, 48).2 For this reason, any act of language can in fine be defined as the creation or maintenance (enforcement) of a set of beliefs connected to expected behaviors following an utterance: A promise will count as a promise only if it causes expected effects. So, how can we differentiate between the constitutive effect and the causal effect? Guala uses the examples of the wedding and the wedding vows:

Saying ‘I do’ brings about a set of beliefs concerning the actions of your spouse and of third parties. Uttering ‘I promise to do Atriggers a set of expectations concerning your own actions and the actions that others will perform if you do not do it. But bringing about and triggering are causal relations, rather than relations of conceptual or ontological dependence. (Guala, 2016, 47)

12The debate between Mäki and Guala (I will come back to Svetlova’s article later) rests on the question of the dichotomy between causality and constitutivity which seems to be lacking in Austin’s work since to him, illocutionary forces also produce causal effects. It is clear that for Austin, all utterance carries an illocutionary force since even what seems to be a pure descriptive speech is constitutive of something (a representation) that will have causal effects. The illocutionary act has effects that stem from its institutional statute, and anticipation of the production of these effects is a felicity condition of the illocutionary force of the speech act (which chimes with Guala’s view). To my view, what is at stake is no more the distinction between causal and constitutive effects but rather the split between necessary effects and contingent effects: The fact that the statement “I do” implies that one regards me as administratively dependent on another individual is a necessary effect (illocutionary) of the speech act. Whithout these effects, we are not married. The fact that my close friends are horrified to see me marrying is a contingent and unnecessary effect (perlocutionary). Thus, the real debate is over the distinction between specific and necessary effects on the one hand, and contingent effects on the other. In other words, it is between institutionally or conventionally controlled effects and uncontrolled effects. The fact of saying “I do” causes a securing of my expectation over the behaviors of the other members of my community. It would seem more appropriate to separate the conventional and unconventional effects of the language than causal and constitutive relationship. In the conventional case the effects are “normally” expected, in the unconventional case nothing is normally expected. However, it seems also that not only can one speech have two types of effects simultaneously but also that the effects of the speech can be regarded as conventional and non-conventional at the same time. A statement can fulfill some rules in order to take a certain stance implying a particular uptake, and simultaneously can make it possible institutionally to innovate with some room for freedom. This is the preoccupation in Svetlova’s (2016) contribution in which, following Butler (2010), the institutional dynamics must be understood through the prism of the perlocutionary force. Theories create new representations, new behaviors, which will lead to institutional changes. The consequence of such reasoning is that the frontier between illocutionary effects and perlocutionary effects is located historically, and thus is moving over time: perlocutionary effects can become illocutionary effects. This means that an unexpected effect can become an effect that must follow a felicitous speech act.

  • 3 See Brisset (forthcoming).

13Although the approaches brought to the fore in Guala and Svetlova are interesting, in my view the best approach to the relation between speech acts and institutional change requires consideration of the articulation between illocutionary and perlocutionary forces, insofar as any institutional change is limited necessarily by the institutions already existing in the social world. Thus, the strategies of institutional innovations (perlocutionary) should be understood as being based on institutional rites (illocutionary). This is the meaning given by the symbolic revolutions described at length in Bourdieu (2013),3 and also in Quentin Skinner’s assertion that:

If S’s speech act is also an act of social and linguistic innovation which S nevertheless intends or at least hopes will be understood, the act must necessarily, and for that reason, take the form of an extension or criticism of some existing attitude or project which is already convention-governed and understood. It seems a necessary truth that unless the innovation either takes such a form, or can be reduced to it, it will stand no chance of being understood, and so can hardly count even as an intended act of communication. (Skinner, 1970, 135).

14In other words (and echoing Mäki to some extent), the split between illocutionary and perlocutionary forces, although complex, is meaningful from a sociological and historical point of view, at least insofar as certain fringes of the social reality, certain rules, certain conventions are accepted as not being malleable: They are “taken for granted” (Schütz, 1954). The fact that one can reduce any institution to a set of behaviors does not imply that any institution has the same status for individuals. In my view, this is a limitation of Guala’s pure functionalist (and behaviourist) approach: To be able to reduce institutions (fruits of speech acts) to the anticipation of behavioral regularities does not imply that all institutions have the same status. For Austin, the effects produced by the illocutionary force of speech are more socially normalized than the effects produced by the perlocutionary force. This distinction simultaneously allows a finer understanding of performative failures (since certain effects contrary to expectations will be considered less important than others), and an understanding of agents’ margins of freedom in terms of institutional innovation. As Boldyrev and Svetlova (2016b) indicate, what is at stake here is the conditions for institutional innovation.

2. How to do Things with Performativity

15From the various contributions in Boldyrev and Svetlova (eds) (2016), and from Muniesa (2014), one can identify three areas of investigation related to performativity: (i) performativity as a general theory of the social world (Muniesa, 2014); (ii) performativity as a method of investigation (Böhme, 2016; Pahl and Sparsam, 2016); (iii) performativity as a critical concept (Muniesa, 2014, 2016; Herrmann-Pillath, 2016; Roscoe, 2016). It seems that most debates around performativity deal with divergences in the approach of the concept. The existence of these debates leads to the question of the possibility of a general theory of performativity. Let’s take the three topic successively.

2.1 Performativity as a General Theory of the Social World

16As regards performativity as a general theory of the social world, one should bear in mind that the theory of performativity à la Callon grew out of actor network theory (ANT) which carries a certain representation of the world. The Provoked Economyby Muniesa (2014) is of interest because it clearly recalls this tie between ANT and performativity. It is difficult to summarize the features of ANT in a few lines. However, we can say that ANT is the paragon of the post-modern approach to the social world: The social world is transcended by no element which exceeds it (the Platonic Ideas, the Hegelian Spirit, the Truth, the Class, the Social Facts, the Institutions, the Conventions). The social world is a network of agencies, defined in the last analysis by their capacities to act on the other agencies within the network. These relations both hold together and provoke the world. The class, the social facts, the truth do not exist, they are provoked. As Latour (1993, 185) claims: “A sentence does not hold together because it is true, but because it holds together we say that it is ‘true.’” The objects of knowledge must be understood through this prism: they take part in provoking the world. Muniesa traces this idea back to Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality:

Today, abstraction is no longer the abstraction of the map, of the double, of the mirror or of the concept. Simulation is no longer about a territory, about a referential being, about a substance. It is a model-generated real with no origin and no reality: hyperreal. The territory does not precede the map—precession of simulacra—it is the map that engenders the territory. (Baudrillard, quoted in Muniesa, 2014, 20)

17With this representation in mind, economic theories and all the sources of knowledge are the simulacra that hold the world together. The book by Muniesa is not a genuine theoretical work insofar as the new concepts it proposes—simulacrum, provocation, explicitness (see Dumez, 2014)—are not placed in a general analytical framework. However, I agree with Ossandon and Pallesen (2016) that it is an extremely interesting work which goes beyond the type of analysis in Boldyrev and Svetlova (2016). Beyond economic theory, Muniesa considers all sorts of descriptions of the social world, whether discursive or integrated in technical devices such as simulacrum. This is an extension of the generalization in Callon (2013). If the theory of performativity can be regarded as an extension of ANT to the links between economic theories and the social world, it would seem that today performativity is feeding back the theoretical framework it stems from. I can see two problems related to this: one linked to the specificity of the scientific knowledge, and the other one linked to the specificity of the speech act on the technique.

18Firstly, whatever it is appropriate to talk about “performativity”, I think that it is important to preserve a specific field of studies about the articulation between science and social reality. Scientific knowledge is not sociologically equivalent to other knowledge, at least insofar as science is a particular social sphere with its own rules, dynamics, and issues. Since it was important in the history of social sciences to recognize the scientist as a social agent and no longer a pure spirit, it should be recognized also that the particular position of the scientist has important consequences in terms of theoretical elaboration and social impact. Thus, there is space for the study of the performativity of social theories, and it should be preserved as such.

  • 4 As Ambroise has rightly noticed, “We sometimes have the feeling that the author is so much astonish (...)

19Secondly, Muniesa’s view on performativity in The Provoked Economyis focused exclusively on the effect of techniques and technical devices. In the genuine performativist studies, technical devices were entrusted with a function of supporting or enhancing theoretical speech acts. For Muniesa, “performativity” is no longer specific to the language but is applied to techniques. Techniques in themselves “refer to what they provoke.” (Muniesa, 2014, 79) However, on the one hand, it makes no sense to say that a specific technique “refers” to something, while on the other hand, it seems trivial to say that a technique has effects.4

2.2 Performativity as a Method of Investigation

20Is “performativity” à la Callon a theory or an anthropological method of investigation similar to ethnomethodology? From a neo-Kantian point of view, this is a intricate question: Is not any observation theory-laden? Of course, it is nevertheless worth marking the pragmatic nuance between a structured and systematic analytical framework on the one side (Guala, 2016; Herrmann-Pillath, 2010; 2012) and a broader framework of considerations relative to what we have to focus on during a field investigation or a historical investigation on the other side. This is precisely a value-added of Boldyrev and Svetlova to account for the variety of uses of the concept of performativity. It may be considered that today two types of research linked with performativity do co-exist, each linked with one type of use. One owes its existence to the philosophers and economists (Guala, 2016; Herrmann-Pillath, 2010, 2012; Roscoe, 2016; Svetlova, 2016), while the other owes its existence to the sociologists, anthropologists, and historians (Böhme, 2016; Muniesa, 2014; Pahl and Sparsam, 2016). The former regard performativity as a theoretical object (see section 1), the latter use it as a method (sociological, anthropological, historiographical).

21For instance, among the first type of uses, the concept of “performativity” has been an important topic of work on the history of economic thought. MacKenzie (2006) is among the most innovative and influential in this field (Fontaine, 2016). The article by Pahl and Sparsam (2016) linked to the history of the diffusion of the IS-LM model, in my view is of value from this perspective.

22If “performativity” is a method of investigation, a vision of the world, then its field of application is potentially very large. One could think of a general history of the performativity of economic theories: to re-examine the history of economic thought and economic history through a prism that shapes the social reality. Another prospect is possible: to regard performativity as a historical trend. For instance, the emergence of market design has seen an increase in the efforts of theorists to shape the social interactions to fit the image of their theories. This is the prospect held by Philippe Steiner in his book on gift, Donner… Une histoire de l’altruisme (Giving… A History of Altruism) (2016). In his history of the gift concept, Steiner shows that gift—as a concept or as a description of a certain social reality—was gradually transformed into a “performative” concept through its use by social engineers. Referring to Polanyi, Steiner writes about a great performation. This idea of a kind of age of performativity is stimulating from both a historical and a theoretical point of view.

23Since we can distinguish two types of use, it is imperative that one feeds the other—mainly because to start from a theoretical framework (even a minimal one) is a requirement for any field study but also because pure theoretical reflections on performativity are of limited interest. Again, the contributions in Boldyrev and Svetlova have the great virtue that they explore both sides.

2.3 Performativity as a Critical Concept

24The theory of the performativity of economics has been heavily criticized. It was criticized for its refusal to adopt an offensive posture with respect to mainstream economics (Miller, 2002; Fine, 2003; Mirowski and Nik-Khah, 2007). The position of performativist sociology draws on a deeply anti-Bourdieusian posture, which moves away from any critical claims:

There are two positions we have to abandon. The first is the idea of critique of hard economists, which is intended to show them that they are wrong. And the second position is to describe markets just to say that they are more complicated than economists or political decision-makers believe. … Let us stop criticizing the economists. We recognize the right of economists to contribute to performing markets, but at the same time we claim our own right to do the same but from a different perspective. … What is very important is to abandon the critical position, and to stop denouncing economists and capitalists and so on. Instead, we need to engage with debates on specific markets. (Callon, Barry and Slater, 2002, 301)

25Although it is acknowledged that economic theories affect the course of the world, few intellectuals are ready to abandon the idea that mainstream economic theories do not describe the world well (Miller, 2002). The article by Muniesa (2016) is an important milestone in this debate. According to Muniesa, defending a critical analysis of neoclassical economic theory against the concept of performativity “ends up enforcing a strange alliance between economic science and economic critique” (Muniesa, 2016, 121). They indeed would share the same naturalistic vision of the economy. Muniesa underlines the paradox of a critique of an economic theory which does not have any performative capacity: “In short, economics is wrong but does not matter. So why then should we waste time criticizing something that does not matter?” (Muniesa, 2016, 121). It seems clear to me that no critical economist would claim that the economic theory does not have any effect. What is really at stake is the capacity to influence the social world in the direction of greater conformity. This leads to the question of the conditions of felicity of the theoretical speech acts, and thus the question of performative failures. An issue that is increasingly prominent today (Svetlova, 2012, 2016; Roscoe, 2016; Dumez and Jeunemaitre, 2010; Brisset, 2011, 2016, 2017, forthcoming) is the great theoretical question against which any approach to performativity must position itself. Two examples will help illustrating the point.

26In The Provoked Economy, Muniesa indicates how theoretical systems when they are tested, create the objects that they theorize. For instance, when seeking to test preferences for perfumes, it is necessary to create a device which, in addition to recording, creates preferences: before applying this device, Fabian Muniesa had imposed no order on the various perfumes. This takes us to the classical epistemological debate about theory-ladenness. Beyond knowing whether it is possible to use the term theory-ladenness for experiments (Pickering, 1984; Karaca, 2013), it seems clear that the constructing dimension of the measured objects influences the results obtained, thus questioning its relevance. Although Muniesa clearly is not interested in this question which for him emerges from a kind of naturalism, it is clear that it is extremely important for the economist or the sociologist who intends to learn something about the social world. Where are the limits to performative effects? Where does the influence of its object start from or end in the theory or in the device being used to test it? The theory of performativity must respond to these questions (Brisset, 2014). 

27Let’s take another example. The contribution by Philip Roscoe (2016) tackles the relation between performativity and critical sociology from a moral standpoint: the speech on the economy, by breathing air into representations implies some moral considerations. Roscoe makes the link between the literature on performativity and the important corpus of work that builds on Polanyi (1944), to the limits of the economic sphere (e.g. Zelizer, 2011; Satz, 2012). Few other works make this link (Brisset, 2012; Steiner, 2016) but it is obvious that the economic theories that contribute to the construction of the social world are related to moral criteria which are important to discuss. For Roscoe, this provides the means to make performativity critical. I think this issue should be approached in two ways. First by recognizing, as Roscoe does, that “Performativity has moral consequences.” (Roscoe, 2016, 35) Second, by regarding the social and moral criteria as possible limits to the performativity of economic theories.


28I have tried in this review to highlight the most important debates tackled by recent literature on performativity, focusing on two recent publications. The choices made are inevitably subjective, and I ignored several elements worthy of more attention. Two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, the concept of performativity is used in a plurality of ways. Second, there is the question of the future for this concept. As I have said, it is important not only to preserve a place for the study of the performativity of social sciences in particular but also to pose great epistemological questions. It has been shown that the idea of performativity requires the condition of felicity increasingly to be present. However, this idea can be likened to the ever-recurring debate on the social construction of the truth (Brisset, 2017). In contrast to what  Boldyrev and Svetlova emphasize, I consider that the fact that this debate is part of the “dead ends and bitter unresolved disputes” (Boldyrev and Svetlova, 2016: 7) should not prevent us from continuing to work at it. These questions are important, and the debates on performativity allow their further investigation.

I deeply thank Judith Favereau, Jean-Sébastien Lenfant and Cynthia Little for their comments and help. I also thank the managing editors of Œconomia for their editing process.

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1 Hereafter, “Boldyrev and Svetlova” is used to designate the edited volume and the set of articles that make its content, while “Boldyrev and Svetlova (2016b)” designates their contribution in the edited volume.

2 Similarly, Searle claimed that institutions are merely “placeholders for patterns of activities” (Searle, 1995, 57).

3 See Brisset (forthcoming).

4 As Ambroise has rightly noticed, “We sometimes have the feeling that the author is so much astonished that the techniques produce effects that he is looking for a term to qualify this event, which, however, does not have anything new: a technique aims precisely to be effective and to modify the reality, whether or not it requires the language. Among his 110 references, the author should have cited (and re-read) Aristotle.” (Ambroise, 2015, 214, our translation)

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Nicolas Brisset, « The Future of Performativity », Œconomia, 7-3 | 2017, 439-452.

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Nicolas Brisset, « The Future of Performativity », Œconomia [En ligne], 7-3 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2017, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL :

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Nicolas Brisset

Université de Nice Côte d’Azur (France), CNRS, GREDEG.

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