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Economic performativity: beyond binaries?

Jack Mosse
p. 25-40


This paper provides a background to, detailed exploration, and then critique of, the influential notion of economic performativity. It begins with a broad sweep of the theoretical developments in economic sociology in the years before the advance of the performativity program. In doing so it outlines the theoretical quandary that performativity sought to move beyond. Having set the scene, it then looks at the performativity thesis in detail, explaining how it seeks to do away with modern ontological binaries like the object/subject dichotomy. Once the performativity thesis has been unpacked, it is critiqued. Leading to the conclusion, that while there have been some benefits to the performative approach, especially in research looking at finance, the performativity thesis ultimately fails in its attempt to move beyond the ontology of “the moderns”, and does little to shift the debates in economic sociology that predated its popularity.

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1. Setting the scene: economic sociology before economic performativity

  • 1 For example, Berger, Luckmann 1966; Bourdieu 1972/1977; Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1967; Giddens 1984.

1Spawned by a frustration with functionalist accounts of institutional formation and stability, “neoinstitutionalism” developed in the 1980s as an approach that applied prominent concepts in social theory and sociology1 to the study of institutional change and stability (DiMaggio, Powell 1991). This “social” focus countered the functionalist instrumental “rational actor” accounts of institutions that economists advocated (see for example North 1991).

2These previously dominant functionalist accounts emphasized the role of self-interested individuals (or groups) who shape institutions in order to promote their own values or objectives within broader society. Whereas, instead, neoinstitutionalism switched the emphasis onto how institutions themselves, and the settings they create, act on the individuals within them. As such, it sought to move the focus away from the agency of the individuals and towards a more constructivist understanding of how institutions create and determine the behavior of individuals within them.

3However, while seeking to move away from a seemingly outdated functionalist approach, neoinstitutionalism posed a problem of its own, as its emphasis on behavior being determined by structural and/or social settings, risked evoking Garfinkel’s “cultural dope” (1967): the notion that it is overly deterministic to see individuals as unreflective rule followers whose actions are determined by cultural norms and institutional structures. As such, the development of neoinstitutionalism as an alternative to functionalism, crystallized the two central contrasting approaches that dominated institutional theory, and more broadly, economic sociology in the 1980s.

4An influential attempt to move beyond this polarized juncture between agency (functionalism) and structure (neoinstitutionalism), which helped lay the groundwork for economic performativity (see Callon 1998: 253), can be found in Granovetter’s notion of “embedded interactionism” (1985). Granovetter takes as his starting point the idea that both under (functionalist) and over (neoinstituionalist) socialized accounts of institutional behavior present the individual as an overly determined entity. On the one hand, the economists’ functionalist rational actor theory assumes people are driven by instrumental interests that determine economic behavior. On the other hand, overly socialized accounts tend to reduce economic behavior to the outcome of pre-existing social structures.

5For example, think of someone purchasing a shiny red sports car. The functionalist account would place the agency with the purchaser’s (possibly innate) desire to better their lives. The purchaser would sum up the cost/benefit analysis and decide that the financial outlay would be worth it in terms of the various benefits, such as rise in social status, superior mechanical quality, ability to attract a mate, etc. Whereas, the overly socialized neoinstitutionalist account would stress how broader social factors determine the purchaser’s decision to buy, focusing on factors like advertising and a broader social structure that values displays of excessive wealth.

6If you forgive the under developed example above, it is possible to see how both accounts leave little room for intentionality as a subjective capacity and present a static notion of agency, which ignores contingency in economic praxis. As in both, the agency that drives the purchase is predetermined, one stressing self-interest and the other emphasizing social pressures.

7The solution Granovetter advocates is the notion that behavior is closely embedded in localized interpersonal relationships. This utilizes Giddens’ notion of “structuration” (1984) and avoids the perils of both over or under socialized accounts, as it allows for meaning to be constructed in the flux of everyday life rather than stemming from static interpretations of social processes. Furthermore, it allows for both “interested individual” and “socially structured” agency to operate in different contexts, incorporating the notion that each interpersonal encounter can have different types and degrees of agency, leading to different outcomes. One example Granovetter uses is the development of trust between a group of thieves who are planning to rob a bank. He points out that trust is an essential ingredient in the action that is to be carried out, and that it’s likely these bonds of trust have evolved and are sustained through the criminals’ interactions with each other. This approach shifts the focus away from determining structures or innate instrumental drives and towards a processual conception of agency in which the world can be made and remade though interactions or relationships in more or less localized synchronic networks.

  • 2 See, for example, Hallett, Ventresca 2006; Portes, Sensenbrenner 1993; Uzzi 1996, 1997.
  • 3 See, for example, Krippner 2001; Ingram, Nee 1998; Zukin, DiMaggio 1990.

8This notion of “embedded interactionism” was taken on and utilized by a number of scholars2 and helped to develop “network theory” in the field of economic sociology (see Swedberg 2006), but has also been challenged,3 most notably by Bourdieu and his theory of “fields”. Bourdieu writes:

By contrast with the interactionist vision, which knows no other form of social efficacy than the “influence” directly exerted by one enterprise (or person entrusted with representing it) over another through some form of “interaction”, the structural vision takes account of effects that occur outside of any interaction. (Bourdieu 2005: 76)

9As indicated by the above quote, for Bourdieu interactionism concentrates too much on local interactions and fails to account for the broader structural factors within which interactions take place. Bourdieu conceives of interactions as an outcome rather than a cause (Collet 2003: 6). He uses his concept of “fields” to illuminate how actors and their interactions are assigned places within a wider structure.

10Thus, with the rational actor account dropping out of fashion, we see two distinct approaches to agency in socioeconomic praxis come to the fore in the 1990s. On the one side you have Granovetter’s notion of embedded interactionism, which emphasizes how local synchronic networks generate economic praxis. And on the other side, Bourdieu’s field theory, which is closer to neoinstitutionalism, and seeks to understand localized networked interactions as relating to broader structural processes operating beyond the immediate context. Swedberg went so far as to call “embedding” and “fields” the two most important concepts in modern economic sociology (Swedberg 2006: 3).

2. Callon’s economic performativity enters the fray

11Critics of field theory have pointed out that it is hard to trace the impacts of a field or the role of capital on an actor, as the mechanisms through which broader structures maintain power over an individual are unclear, leading to accusations of tautology (see Martin 2003: 9; Swedberg 2006: 7).

12Callon (1998) develops this critique through applying the dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy theorized both in Actor Network Theory (ANT) and in the turn towards “material culture” that economic anthropology began to adopt in the mid-1980s (Appadurai 1986). Like Granovetter’s embedded interactionism, Callon’s critique attempts to solve the problem by locating agency as a property of the network rather than something acting on it. He criticizes field theory, claiming it introduces “the usual opposition between the action and the resources of that action” (Callon 1998: 12), and argues that: “If we are to avoid the temptation of dualism, we need to banish any explanation separating the agency from the network” (Callon 1998: 12).

  • 4 It is worth noting here that the argument is not just that accounts of embeddedness from the “new e (...)

13Callon’s notion of “agentnetworks” draws from the same synchronic concept of localized networked social activity as interactionism, but through his banishment of dualism it hopes to move beyond Granovetter’s formulation of the theory by incorporating materiality into the interactions which had previously been overlooked in favor of human actors (see Calıskan, Callon 2009: 383-384).4

14It’s worth noting here, that this notion of materiality as central, as well as the networked sense of agency, sets Callon’s economic performativity apart from the notion of linguistic performativity as theorized by J. L. Austin (1962). Austin’s notion of performativity argued that language, when uttered, does things rather than describes them, just as Callon’s work points to how seemingly descriptive activities (like economics) help shape reality (the economy). But unlike Austin, Callon’s focus on agentnetworks, conceives of these descriptive devices as embroiled within a network of actants, as opposed to an exogenous force.

15Via Hodgson, Callon defines agentnetworks as a type of “organicist ontology”, writing:

[i]n an organicist ontology, relations between entities are internal rather than external and the essential characteristics of any element are seen as outcomes of relations with other entities’ (Hodgson 1994). We would be hard pressed to find a better definition of agentnetwork. (Callon 1998: 9)

16Callon then, through his application of an ANT framework, has formulated a notion of social/economic action in which objects and subjects, as well as action, actors and agency are not defined in opposition to one another, but as outcomes of “relations with other entities”. In what follows, I will explore what he means by this.

17I have crudely outlined a large amount of diverse theory in order to establish the broader field of economic sociology that Callon’s notion of economic performativity seeks to alter and co-opt. To summarize the points made so far: the issues revolving around structure and agency in economic behavior were thrown into relief by neoinstitutionalism’s critique of the “rational actor” in orthodox economics, which led to the development of Granovetter’s use of “structuration” and his notion of “embedded interactionism” as an attempt to incorporate both structure and agency into a theory of social praxis as interaction. However, this position was criticized by Bourdieu and others for failing to be able to account for the broader structural power relations surrounding and determining interactions. Thus, the terrain of the debate appears to have shifted from structure being pitted against individual agency (as in the rational actor account), to structure against localized embedded social interactions.

18This is the point at which Callon enters the discussion. Drawing on the dissolution of the object-subject dichotomy in both ANT and economic anthropology, Callon developed the theory of agentnetworks in the economic context. His formulation appears to enhance interactionalism, undermine field theory, and, through its dissolution of the “opposition between the action and the resources of that action”, to finally move beyond debates that pit ‘structure’ against other conceptions of agency.

19In the following section I lay out Callon’s position, indicating how it appears to offer a radically different paradigm for how we understand agency in the construction of economic conjunctures. But I conclude that it ultimately fails, and in the end, is unable to move beyond the localized networked agency vs structure tension that it seeks to resolve.

3. Unpacking Callon’s performativity thesis

20As outlined above, the central tenets of Callon’s performativity thesis stem from an ANT theoretical framework, which is principally concerned with the dissolution of modern ontological binaries (Latour 2005). Not least, the dissolution of the object/subject-binary. As within a network the “subject” who may be seen to be observing, describing or even manipulating the “object”, is, in fact, part of the same relational field as the “object”. Thus, at core, they are co-dependent and agency flows both ways. As such, this networked sense of agency entails a further dissolution of the dichotomy between descriptions (calculation, valuation) and the “thing” or action being described (calculated, valued). Callon wishes

[…] to drop the hypothesis of an ontological asymmetry between valuating subjects/agents and valuated things/objects/goods altogether, while integrating the active role of materialities more generally… such asymmetries exist but should be interpreted as the outcome of specific activities. (Calıskan, Callon 2009: 393)

21The above quotation can serve as a marker for the theoretical backdrop to the performativity program. The dissolution of the object/subject asymmetry calls for an emendation to the Durkheimian idea that “society orders the world of things on the pattern of the structure that prevails in the social world of its people” (Kopytoff 1986: 90). The corresponding dissolution of the describer and the described “asymmetry” allows Callon to claim that “it would thus be meaningless to distinguish between an existing reality (economy) and the analytical discourse explaining it” (Callon 1998: 29). Therefore, the “economy is embedded not in society but in economics […] with the caveat that […] one incorporates within economics all the knowledge and practices, so often denigrated, that make up for example accounting or marketing” (Callon 1998: 30).

22On a theoretical level this perspective is only possible due to a more foundational claim regarding the impossibility of there being any purified or essentialized forms or concepts. If there were essentialized forms or concepts, an opportunity would exist for a description of something to be ultimately accurate or inaccurate, true or false in the last instance, which would involve a distinction between the description and the thing being described. But given that there is no distinction (in the last instance), Callon’s performativity, like Latour’s “black boxes”, incorporates the notion that all things have the potential to be disassembled (and reassembled) without reaching any kind of essence. As Guyer points out, Callon’s assemblages “go all the way down” (Guyer 2016: 26).

  • 5 Callon prefers the term “sociotechnical agencement” to assemblage or bricolage, because the concept (...)

23From this perspective, Callon’s performativity thesis appears to take on a post-structuralist or even post-modern aspect. Yet, Callon wishes to move away from semiosis, writing that: “[c]ontexts cannot be reduced to, as in semiotics, a pure world of words and interlocutors; they are better conceived as textual and material assemblages” (Callon 2007: 320). Meaning, then, operates in a different manner to that implied by semioticians or Durkheimian sociologists; the material world out there (of which we are a part), rather than the meaning we imbue it with, takes central position in Callon’s approach. Ideas, emotions, reflexivity and subjectivity are not banished from Callon’s account (see Calıskan, Callon 2009: 390) but they exist in a flattened ontology (Thrift 2008), each composed of their relations with other “entities” (including their descriptions) rather than as contained essences of action. Following Deleuze and Guattari (1998), Callon adopts the term “sociotechnical agencement”5 and writes: “[…] there is nothing left outside agencements: there is no need for further explanation, because the construction of its meaning is part of an agencement” (Callon 2007: 320).

  • 6 A definition that Latour accepts (see Latour, Harman, Erdelyi 2011: 107-108).

24The internal location of meaning combined with the contingency of the alliances between “entities” develops an image in which causation (as we commonly conceive of it) has nothing to latch onto. This is also true in the case of Latour’s work, which harbors the same theoretical orientation as Callon’s. Harman (2009) explores this aspect of Latour’s work, calling Latour the first “secular occasionalist”.6 And if Latour is the first, it appears that Callon is not far behind.

25The accusation of economic performativity’s failure to account for and attribute responsibility in terms of systems of socio-economic and political domination derives from this fundamental stance regarding causation and agency. Agency is taken away from human agents’ capacity to determine the world, and instead located within entanglements that Callon denotes as sociotechnical agencements and “the game is never over, for new framings are always possible, always involving a bricolage of both the agencements and the statements” (Callon 2007: 321, emphasis original).

26The internal location of agency as a component of localized networks encourages a focus on local interactions at sites between actors that have been bracketed off from broader structural concerns and are “locked in” (Callon 2007a) to their own internal dynamics. As such, rather than tracing agency or structural trends, authors writing from this perspective are concerned with descriptive accounts of local interactions between actors (human or otherwise) at specific sites, sites which are seen to perform their own destinies.

27Due to its complex internal dynamics and its dependency on computational and mathematical devices (consider, for example, algorithms), finance offers rich pickings for researches applying Callon’s framework. As such, finance has become the central focus of ANT style economics work, much of which is collated under the umbrella discipline called “Social Studies of Finance”.

28An often-cited example of is Mackenzie’s (2007) discussion of the development of an equation that was used to set option contract prices. Option contracts give the right, but not the obligation, to buy (or sell) a set quantity of an asset at a specific price up to, or on, a specific date. They have been part of finance since at least the 17th century, but prior to the 1970s, there was no consensual equation for how they should be priced. Option prices were essentially an ad-hoc gamble on the expected future price of the asset. Variables such as the asset’s historical volatility (an option on a volatile asset is more valuable, being more probable to hit the target price specified by the option contract), or the interest rate that could be gained from other investments, would be part of the price setting configuration, but there was no agreed equation that would tell all market participants how to uniformly price the contract.

29That was until the early 1970’s, when the financial economists Fisher Black and Myron Scholes, with input from Robert C. Merton, developed a mathematical model for option pricing for which Scholes and Merton would win a noble prize (Black died before the prize was granted). They had developed a completely deterministic equation, based on a number of strict (if somewhat reductive) assumptions about the characteristics and probabilistic behavior of the underlying asset. But, due to the model, for the first time, traders were able to use “closed-form mathematical solutions” (Mackenzie 2007: 58) to price option contracts.

  • 7 The Black-Scholes equation (or derivatives of it) was used up until the 1987 shock stock market cra (...)

30Mackenzie writes: “[t]o claim that economics is performative is to argue that it does things, rather than simply describing (with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy) an external reality that is not affected by economics” (Mackenzie 2007: 54). The Black-Scholes equation, did things. As based on the equation, sheets were compiled that provided the theoretical price option contracts should be brought or sold at, Black then sold these sheets to traders, who used them as guides, and in time prices started to align with the model. Leading to a clear change in option prices from before and after the widespread adoption of the model. Therefore, the equation did not just describe an aspect of the economy but performatively changed it.7

31Mackenzie notes that there were other option pricing models which possibly had greater logical coherency, but that failed to be taken on in the same way. He stresses that even the authors of other models, who were convinced the Black-Scholes model was flawed, had to advise clients to use it to calculate prices. As such, it was not just the accuracy of the model that led to prices aligning with it.

32Importantly, in terms of it being an example that fits Callon’s vision, Mackenzie stresses the material aspects that led to the model becoming performative, in particular, the sheets used by traders. The mass production of these sheets was possible because it was an equation that could be reasonably easily computed, in order to provide a kind of cheat sheet, which was perfect for traders who needed to make split second decisions on the trading floors of the 1970s and 80s. Thus, materiality in the form of these sheets appears to have been a factor as important as the mathematical equation itself, and Mackenzie is keen to emphasize that we should not think of the equation as an idea that bends reality to its will (as one might do if applying Austin’s notion of linguistic performativity), but more as one of the actants within a network. He writes:

Nor should we forget one of Callon’s main arguments: the collective calculation mechanisms that constitute markets are material. The Black-Scholes-Merton model could not have been performed in the markets had it remained simply a conceptualization in economists’ heads. The reason I have emphasized the role of Black’s sheets is to highlight their significance as material means of calculation, as aspects of ‘distributed cognition’, as ways of connecting the apparently abstract mathematics of the model to the sweaty, jostling bodies on exchange trading floors. (Mackenzie 2007: 78)

33The abstract mathematics, the sheets, trading floors and the jostling bodies on them, are all part of the networked assemblage. Agency does not stem from one particular actant, but is instead conceived of as a relational or networked aspect between the different actors.

34Callon’s notion of economic performativity is evident in the example. When looking at options trading, it is hard to “distinguish between an existing reality (economy) and the analytical discourse explaining it” (Callon 1998: 29) as in this instance the analytical discourse – the Black-Scholes model, is part of the reality that it seeks to describe. Beyond this, one can see how the system is locked into its own internal dynamics and in some degree “bracketed off” from wider structural factors, as the equation helps set the prices, which then help validate the equation in a self-referential loop. Finally, Mackenzie’s stress on the importance of material factors that contribute to the preformation of the equation, illustrates how agency cannot be reduced to the power of one actant (the equation) imposing itself to create a conjuncture, but instead should be conceived of as an aspect of interconnections within a network.

35The above example offers a way of understanding how Callon’s notion of economic performativity can be used to analyze real world aspects of the economy. Indicating how it encourages researchers to think of economics as more than merely descriptive, but as an active ingredient in scenarios that perform their own destinies. The next section returns to the theoretical backdrop behind this position and explores it from a critical angle.

4. Critique of performativity: the return of the objects

36This section critiques the foundations of Callon’s performativity thesis. Through the critique we see the limitations of its theoretical underpinnings which undermine its capacity to move beyond the debate around structure and networked agency. The critique destabilizes Callon’s movement away from structural notions of agency and towards the localized networked conception he adopts. In doing so, it emphasizes the need to explore how local sites of economic praxis are embedded in broader cultural norms and structural trends.

37The argument I level at Callon follows Guyer’s (2016) work, which critiques Callon’s performativity by drawing out a theoretical paradox at the heart of the thesis. Her work helps us understand the following point made by Cooper and Konings:

The insistence on the performative character of social constitution becomes less and less itself a critical stance and comes to serve more and more as a legitimating element in a problematic movement from materialist foundationalism through pragmatic anti-foundationalism to an idealist foundationalism. (Cooper, Konings 2016: 1)

38The argument goes: despite its commitment to an “impoverishing reductionism”, performativity’s banishment of dualism is not wholly successful, and the performativity program itself ends up adopting an idealist position and as a result becomes stuck in the same localized networked agency vs structure stasis as the other approaches outlined at the start of the paper.

39Guyer (2016) brings this out through her discussion of “elements” in assemblages (or agencements). She argues that in its desire to banish foundationalism and modern binaries, “elements” are deeply under-theorized in the performativity thesis. The focus on performation and “framing” prioritizes the processual way assemblages are formed, but ignores the historical stability of the elements of which they consist, she writes:

[…] there are broader and deeper theoretical shifts that do implicate, I now think, the puzzlingly low attention to the elements that make up assemblages, and their manner of expressing, or pertaining to, framings that are otherwise being placed under a deeply skeptical scrutiny, such as objectivity, materiality, and nature, as part of the culture of ‘the moderns’. (Guyer 2016: 238)


[…] the apparent skirting around ‘elements’ in the ANT- Economics work seems due to entailments of the emphasis on performativity, so on the forward- looking projective processes in the immediate situations in which assemblages are framed and activated rather than on the preceding modes of existence that might account for their presence on the scene, in some condition that allows them to be ‘found’ (as in the artistic framing, as ‘found objects’). (Guyer 2016: 238)

41How then, can we theorize “elements” in the performativity thesis? Given that, as noted earlier, Callon’s assemblages “go all the way down”, the elements are themselves composed of relations between other entities or elements. Yet, in order to become actors or actants they (the elements) require a degree of stability or homogeneity, as it is only through stability that they are able to become “actors” (Latour 2005) or “elements” in themselves.

42The next step in Guyer’s argument is to draw our attention to the manner in which performativity scholars treat reflexive categories that people utilize when they act. Callon recognizes that these reflexive categories such as notions of objectivity, nature, culture, reality, materiality etc., are important (Callon 2005; Calıskan, Callon 2009: 390), but given the anti-binary nature in the performativity thesis how can Callon’s performativity account for these “elements” that stem from apparently false modern dichotomies? Guyer writes:

While rejecting ontology and the object/subject distinction, the ‘elements’ of assemblage appear to be incorporated under terms that derive precisely from the native cultures of ‘the moderns’ that Latour is attempting to ‘recall’ (1999) and reform. (Guyer 2016: 32)

43This is because if we reject the object-subject distinction, yet we appreciate the significance of binary modes of thought as elements in assemblages, then these elements, the modern binaries that ANT scholars demean, exist, not as “false dichotomies” (according to Callon there can be no such thing as false), but as agents in themselves. Thus, even if there is no “ghost in the machine”, ideas, concepts and meanings which conceive and utilize the “modern binaries” exist in the performativity program; and therefore, as the binaries themselves exist, the aspects/elements connected to them like “subjects” and “objects” also exist as actants in the assemblage. If people “believe” in objects and the notion of an object is an actor or element in an agencement, then “objects” exist, regardless of their ontological status.

  • 8 At the time of writing the reality of the bond market is being used to justify austerity in the UK.

44So, “objects” and “subjects” as well as the other modern binaries return to the theoretical framework as “elements”. The question now becomes: how are these elements composed? How did they come to, and continue to, exist? It is here that Guyer stresses that these elements are not just composed out of thin air at laboratories of assemblage (in economics departments or science labs), but exist as historical entities with varying degrees of stability and contingency prior to their being “found” at networked sites. She illustrates this with a lengthy discussion of the concept of “reality” in both economic theorizing and its vernacular use when applied to the economy. Her discussion shows how the concept of “reality” in both its vernacular and more formal use has a stake (is an element) in various different economic assemblages, and how its “value” and meaning are historically determined by broader factors in different settings.8 Thus, her emphasis is on the significance of elements which exist prior to the manner in which they are “found” at important laboratories, and this prioritizes the importance of discursive and structural processes away from the networks which Callon and co concentrate on (Guyer 2016: 255).

45The attention to elements and their role in the performativity thesis highlights a tension between local networked processes and broader cultural or political structures. “Elements” are necessary components of agencements, yet in accepting that reflexive ideational concepts act as elements, the performativity thesis is forced to treat those concepts as entities in themselves. Therefore, entities like the notion of “objectivity” or “nature” exist as elements, and given that there is no foundational essence from which they stem, in order to disassemble such elements, one needs to locate them in a broader historical context. This then brings in all the structural factors in field theory that performativity sought to move beyond, and we are back to a theoretical discussion that resembles the antagonism between Bourdieu’s structural “fields” and Granovetter’s “embedded interactions”.

46In order to avoid this disappointing conclusion, performativity scholars could and do argue that whilst elements matter, it is the way they are brought together and “framed” at specific sites that really counts in the construction of assemblages/agencements. Yet, this again introduces a distinction between the “elements” being framed and the agency or network doing the framing. And, as noted above, heavy emphasis is placed on the framing in Callon’s performativity which leads to the “idealist foundationalism” that Cooper and Konings highlight in the quote at the start of this section.

47Applying Guyer’s critique to the option pricing example draws into question the manner in which it’s possible, or even useful, to “bracket off” the networked site in the way Mackenzie does. Instead, social and historical structures that led to the development and adoption of the Black-Scholes formula come into view. Factors such as the collapse of the gold standard, and the rise of finance off the back of deregulation, or the role of lobbying in preventing option trading being seen gambling, become significant. As do the motivations and belief structures of those involved – the economists, the traders, the lobbyists, and the legislators who created the legal structure that encases options trading. From this perspective the gulf between Guyer and Mackenzie’s positions starts to look like that between Granovetter’s embedded interactionalism and Bourdieu’s fields.

48So, if we follow Guyer’s argument that performativity and its ANT framework is unconvincing in its attempt to banish dualism altogether, what kind of performativity thesis are we left with? We are left with an approach to the social construction of the economy that emphasizes the role of devices, material and descriptive, which frame and format the economy, with particular focus on how devices operate at bracketed-off localized networks and sites of expertise. However, if this is so, as Appadurai points out, Weber’s discussion on double-entry book-keeping “[…] already identified the primary idea behind the entire corpus of Mackenzie and Callon on economic performativity” (Appadurai 2012: 13).

49However, just because it fails in its attempted theoretical paradigm shift, economic performativity shouldn’t be dismissed altogether. Whilst lacking originality, it’s emphasis on the role of economics as a discourse that impacts rather than describes the economy, has encouraged critiques of the status quo that encompass how we talk about, think about, and describe the economy (see, for example, Bramal 2013; Mosse 2021). And in coherence with other philosophical developments which emphasize the importance of mark making and the role of documents (see, for example, Ferraris 2013; Smith 2012), it has been part of a general wave of thought over the past two decades that has furthered our understanding of the importance of materiality in how we understand social praxis. Furthermore, in certain areas of finance, like the option pricing model discussed above, it brings into view different ways of understanding how economic conjunctures are constructed. Ultimately though, despite these positive aspects, from a theoretical perspective it promises far more than it offers. And the problematic ontological assumptions at the heart of the thesis make it a poor tool for understanding economic issues more broadly.

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1 For example, Berger, Luckmann 1966; Bourdieu 1972/1977; Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1967; Giddens 1984.

2 See, for example, Hallett, Ventresca 2006; Portes, Sensenbrenner 1993; Uzzi 1996, 1997.

3 See, for example, Krippner 2001; Ingram, Nee 1998; Zukin, DiMaggio 1990.

4 It is worth noting here that the argument is not just that accounts of embeddedness from the “new economic sociology” (inspired by Granovetter) ignore material factors, but that in doing so they fail to distinguish between markets and society, or more accurately they apply the “usual ‘sociological list’ (social networks, institutions, conventions, rules, legal arrangements, norms or social fields)” (Calıskan, Callon 2009: 384) which struggles to account for the “particular force known as economic markets” (Calıskan, Callon 2009: 383). Markets themselves hae a degree of agency in Callon’s work.

5 Callon prefers the term “sociotechnical agencement” to assemblage or bricolage, because the concept of “agencement” shares the same root as “agency”; implying that agency is part of the “sociotechnical agencement” rather than a force acting on it, or from it (Callon 2007: 320).

6 A definition that Latour accepts (see Latour, Harman, Erdelyi 2011: 107-108).

7 The Black-Scholes equation (or derivatives of it) was used up until the 1987 shock stock market crash, the crash drew into question the equations prediction of future price volatility, and other formulas were then developed to price options after that.

8 At the time of writing the reality of the bond market is being used to justify austerity in the UK.

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Jack Mosse, «Economic performativity: beyond binaries?»Rivista di estetica, 84 | 2023, 25-40.

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Jack Mosse, «Economic performativity: beyond binaries?»Rivista di estetica [Online], 84 | 2023, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 13 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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