How to write after performativity? (part 2)

[El nombre de esta sección por ahora es “artículos en cuotas”. La idea es, como en una novela por entregas, ir subiendo partes de papers a medida que vayan saliendo. El texto abajo es la segunda parte de un capítulo para el libro A Routledge Companion to ANT, editado por Anders Blok, Ignacio Farías & Celia Roberts. La primera parte está acá. Por cierto, sugerencias sobre cómo debería seguir la historia son muy bienvenidos]

How to write after performativity? José Ossandón.

[Second instalment of chapter prepared for A Routledge Companion to ANT, edited by Anders Blok, Ignacio Farías & Celia Roberts. Non-proof read draft.]

Part II. The instructions

Callon’s performativity thesis reoriented the attention of researchers inspecting economic issues. The traditional critical stance towards the way economists portray economics actors and the economy is replaced by an increasing attention to those whose work involves formatting calculative agencies, among them economists themselves. The question ‘how to write after performativity?’ shifts the attention in a different direction. The focus here is not directed at the economic agents that are performed with economics, but at the research personae enacted with the performativity approach to the economy. To use a cinematographic analogy, it could be said that from this perspective, Callon is seen as a film director, and the researchers informed by his work are like cameramen following his instructions, and, in order to clarify the particular type of personae these researchers enact, what ought to be done first is to clarify the director’s guidelines.

In 1981, a new market place for the trading of table strawberries was set at the commune of Fontaines-en-Sologne in central France. This strawberry market became officially part of the social scientific discussion in 1986, when a paper about the case by Marie-France Garcia-Parpet (2007) was published in Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, the journal Pierre Bourdieu started in 1975. In 1998, Garcia-Parpet’s strawberries began a second life, when Michell Callon used her case study as the central empirical evidence of what it will become the more influential idea of his famous chapters in the edited collection The Laws of the Markets. In fact, Garcia-Parpet’s piece only appeared in English in 2007 when it was included in the edited collection – Do Economists Make Markets? – that consolidated the international academic influence of Callon’s thesis. What Callon did not make explicit in his chapters is that while taking Garcia-Parpet’s basic insight, his conclusions are radically different. In what follows, the modifications Callon introduced in relation to Garcia-Parpet’s case are used as entry points to identify his particular guidelines; the rules set to the research personae to be enacted with the performativity thesis.

Strawberries exchange forever

The case at Fontaines-en-Sologne, Garcia-Parpet points out, presents characteristics that makes it of special interest. As she puts it: ‘our data suggests, that this market is, in some sense, a concrete realization of the pure model of perfect competition’ (Garcia-Parpet 2007: 20). this is an exchange with atomized actors, homogenous products, fluid entry, and transparent information. This fact, in turn, opens a challenge to traditional sociological approaches to the economy. Sociologists, Garcia-Parpet explains, would normally look for issues that deviate in relation to the ideal market. They would search for evidence to prove economists’ idealized view of the economy wrong. What to do with a case without such deviations? Garcia-Parpet’s article is important because it proposes a new type of task for future social researchers. Now sociologists can explain how a situation like the market in Fontaines-en-Sologne ended up organized in this particular way. Sociologists can study what Garcia-Parpet terms the ‘social construction of the perfect market’.

When Callon revisited Garcia-Parpet’s case in his 1998 introduction piece to the The Laws of the Markets, he seems to depart from a very similar starting point. Perfect competition, Callon explains, is not merely an abstract ideal invention of economists. It is also concrete, a particular mode of organizing economic exchange. Accordingly, sociologists and other social scientists interested in studying the economy do not have to limit their work to assessing whether the model is or is not realistic, they should study how this is sometimes practically achieved. Garcia-Parpet and Callon, then, share a basic starting point. As Garcia-Parpet’s put it: ‘the practices which constitute the market are not market practices’. The real story at Fontaines-en-Sologne is not one that portrays the actors that participate in the strawberry exchange as Garcia-Parpet found them in her fieldwork. The situation – with merchants, traders, suppliers, buyers, and standardized goods- is what has to be explained. The real story is not there, it lays elsewhere. It is in this ‘elsewhere’, however, where the differences start to appear. How does Callon callonizes the strawberry market case?

Modification 1, the focus: pay more attention to equipment, devices and, economic theory itself

‘The practices which constitute the market are not market practices’ […] ‘The creation should be seen as a social innovation resulting from the work of a number of individuals interested, for different reasons, in changing the balance of power between the growers and the buyers’ [37] ‘Thus the market is better conceived as a field of struggle’ (Garcia-Parpet 2007: 46).

These are Garcia-Parpet’s instructions. To explain the practical organization of a situation such as the strawberry market, analysts should expand their focus to the story of power struggles in which the relevant participants of the exchange have been involved for years. The situation in 1981 is a particular and, we learn in the postscript Garcia-Parpet added in the 2007 version of her article, momentary stage of this larger drama. Garcia-Parpet’s study is remarkable (and marks a key step in the markets as fields approach consolidated later by Fligstein (1996) and Bourdieu (2005)) because she does not simply repeat a social constructivist mantra. She actually displays a convincing empirical analysis that explains how the situation ended up in the ‘perfect market’.

While Callon seems to agree with Garcia-Parpet’s analysis, what he points out as crucial is different. In his words:

‘As the [strawberry] example clearly shows, the crucial point is not that of the intrinsic competences of the agent but that of the equipment and devices (material: the warehouse, the batches displayed side by side; metrological: the meter, and procedural: regressive biding) which gives her or his action a shape’ (20-21) […] ‘Beyond the material procedures, legal and monetary elements which facilitate the framing and construction of the space of calculability, there is a capital, yet rarely mentioned, element: economic theory itself’ (22) (Callon 1998a).

To use the film analogy again, it could be said that what Garcia-Parpet’s analysis does is to construct a prequel. In order to explain the extraordinary situation, you need to understand how the actors ended up playing the positions in which you met them. If Callon was making a movie, his movie will not be a fully dramatized prequel. It would rather be something like a documentary, a bit like those ‘making-off’ movies where the attention goes to the technical details behind what we see. His instruction is:  you should pay more attention to equipment, devices and, economic theory itself.

Modification 2, the montage: theorizing is a form of re-assembling where existing pieces can be cut off from their original context and placed in a new network.

The first modification Callon introduces regards the focus of empirical attention. The second modification is theoretical. Remarkably, what Callon does, but he does not make explicit, is to completely reject Garcia-Parpet’s theoretical explanation. His message for future researchers could be summarized as: don’t do as Garcia-Parpet suggests you to do! Interestingly, though, it is not that Callon constructs an alternative empirical story. He does not advance new evidence to challenge Garcia-Parpet’s explanation. Callon’s argumentation does not work at this level. What he does is to construct a new theoretical context to situate the case. The new context is built in three operations.

The first theoretical operation Callon does in his famous introduction is what Andrew Abbott (2004) calls an ‘inversion’: a type of heuristic device that aims to discover new theory by inverting the direction between explanandum and explanans. While previous research in economic sociology and economic would disagree about almost everything, they share the common assumption that strategic economic actors pre-exist market exchange. Callon, instead, argues that is calculability (the fact that things are calculable and actors can calculate) what has so be explained. Of course, Callon’s inversion is not entirely surprising. It is a logical consequence of the extension of Actor-Network theory. If you will study the economy with Actor-Network theory, you cannot start from pre-formed actors, you must start from the socio-technical network and explain agencies as their outcome. It is as if at this moment, even though he has been one of its original developers, Callon shows that to extend Actor-Network theory to a new area has its price. You must follow its rules and avoid other temptations.

‘if we are to avoid the temptation of dualism, we need to banish any explanation separating the agents from the network, and, in particular, avoid the usual concepts of resources or social capital’ (Callon 1998a: 12).

The second theoretical operation is not a consequence of ANT but of Callon’s particular style of theorizing. In the introduction of the Laws of the Markets Callon constructs theory by knitting pieces of existing theory into a new assemblage. To use the film analogy yet again, what Callon does is like editing and montage. Maybe a bit like filmmakers such as Harun Farocki, who constructed some of his movies by montaging pieces of existing films, Callon cuts and pastes elements of existing theories in order to construct a new story. The pieces here include: elements of social network analysis, sociological theory (Goffman and Simmel), economic anthropology (discussion on gift, time and entanglement, by Bourdieu and Thomas), Zelizer’s cultural sociology of money, social studies of science and history of accounting, and economics (Coase’s approach to externalities and Guesnerie’s definition of markets).

Callon, though, does not tell the reader ‘do theory as I do’. He does not explicit a method, how he chooses what he picks and what he doesn’t pick. He does what he does and leaves it for future researchers to wonder how callonizing works. A clue, however, can be found elsewhere in Callon’s work. The quotation below summarizes Callon’s and Muniesa’s explanation of the trajectory of economic goods:

‘The process of individualization or singularization consists in a gradual definition of the properties of the product, shaped in such a way that it can enter into the consumer’s world and become attached to it […]The transfer can then take place. The good leaves the world of supply, breaks away from it (which is possible since it has been objectified) and slots into another world, that of the buyer, which has been configured to receive it. It becomes entangled in the networks of sociotechnical relations constituting the buyer’s world’ (Callon & Muniesa 2005: 1233).

What Callon does to Garcia-Parpet’s case is not that different. A piece of evidence is, as if were ‘objectified’, cut from its original context to be re-entered into a different world, where it becomes entangled in a completely different network. What is the new network for the strawberry market?

The third theoretical operation is to set a new theory context, a model, to re-locate the assembled pieces. This operation can be related to an element that is not always associated with Actor-Network Theory, but it has been actually there since the beginnings. It is like the T in the ANT acronym meant a particular mode of abstracting. Take for instance Callon’s (1984) ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation’. The Actor-Network theorist elaborates concepts, technical names used to label things which do not necessarily respond to the way in which those things are named by those who are studied (i.e. “problematization, interessement; enrolment, mobilization”), and the theorist maps, assemble the series of labels in larger model that works like a flow or cycle diagram (“the four moments of translation”). It is perhaps here where the engineer and the sociologist meet!

The model in the Laws of the Markets, and despite Callon’s self-imposed rule, works at two levels. The first level is set to explain the relation between ‘devices, equipment and economic theory’ and ‘calculative agencies’. Calculable goods and calculable agents are the outcome of framing and formatting, what Callon calls ‘performation’. Performation is, in turn, located in a larger cycle. Calculable agencies are challenged by not yet calculable events, what Callon calls ‘overflows’, and these overflows trigger new processes of framing and formatting. The field of struggle described by Garcia-Parpet is replaced, at one level, by a more specific process in which different technicians and their devices work in making things calculable, and, by a much larger cycle of framing and overflows.

Modification 3, a new political role: future researchers are not only analysts but are part of the model

There is finally a third modification. Here, again, it is not simply Callon paying the price of extending ANT, but him giving a totally different type of instruction for future researchers. The next, long, quotation precisely describes the modification there conducted.

‘This is the point at which it would make sense to draw up a new contract between sociology and economics. The anthropology of science and technology (AST) has acquired some useful tools for describing the dynamics of these confused situations or ‘hybrid forums’ (CalIon, Law and Rip, 1986; Latour, 1987). Hence it is in a position to keep track of controversies and the experiments they engender without giving precedence to anyone point of view, whilst at the same time revealing the socio-technological maps produced by the actors involved as well as the progressive development of instruments for making world states calculable. Thus AST can help with the work of framing interactions by improving the visibility of various efforts to keep track of overflows as well as the visibility of the disagreements or agreements to which they give rise. Like those satellite imaging systems that enable navigators to keep track of their relative positions at all times, the anthropology of science and technology can provide the actors with a cartographical outline of overflows in progress, thereby paving the way for preliminary negotiations’ (Callon 1998b: 263.)

As Callon explains in his early pieces (Callon 1980, 1984), the task for future researchers is to follow processes of technical translation: how scientists, engineers and other researchers problematize, construct alliance, and so on. The ANT researcher has been traditional invited to play a role that – a bit like the exercise conducted here – observes from a second order perspective, a researcher whose work is to reconstruct the traces of the operations conducted by engineers, economists and other technicians in the wild and map them. This position, somehow, changes in the The Laws of the Market. As the last lines in the quotation make clear, anthropologists of science and technology are not only called to provide social scientific descriptions and explanations. In the space in between overflows and re-framing there is a more practical task assigned for them. The third modification is: you are not only a researcher but you are invited to strategically use your maps to mediate ongoing controversies.

The transformation is now complete. The first modification was a matter of empirical focus. While Garcia-Parpet’s constructed a detailed account of the past of the actors we find today; Callon asks us to look at the equipment, devices, and economic theory. The second modification was theoretical. The strawberry market case is cut from its theoretical context and placed on a different model made of various pieces of existing theories. The third modification is added on top of the new model. Future researchers are not only welcome to look at situations such as the strawberry market from a new empirical and theoretical angle, but they are also given a new part in the world as described by Callon.


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