How to write after Callon’s performativity? (final part)

[El nombre de esta sección 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 tercera parte de un capítulo para el libro A Routledge Companion to ANT, editado por Anders Blok, Ignacio Farías & Celia Roberts. Las primeras dos partes están acá y acá. Una versión completa del texto en su versión actual está disponible acá]

How to write after Callon’s performativity? José Ossandón.

[Third and final instalment of chapter prepared for A Routledge Companion to ANT, edited by Anders Blok, Ignacio Farías & Celia Roberts. Draft October 2018.]

Part III. The characters

The previous section was about the research persona created with Callon’s performativity thesis. It showed that Callon used Garcia-Parpet’s case to create a new position to approach markets. This section explores work conducted after Callon. It revises work that is not set against or beyond but that follows Callon’s performativity thesis, and that, a bit like Callon did with Garcia-Parpet, has enacted different research personae. The following lines distinguish three different characters, three different sets of instructions of how to write after Callon’s performativity.

Before moving on there are two disclaimers to make. Callon’s performativity thesis has inspired thousands of papers in several sub-disciplines (Cochoy 2014, McFall & Ossandón 2014). The distinction between the three different ways of writing after Callon proposed here is informed by years of close reading of this literature, but it cannot claim to be exhaustive. The typology should be read as a tentative classificatory hypothesis. Second, it is worth mentioning that some of the questions posed here have been asked before. Inspired by Ian Hunter’s (2006) critical historical analysis of recent humanities, Du Gay (2010) identified a tension in the work of Callon and colleagues. Sometimes, this work is descriptive and empirically oriented, while other times it is populated by empirically untestable statements. Jenle (2015) picked the label Du Gay uses, the ‘theoreticist’, to characterize the stance of work informed by Callon’s performativity program. He identifies two features: ‘a primary commitment to or prioritization of the development of generally applicable conceptualizations of markets’ and ‘a lack of concern with the object of study as constituted by an empirical state of affairs’ (Jenle 2015: 216). The exercise here is certainly inspired by these discussions. It will be argued, for instance, that Callon’s theory has enabled the development of different personae and that these have different stances in relation to empirical inquiry. The point here, however, is not to evaluate whether the orientation of the performativity thesis is empiricist enough. Neither is it to identify this theory’s overall stance. The point is rather to identify the type of research personae, the implicit characters and the rules set to them, enacted with and after Callon’s approach to markets.

A performative-detective

If the strawberry market was the main empirical example Callon used to illustrate the 1998 formulation of his performativity thesis, undoubtedly the most famous empirical study informed by this thesis is MacKenzie’s work on derivatives markets. MacKenzie’s derivatives studies are oftentimes seen as a straightforward empirical operationalization of Callon’s insight that ‘economics performs markets’. In fact, this is how MacKenzie himself often describes his own work. But, unsurprisingly, the translation is not that straightforward. The research persona in MacKenzie’s work is both clearly influenced by Callon’s performativity thesis and proposes a distinctively different empirical stance. It is, it could be said, after Callon, but not Callonian.

The most influential paper in the series is MacKenzie and Millo’s (2003) piece in the American Journal of Sociology. There, MacKenzie and Millo revise different accepted theories in economic sociology and show how these help to partially explain the evolution of their case study, the derivatives market in Chicago. Their argument is that there is a missing link, a particular formula -the Black-Scholes equation widely used in the valuation of derivatives- whose empirical relevance in the case cannot be accounted for with the commonly accepted theories in economic sociology. The empirical situation of the market is also the outcome of the practical use of economic theory.

The research persona presented in MacKenzie and Millo’s paper, explicitly follows some of Callon’s instructions – ‘look at devices and economic theory’ -, but does not follow Callon’s theorizing style. In fact, when the economic situation that has to be explained changes. For instance in his work on the credit crisis (MacKenzie 2011), Mackenzie works with different theoretical tools in order to sustain his particular explanation. What MacKenzie and Millo do is to transform Callon’s performativity from a general model of markets into an empirical hypothesis, or conjecture, a thesis among others to explain a particular outcome. The argument is constructed a bit like a jury case, a carefully crafted defence to prove a missing link in front of a sceptical jury. The researcher in this context, unlike Callon’s ANT theorist, is not oriented to construct a general model of the market. Like a detective producing evidence for a court case, the researcher appears as a character that has to identify the clues and construct proof in order to demonstrate the empirical connection between a specific economic theory and the explained economic situation.

A philosophical-ethnographer

Fabian Muniesa has co-authored some of Callon’s work on markets. In his own work, though, Muniesa has also introduced important modifications. It is not that Muniesa has produced an ‘anti-program’, e.g. set an agenda against Callon’s performativity. What his work does is to enact a research persona for the performativity thesis that is different to Callon’s and MacKenzie’s.

Callon’s performativity thesis was a model to explain a particular outcome, marketization, understood in terms of calculable agents and calculative goods. In Muniesa’s work (2014), instead, performativity becomes an overall perspective to study a wider variety of modes of economic performances- for instance, case based teaching in business schools, perfume testing, and financial valuation. This movement becomes more explicit in Muniesa and colleagues’ (2017) more recent book, which makes capitalization- a situation composed of investors, investee and assets-, and not calculability, the central outcome to be explained. As mentioned, in MacKenzie’s work performativity became an empirical conjecture. The fact that the Black-Scholes formula performs the economy is demonstrated because the studied market starts to resemble the assumptions of the formula that informs the calculative devices used by market practitioners. In Muniesa’s work, performativity signals a particular stance, a mode of relating with the world of business that is not interested in studying whether market A looks like the content of theory B (Ossandón & Pallesen 2016). Empirical research, instead, inquiries how business reality is constructed through different sets of performances.

Performative, in this context, acquires a broader sense. It does not refer only to ‘performativity’ in the philosophy of language sense. It also means performance, in the dramaturgical sense, and agencement in the sense of situated economic instances in which specific ways of acting are distributed. The research persona proposed in Muniesa’s work does not resemble a detective. Muniesa’s research stance is ethnographic and descriptive, but not empiricist. He does not look for clues that can demonstrate a particular empirical link. It is, as in Callon’s case, more speculative. However, unlike Callon’s position, Muniesa’s theorizing is not oriented at constructing a model of its empirical object. Theorizing is oriented at conceptualizing, identifying and naming the particular ways in which different performances are realized. The research persona is a philosophical-ethnographer: a producer of concepts informed by ethnographic work (Ossandón 2015).

A market-reformist

A third persona produced after Callon’s performativity has been developed by Callon himself. As mentioned already, Callon’s 1998 pieces outlined a model on two levels, a descriptive layer in which researchers study how devices and economics work in the organization of specific markets, and a second level that situates the process of formatting markets in the dynamic of framing and overflows. An important part of Callon’s recent work has been oriented at developing a new persona whose work is at the intersection of both levels. This position already features, although not centrally, in the texts from 1998.

‘This is the point at which it would make sense to draw up a new contract between sociology and economics […] Thus AST [The anthropology of science and technology] 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.)

The new persona marks an important modification in relation to Callon’s own early ANT work. As Callon explains in his early pieces (e.g. Callon 1984), the task of the ANT researcher was to reconstruct the traces of how engineers and other technicians problematize, construct alliances, and to map and conceptualize these processes. In Callon’s recent pieces, anthropologists of science and technology are not only invited to provide social scientific descriptions of the work of other actors. The new persona is somehow closer to what economists attempt to do than to early ANT. From this position, markets are not only the object the experts that ANT’s scholars study construct, markets also become an object of ANT intervention. Like when economists do policy making, this new position assumes that well-functioning markets are desirable collective outcomes and that the public role of social scientists is justified on the basis of the identification and repair of market failures. What Callon does, more clearly in his essay ‘Civilizing Markets’, is to define a new type of market failure: markets should be assessed in relation to their ability to deal with the overflows they might produce.

‘To be considered as efficient, a market should pay very careful attention to the numerous matters of concern that it creates, and to the groups that express and promote them, thus becoming economic agents in their own right’ (Callon, 2009, p. 546).

The new task for social researchers, in this context, is to map controversies, identify overflows and  help giving voice to those affected or orphaned by the development of new markets. This new persona is not simply a researcher; it is a market-reformist.

IV. Performativity and ANT as intellectual practice

To paraphrase Sloterdijk (2014), again, new theories are like secessionist movements, anthropotechnic programs that transform those that exercise them. In the terms used in this chapter, new social theories do not only provide new explanations. They produce new research personae: they teach and re-train future researchers in new ways of relating with their object of study. The object of interest here is not an exception in this regard. Callon’s performativity thesis has no doubt been immensely successful. It introduced a new approach to the study of markets which has been enacted by an army of callonized researchers.

What this chapter has tried to do is to identify performativity’s research personae. The process of answering this question has been like an exercise in the ‘sociology of translation’. In order to identify the research persona of Callon’s performativity thesis, his instructions of how to approach markets, I inspected his translation of García-Parpet’s work. To delimit the research personae enacted after Callon’s thesis, the instructions to approach markets informed by Callon’s work, I revised how his work has been translated by MacKenzie and Millo, Muniesa and Callon himself.

What does this exercise say about ANT as intellectual practice? Two things. First, performativity appears like a fractal of ANT. Like other chapters in this book show, ANT cannot be reduced to a single intellectual stance. Sometimes ANT is a particular type of modelling heterogeneous networks, other times it is a more descriptive type of ethnographic research, on other occasions, it refers to a form of philosophical conceptual speculation, and yet at other times, it is a particular political position. Callon’s performativity thesis does not only combine these different elements, it has been enacted in all these keys. Second, this exercise shows that ANT has become a particular type of critical intellectual practice. Doing ANT is not simply following the explicit instructions set by canonical texts. To use ANT is also a performance, a creative form of acting the instructions that previous theories set to us. Future will tell if the new personae created in this process are still after or are beyond or against performativity and ANT.


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