Sunday, July 26, 2009

Performativity

I have been reading a lot lately about a concept called performativity. Its the idea that our theories about how things work or what exists can be more than simply descriptions of the world. They also have the potential power to create the world, at least as we see it. This does not mean that if I believe in pink flying elephants hard enough then they really exist. Not all theories are potentially performative, but some are. For example Mackenzie et. al.(2006) have shown that certain financial models used to predict financial market movements are performative. Retrospective research has shown that initially these models were quite inaccurate. But because their inaccuracy was not recognized at the time, and in any case there were no other models by which to interpret financial market movements, these financial models were used widely by financial analysts and in fact are still used to this very day. What is interesting here is that if you look at the data these models are much more accurate now at predicting financial market movements then they were in the past. One might say that they have simply been improved upon, except that this is simply untrue. The equations upon which these models are built have not significantly, or even marginally, changed for the past 30 years or so. To those who who can't believe that modern financial analysts could still be wedded to such "old" models, I simply direct you to the aforementioned book or remind you that the basic equation by which the size of our recent stimulus bill was arrived at was developed my John Maynard Keynes over 60 years ago. What has changed over the past 30 years, if you take a look at the data, is the behavior of the financial markets themselves. And significantly that change has been towards a behavioral pattern that the financial models have been predicting all along. Therefore what seems to be occurring is that the models, and the theories that they are based upon, have "tamed" the markets. Somehow these once inaccurate models, through consistent application, have been able to bend market reality to their "will." Or in other words they have created market reality.

A variation on this theme has been around for a long time in the social and anthropological sciences and there has been labeled "reflexivity." As ethnographers attempted to document, and more problematically understand, the various social and cultural practices of native peoples across the globe they began to realize how their own cultural and social "baggage" frustrated their ability to write an objective or unbiased account. To make matters worse these ethnographers also realized that their very presence in a society disturbed the natural or usual "order of things" there. Ethnographers inevitably pollute the very thing they wish to discover. Consequently documenting the pristine social and cultural practices of a society is impossible. Another way of saying this is that the theories ethnographers develop regarding a society are potentially performative. For the very actions that an ethnographer must take in order to describe a society will change that society's beliefs in ways that the ethnographer is unaware of and therefore will erroneously document as natural. This act of documentation will "set in stone" a false theory concerning some aspect of that society. At this point we can say that this false theory is analogous to the aforementioned financial model before it was widely used by financial analysts. What determines the performativity of this false theory, is if it is widely accepted and applied by other people or if, on the other hand, it is simply ignored. An example of where a false anthropological theory became performative, with dire consequences, was when early anthropologists classified most Africans living in what we now call Rwanda as either Hutu or Tutsi. With this done the Belgian colonial administration, for a number of rather superficial reasons, began giving preferential treatment to those whom they perceived to be Tutsi over those who they perceived to be Hutu and after 30 odd years the African's themselves started to believe in this distinction to the extent that these two artificial groupings were real enough to engage in mutual attempts at genocide in the early 1990s.

Maybe pink flying elephants can exist.
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