performativity, networks, and the problem of power

March 6, 2008

I just got back from hearing Kieran Healy’s presentation of his latest research at the Harvard Economic Sociology Seminar. In this new project, he seeks to apply the performativity thesis – that so-called calculative technologies do not merely describe the world, but reformat it in their own image – beyond studies of financial markets and economics. The talk elaborated a preliminary sketch of how the rise of social network theory might have followed a comparable pattern through its subsequent formalization in the Internet.

Since this is still unpublished and very much work-in-progress, I won’t say more about the details of Kieran’s argument; however, the talk got me thinking about a broader issue that has not attracted sufficient attention in the existing work on performativity within economic sociology.

Without question, the most well-substantiated work in this area is Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine Not a Camera (2006). MacKenzie does an excellent job methodically documenting the impact of finance theory on financial markets during the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet, despite MacKenzie’s attention to detail and thorough support for his theoretical claims, it is his theory that proves somewhat unsatisfying in the end. Performativity theory’s greatest weakness – as it currently stands – remains its inability to explain why certain calculative technologies (theories, formulae, models, etc.) gain greater purchase on the world than others. This is important for several reasons, but the one that most interests me has to do with the role of power and institutions.

Ultimately, all ideas – like the people that create and apply them – are not created equal. Within the context of MacKenzie’s work, the Black-Scholes-Merton options pricing model gained traction in the world partly on the basis of its scientific merits (precision, validity, elegance, etc.) and partly on the basis of its political and social position. Performativity theory pays attention to the first of these factors at the expense of the second.

Without an adequate analysis of the role of power and institutions in shaping the outcomes of a given scientific field, it is very difficult to understand why one model of the world wins out over the competition. If you can’t explain that, the value of performativity as an analytical tool becomes limited.

To put the problem in concrete terms, I’ll borrow an example that did come up in Healy’s talk and which has frequently been a topic of concern for scholars of the Internet. How do we explain the success of Google? Did Larry and Sergey merely find the correct algorithm that most accurately described the emerging social space of the web? Clearly not. It would be more precise to say that they applied a set of theories about how information and knowledge function in the world and formalized those theories into the famous “Page Rank” algorithm. Page Rank went on to radically transform the way that people use and understand the Internet, spawning an entire sub-industry of consultants seeking to game their formula (an area of work known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short). Ta-da! Performativity in action!

Not so fast. I’d wager that Larry and Sergey’s success – and therefore the success of their spiffy little algorithm – had everything to do with the institutional setting and power-dynamics of the field within which they worked at the time. The Stanford University Computer Science Department and the Silicon Valley of the late 1990’s needs a larger place in this story if we want to understand where Larry and Sergey’s ideas came from, how they got the money for their start-up, and what sorts of problems they ran into (or not) along the way.

Somebody will tell this story well at some point – whether they do so in the peculiar language of sociological theory is not really important. What matters is that they recognize that without both the calculative technology and the institutional context you ultimately can’t explain very much about the current shape of the Network Society.

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