In my “kick off” presentation in October 2021, I mentioned briefly a shift in my theoretical elaboration of the WPR approach, over the last decade or so, from a constructionist to a performative emphasis (https://www.kau.se/files/2021-10/BACCHI%20KICKOFF%20PRESENTATION_1.pdf).
I explained that “In a performative understanding, problem representations are not (simply) competing conceptions or understandings of a “problem”; rather, they form the “realities” through which we are governed (see Bacchi 2012).”
It is time to explore in more detail what this shift entails. To undertake this task, this and the subsequent entry will review the extensive literature on “performativity” and introduce some of the debates the topic has generated. I should note that, generally, I do not use the language of performativity in my work and prefer other terms, such as “produce”, “enact”, “constitute”, “create”, “make (and unmake)” and, of course, “represented” – for reasons explained later. Our interest in this entry is in what this cluster of terms is intended to convey, which I’m happy to describe as a performative perspective, rather than in the words themselves.
As a starting point I wish to recall Tanesini’s (1994) argument that concepts have no fixed meaning but rather are proposals about how we ought to proceed from here. The terminologies we adopt, therefore, represent attempts to capture and to reflect our political visions and assessments, and to offer useful understandings of our current predicaments. Elsewhere, I describe these terminologies as “conceptual strategic interventions” (Bacchi 2012: 152).
I see this entry and the subsequent one, therefore, as efforts to explain more clearly what I mean when I say that “policies produce ‘problems” as particular sorts of problems”, and what it means to say that policies make (or enact) “subjects”, “objects” and “places” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). What political visions and assessments are these statements and key terms intended to convey? To forecast the argument, policies and other practices are seen to embrace or incorporate a specific approach and meaning that translate into and play a part in shaping people’s lives. They give substance and credibility to certain “objects”. They interrupt and interfere with subject formation. They put certain “places” on the map. These effects can best be traced through analysing how policies are implicitly problematizing technologies, which is the purpose of a WPR analysis.
It is important to note that the language of performativity appears in different disciplines, including anthropology and literary theory, with different meanings (Breljak & Kersting 2017). The term is also commonly associated with a mode of state regulation that “requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluation” (Ball 2003), and with developments in management practices, such as “performance reviews” (see Research Hub entry 31 May 2022). Our particular focus here is the theoretical interest in the topic among poststructural researchers in cultural and social studies, including economics and actor-network theory. In this broad field, at the risk of oversimplification, I identify two general meanings of “performativity”: first, to refer to the effects of a subject’s “utterances”; second, to refer to the effects of a broad range of practices, including research practices.
The first of these meanings takes us to the linguist J. L. Austin, who is frequently referenced in writing on “performativity”. The proposition most commonly associated with Austin is that language is not purely descriptive of “reality”; rather, language does things (with links to “speech act” theory; Searle 1979). To quote Austin (1962: 12), “the issuing of an utterance is the performing of an action”. For example, when I say, “I promise to finish my work”, I am doing something – I am making a promise. Jackson indicates how this thinking poses a challenge to common conceptions of language and “reality” – “that linguistic acts don’t simply reflect a world but that speech actually has the power to make a world” (Jackson 2004: 2; emphasis in original).
Post-Austin, this form of thinking has been broadened to embrace a wide array of practices – that is, beyond verbal utterances: “Performativity started to become connected to every kind of act, that, when being committed, changes the existing order to a certain degree” (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 435). MacKenzie (2004: 305) describes this position as “generic performativity” because it has become “all pervasive”. In this account, performativity
“… points to the fact that the categories of social life (gender is the prototype) are not self-standing, ‘natural’ or to be taken as given, but are the result of endless performances by human beings”.
In such practice accounts, “performativity” can be seen to counter a certain sort of positivism and essentialism. It invokes “the diverse materials involved in the putting together of various categories, objects, and persons” (du Gay 2010: 171). Reality becomes a product or effect of (repeated) acts (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 435).
This position reflects an ontology of becoming, countering assumptions about the being of “things” that simply exist (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 15). An ontology of becoming is associated with what is referred to as “process thought” (Whitehead 1978), in which “relations do not connect (causally or otherwise) preexisting entities (or actors); rather, relations enact entities in the flow of becoming” (Introna 2016: 23; emphasis in original). As Law and Lien (2013: 366) describe, “There is no ordered ground separate from practices and their relations”.
The question of what constitutes a practice is fraught, as discussed in previous entries on the “turn to practice” (30 Nov. 2019; 31 Dec. 2019). For our purposes, it is adequate to think of practices as ways of “intervening in the world and thereby of enacting one of its versions – up to bringing it into being” (Mol and Law 2006: 19).
Performativity scholars are particularly interested in the forms of intervention associated with research practices. Annemarie Mol (2002: 155; emphasis in original) signals this interest in her statement that “[M]ethods are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it. They act, they mediate between an object and its representations”. For Mol, knowledge is no longer treated primarily as referential, as a set of statements about reality, but as a practice that interferes with other practices to create realities (note the plural). You can recognize here the ontology of becoming described above, leading Mol to assert that researchers are inevitably involved in “ontological politics” (Mol 1999), i.e. the shaping of worlds. This clear challenge to the common view that research involves a search for (objective) knowledge about a pre-existing and singular reality calls for a rethinking of the purposes and goals of what we study and what we write. Aligned with this thinking, Fraser (2020) invites scholars to engage in “ontologically-oriented research”, setting out with a purpose to interfere with and shape realities in particular directions.
The discipline (or practice) of economics features prominently in performativity studies, due largely to the contributions of Michel Callon. Callon (1998: 2; emphasis added) developed the “performativity of economics thesis”, which stated that “economics, broadly defined, performs, shapes and formats the economy, rather than observing how it functions”. He emphasized the multiple processes whereby economic formulae and tools take part in shaping the economy. In this account, economics does not explain the economy; it constitutes it.
With Latour, Callon is associated with actor-network theory, which emphasizes the place of non-human entities and artefacts, alongside human beings, in performative practices. As Law and Singleton (2000: 771; emphasis in original) describe,
“the new performative approach tries to understand the role of everything in a performance, people and objects alike. Thus, actor-network theory says that humans and nonhumans perform together to produce effects.”
Callon (2009) dismisses the idea in some interpretations of Austin that “language creates the world from scratch”. Instead, he argues that “the signification and effectiveness of scientific statements cannot be dissociated from the socio-technical arrangements or agencements involved in the production of the facts that those same statements refer to”. This position signals some of the complexities involved in deciphering the variety of positions on performativity and what is at stake in different versions. We revisit Callon’s argument in the subsequent entry to highlight some of the issues that need to be considered.
In the remainder of this entry I offer several examples to illustrate how a performative perspective can be marshalled to examine the production of the “categories of social life” (MacKenzie 2004: 305). Following the chapters in Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016), I look briefly at the “making” of “subjects”, “objects” and “places”. In some instances (e.g. Butler to follow and Öjehag-Pettersson 2019) the language of performativity features prominently, while in others (Azbel et al. 2021) the term “performance” may not be paramount though the message is the same – that practices constitute “realities”. The ways in which a constitutive (performative) perspective is linked to studies of governing practices and governmentality will also be considered.
In Poststructural Policy Analysis (2016: Chapter 5), together with Sue Goodwin, I dedicate a chapter to analysing how policies make “subjects”. We draw on Judith Butler’s work on the performance of gender (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 29-30). We can see Austin at work in Butler’s analysis of the announcement at birth (in the old days!) that “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”. By being called a name, Butler (1997: 2) explains, “one is also, paradoxically, given a certain possibility for social existence” (de Goede 2006: 9): “This very speech act is one of thousands of similar acts constituting our gender and thus our self-becoming, or what Butler has called subjectivity” (Breljak & Kersting 2017: 438 fn 1).
To capture the focus on process and becoming in this production of “the subject”, Eveline and Bacchi (2010: 95; emphasis added) suggest referring to gender as a verb rather than as a noun, making gender an “inescapably gendering process” (see Research Hub 11 Feb. 2018; 30 June 2019; 31 July 2019; see also Bacchi 2017). To quote Butler (1990: 24), “gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be”. Challenging the presumed fixity of gender categories in this way opens up the possibility of gender fluid understandings and experiences. Whether or not constituted “subjects” are able to find space to challenge gendering processes is tackled in the next entry.
“Objects” and “places” are commonly understood to be fixed entities. Such a view has important consequences for how governing takes place. Policies that presume the existence of “things” ignore or downplay the practices involved in their production. By contrast, focussing on how “things” are “made”, or “performed” into existence, opens up new opportunities for challenge and change.
Azbel et al. (2021) analyse how methadone is produced as different objects in different sites and contexts in Kyrgyz prisons. Drawing on WPR the authors approach the “Government Program”, which provides the legislative basis for opioid addiction treatment administration in the Kyrgyz Republic, as a practical text (see Bacchi 2009: 34). In the Program, methadone is produced (or constituted) as a medicalized object for the prevention of HIV infection spread (Azbel et al. 2021: 4). Looking further, the authors find in other government documents (a power point presentation) that methadone is constituted a form of governance, undermining informal prisoner governance mechanisms and restoring formal governance. It is this production of methadone-as-governance which the authors maintain explains the lack of uptake of methadone treatment due to prisoner opposition.
Azbel et al. (2021) use the language of “enactment” and “constitute” more often than they do the language of “performance”. The terms work together to illustrate what I have chosen to call a “performative perspective” – a perspective that focuses on how “things” are produced in processes as opposed to approaching “things” or “problems” as simply waiting to be discovered. In this account, methadone is “not a pre-existing object being described” (Azbel et al. 2021: 5). Rather it is produced as a particular kind of object in specific sites through a combination of mechanisms and policy discourses. Given these different possible “objectivizations” (Azbel et al. 2021: 2), the critical task becomes deciding which “object” you may wish to encourage. This proposition raises political and normative questions, pursued in the next entry.
Öjehag-Pettersson (2019) brings a performative perspective to his study of the governing of innovation spaces in sub-national regions in Sweden. The target of his analysis is numbers or, more precisely, “numerical devices”, including rankings and indices, and their role in “making such domains governable” (2019: 2). Drawing on the literatures of governmentality and the sociology of quantification, Öjehag-Pettersson argues that numerical devices, as “governmental technologies”, play a pivotal role in installing innovation spaces “that can be set up and governed according to the rationalities of global competition”.
Öjehag-Pettersson’s analysis assists us in understanding the connection between what I have called the first meaning of performativity, which focuses on a subject’s “utterances”, and the second meaning, which attaches performative effects to a broad range of practices. Öjehag-Pettersson describes how, in his account, numerical devices operate like “speech acts” (Öjehag-Pettersson 2019: 7), and here he references Austin (1976; see Austin 1962). “Speech acts”, therefore, serve as a metaphor to explain other constitutive practices. As Öjehag-Pettersson describes, numerical devices are performative because they “do something to the context in which they are articulated”. Rather than inscribing a “pre-existing reality”, they help to shape “the object that is to be governed” (2019: 5):
“They are not exact representations of reality, nor neutral ways of classifying and grouping social phenomena. Rather, they are a part of the iterative practices that brings objects and subjects into being in what we call ‘the real’ (Butler, 1993)”. (Öjehag-Pettersson 2019: 7)
Whether numbers and statistics are simply hard facts arouses considerable debate. In this ongoing discussion, Öjehag-Pettersson (2019: 7) leans to the side of performativity, “where reality is understood to be produced through our social relations, among them measurement and ranking”. This argument resonates with the position Sue Goodwin and I develop in Poststructural Policy Analysis (2016: 96) that we need to consider how complex spatial relations are “made” into “entities”, such as “Europe” or “special economic zones”, and the effects that accompany the “creation” of these “entities”.
A number of important themes have been left hanging in this entry and I intend to pursue them in the next entry:
- How does a performative perspective relate to constructionism/constructivism?
- Is a performative perspective determinist? Does it close off the possibility of change and intervention?
- What kinds of politics are enabled through a performative perspective? Does normativity have a place in these forms of politics?
Each of these questions is directly relevant to WPR since the approach, as I have argued, adopts a performative or constitutive perspective.
I’ll conclude the next entry with some reflections on language use, specifically on the selection of key terms, in political theory.
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