Kelkar on Performativity and Realism

STS graduate student Shreeharsh Kelkar has an excellent post at Dimensions of Knowledge revisiting the OrgTheory debates about performativity sparked by lengthy posts by Kieran Healy and Ezra Zuckerman. I found Kelkar’s reading of realist/”objective” arguments in sociology (and specifically, Zuckerman’s version of realism) very persuasive. Kelkar argues that Zuckerman’s realism is just a slower form of constructionism – that his objective facts are ones that are hard to change quickly, but that are still incredibly contingent and culturally mutable, and that this distinction is very important for thinking through the consequences of performativity. Here are a few tidbits:

On Healy and Wittgenstein:

Is Healy’s argument a form of social construction, or is it not? I think it is, although arguments about whether a theory is constructionist or realist are often debates over values and postures that theory-makers should adopt. Because, Wittgenstein, as I see him, was a social constructionist: he argued that all rules ground themselves in social conventions; that, at bottom, most structured activities are a matter of how we agree or disagree with each other. Our methods for agreeing or disagreeing with each other, of checking up to see if we believe an assertion or don’t, are all different in different fields of activity. The BSM formula, in Mackenzie’s case, “worked,” in some sense — and the fact of its working was what allowed it to be a game-changer, performing a different kind of economic reality into existence.

On Zuckerman and objectivity:

Objective factors are those, [Zuckerman] suggests, drawing on Andrew Abbot’s work, that resist and cannot be changed by short-term cultural work. Thus our beliefs about the price of Manhattan apartments and GE stocks as being worthwhile investments are objective; because short of an earthquake destroying both Manhattan and all GE plants, this is a reality that is not going to change soon. … Prices, he therefore argues, have lower bounds (say for an apartment in Manhattan) that are not amenable to short-term cultural work. So there are objective features that determine/constrain prices.

I find Zuckerman’s analysis largely persuasive. But here’s the rub: he would argue that it is a realist (or at least, semi-realist) account while I think it is a through-and-through constructionist account. Why is this?

I think the really real realists would disagree with Zuckerman over his definition of objective factors as those that are not amenable to short-term cultural work. This suggests that objective factors are amenable to long-term cultural work (even if the possibility that this cultural work will be successful can never be predicted), something that true realists will disagree. The truly objective never changes; it is timeless.

To put in yet another way, the difference between constructivists and realists is over the issue of prediction, and in particular over the issue of long-term prediction. Short-term predictions are possible for both the realist and the constructivist. But long-term predictions, say, about housing prices or computer prices 50 years from now, will be more difficult for constructivists to make than realists. It is difficult only because even objective factors that determine prices can be changed by long-term cultural work; and this cultural work is impossible to predict. The more confident you are about prediction, you shift to the realism side of the spectrum. The less confident about prediction you are, will make you more of a constructivist.

Highly recommended for anyone who has been thinking about performativity for the past few years, especially for those of us engaged in the blog debates around it.



  1. Carsten B

     /  January 20, 2013

    I don’t think the breadth of the realism – social constructivism is captured, nor Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has several quotes indicating some soft form of realism, e.g. about the cheese weighing the same everytime or that some things only change as the bedrock at a river, very very slowly.

    Whether the “world” changes is a trivial question, because of course it does. One question is, what are we talking about: Culture, human behavior, genes or the stockmarket? This leads to the more precise question: At what speed do things (and how do they) change and what we can capture in social science. Of course one can try to argue that eternal universal laws exist, but a realist doesn’t have to do this (this is a really important message to get across!!!). This assumptions seems to be used in the above example – so, the blog doesn’t discuss realism vs. social constructivism but universalism vs. non universalism, which is an important, but different, discussion.

    I’d like the main question to change from: Are you either a realist or a social constructivist – to when is what kind of thinking and approach meaningful and useful. In this way we can move past a simple, binary either-or discussion, and a much more subtle and nuanced – “depends on the context” discussion. I am sure we already accept that laws of gravity are much more universal than any, non-tautological, social science law can ever be.

    Btw., the approach outlined here fits very well with the “prediction” points made in the above blog, which I think are spot on.

    • Carsten,

      I like where you’re going with this discussion. I agree that, for almost everything of importance to sociology/social science, the issue is not “is it real” but “over what period of time is it relatively stable”? In some domains, as Ian Hacking points out so well, just getting people to acknowledge that the right question is not “is X real?” is a big advance. In other areas, that claim is pretty trivial, or at least widely accepted by the folks having the serious conversations, and the questions become the much murkier ones around the pace of change and discontinuities vs. smooth transitions and the like.

      But I am curious how you sharply distinguish realist from constructivist positions if you take away the bedrock idea of unchanging laws from realism. Do you? Maybe you don’t have to. My personal take – and this is very much drawing on Latour et al – is that (social) things are real because they are constructed. The conditions of those constructions determine the stability of the relationships and the pace of change and so on. So, I’ve never been too invested in the constructivism vs. realism binary – it seemed like the wrong fight through and through. But I’d like to hear more about your take.


  2. Carsten B

     /  January 27, 2013

    Sorry for responding so late, but a bit busy these days. Hopefully I’ll later offer the relevant references and quotes, but about realism vs. constructivism: Some forms of realism do argue that laws have to be unchangeable, but other forms focus on the “real” part, meaning that theories should imply laws/mechanism that are real. Something real can change and one could even imagine a realist theory involving x mechanism while predicting a change into y mechanisms (one could predict the impact of a self-fulfilling mechanism, e.g. – I have a working paper on this, but unfortunately not had time yet to finish it). Arguments such as these is also what leads me to think that one should treats these positions not as fundamental (religious) beliefs but as guidelines for how to set up a research design.
    Maybe the above already indicates that I have trouble distinguishing between “soft” realism and a “non-soft” version of socialconstructivism. Because any SC should admit that some stuff is real – being hit by a car is very real! So again, the question is one of context.

    A distinction between objectivism vs. subjectivism, or even better, a distinction focusing on (long-term vs. short-term) predictions is a lot more useful, I would argue. At least we have the option of testing such beliefs, in contrast to the metaphysical angle.