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.