TSElosophers meeting 1.2.2021. Elina Järvinen, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Toni Ahlqvist.
Gond, J. P., Cabantous, L., Harding, N., & Learmonth, M. (2016). What do we mean by performativity in organizational and management theory? The uses and abuses of performativity. International Journal of Management Reviews, 18(4), 440-463.
The concept of performativity has been interpreted in many ways after John Austin introduced the idea of ‘performative utterance’ in the beginning of the 1960’s. This paper by Gond, Cabantous, Harding and Learmonth takes up this perhaps quite complex concept and tries to summarize the way how different versions of it have been utilized by scholars in the field of organization and management theory (OMT). There are indeed several different ways as for how the original version has been interpreted. Gond et al. introduce five conceptualizations of performativity in their paper:
- doing things with words (Austin);
- searching for efficiency (Lyotard);
- constituting the self (Butler, Derrida);
- bringing theory into being (Callon, MacKenzie);
- sociomateriality mattering (Barad).
These five conceptualizations are linked to four so called ‘turns’ in OMT, which according to Gond et al. can be identified as influencers for the upsurge of performativity studies in OMT. These four turns are the ‘linguistic turn’, the ‘practice turn’, the ‘process turn’ and the ‘material turn’. Each of these ‘turns’ can then be linked to certain interpretations of performativity. For example, ‘linguistic turn’ may be linked to non-representational view of discourse, whereas ‘practice turn’ relates more to the interest in the actual doing or acting of organizational actors.
After providing these conceptualizations and the possible reasons for their success, Gond et al. make distinction between two dominant ways of using the theoretical concepts of performativity in OMT. The first way is described as ‘one-way process’, where performativity concepts are more or less just ‘borrowed’ from one specific source domain and then used to generate new knowledge in the organizational context. The other way is said to be more sophisticated ‘two-way’ exchange process, for example for theory-building.
The article presents several examples of such OMT studies which have approached performativity from certain angle, which in itself can be quite illuminating for anyone who previously might have had only narrow view on performativity. By presenting these different uses of theories and example studies, Gond et al. try to find a way to provoke a ‘performative turn’ in OMT, which might ultimately “unleash the power” of the concept itself “to generate new and stronger organizational theories”. However, even if this aim might be clear, the article had some deficiencies which might hinder its own performative aims.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, the concept of performativity was familiar to all TSElosophers who joined the discussion. However, the perspective towards performativity varied between TSElosophers depending on their background and their earlier readings related to these different concepts of performativity. All participants were familiar with the Austinian performativity as to how to do things with words and the famous example of “I pronounce you husband and wife”. If Austin was a common read to all, it was different with other foundational concepts and authors of performativity. Some were more familiar with the studies from such scholars as Latour, Callon and Mackenzie, while others knew better texts from Barad, Butler and Derrida or even Lyotard. Many had read Barad before (see TSElosophers blog post from last May). Therefore, everyone’s perspective towards performativity was perhaps a bit narrower than the overall collection that was presented in this paper. This was one of the appreciated features of the paper on which TSElosophers agreed on.
Participants also viewed positively the presentation how OMT scholars use performativity in their own domain. This section echoed some similarities with Lukka and Vinnari’s (2014) idea of distinguishing domain and method theory as two different roles which theories can play in a piece of research, even if it used a bit different way of presenting the idea. Gond et al. criticizes the way how OMT scholars had mostly borrowed performativity concepts from other domains without any attempt to adding anything on the concepts themselves. Therefore, the paper seemed to be provocative not only towards OMT scholars to think about using more of these different performativity theories as such, but also to the way how OMT researchers should aim for contributing to those theories which are taken from other domains and thus should try to generate stronger organizational theories.
Lyotard’s performativity as searching for efficiency was considered by TSElosophers as the odd one out of the bunch and ill-fitted in the collection of other selected authors and their critical approach towards performativity. One participant pointed out that the reason for this could be the way how the authors had chosen their literature just by picking up words related to performativity. There was a suggestion among the TSElosophers that the most fruitful way to view Lyotard’s perspective might be by understanding performativity as a form of self-optimization or self-improvement striving towards efficiency through measurement and optimization of the input/output ratio. The demand for efficiency creates circumstances for turning people into “their own tyrannical boss” according to critical management scholars Cederström and Spicer’s (2017) mirth-producing column in the Guardian.
Our discussion also disapproved with the paper’s dismissive stance towards the notion of critical performativity by Alvesson, Spicer and others. Gond et al. seemed to understand their critical performativity as supporting precisely the agenda that Lyotard had put his critical finger on: Making organizations show improved performance. In contrast, TSElosophers felt critical performativity is more broadly about using the performative features of human action for something that is socially desirable – being thereby often critical towards suppressing goals to only efficiency improvements, which effectively would tend to uphold the societal status quo.
As a conclusion, TSElosophers thought Gond et al. (2016) was, despite some misunderstandings, a good read about performativity, because it provided a broad overview on the various conceptualizations of performativity.
Cederström, Carl and Spicer, André (2017). We dedicated a year to self-improvement: here’s what it taught us. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/02/self-improvement-optimization.
Lukka, K. & Vinnari, E. (2014) Domain theory and method theory in management accounting research. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal. 27:8, 1308-38. DOI: 10.1108/AAAJ-03-2013-1265