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The Performativity of Networks

  • Kieran Healy (a1)

Abstract

The “performativity thesis” is the claim that parts of contemporary economics and finance, when carried out into the world by professionals and popularizers, reformat and reorganize the phenomena they purport to describe, in ways that bring the world into line with theory. Practical technologies, calculative devices and portable algorithms give actors tools to implement particular models of action. I argue that social network analysis is performative in the same sense as the cases studied in this literature. Social network analysis and finance theory are similar in key aspects of their development and effects. For the case of economics, evidence for weaker versions of the performativity thesis is quite good, and the strong formulation is circumstantially supported. Network theory easily meets the evidential threshold for the weaker versions. I offer empirical examples that support the strong (or “Barnesian”) formulation. Whether these parallels are a mark in favor of the thesis or a strike against it is an open question. I argue that the social network technologies and models now being “performed” build out systems of generalized reciprocity, connectivity, and commons-based production. This is in contrast both to an earlier network imagery that emphasized self-interest and entrepreneurial exploitation of structural opportunities, and to the model of action typically considered to be performed by economic technologies.

La « thèse de la performativité » est l’affirmation selon laquelle des éléments de la finance et de l'économie contemporaines, une fois importés dans le monde par des professionnels ou des vulgarisateurs, contribuent à reformater et à réorganiser le phénomène qu'ils cherchent à décrire, de telle manière que le monde se conforme à la théorie. Technologies pratiques, dispositifs calculatoires et algorithmes mobiles donnent aux acteurs des outils pour mettre en œuvre des modèles d'action particuliers. Il est montré ici que l'analyse des réseaux sociaux est performative au sens défini dans cette littérature. L'analyse des réseaux sociaux et la théorie de la finance sont similaires dans des aspects clés de leur développement et de leur effets. Pour le cas de l'économie, les preuves pour les versions faibles de la thèse de la performativité sont bonnes, et certains éléments circonstantiels viennent à l'appui de versions fortes. La théorie des réseaux satisfait non seulement sans difficulté aux critères des versions faibles, mais cet article propose différents exemples empiriques à l'appui d'une version forte, de type Barnesienne. Savoir si ces parallèles renforcent ou affaiblissent la thèse de la performativité demeure une question ouverte. Je soutiens que les technologies et les modèles de réseaux sociaux, considérés comme des entités performatives, construisent des systèmes de réciprocité généralisée, de connectivité et de production partagé. Cela s'oppose à la fois à l'image d'un réseau défini en termes d'intérêt individuel et d'exploitation entrepreneuriale des structures d'opportunités, mais également à un modèle d'action « performé » par les techniques économiques.

Die Performativitätstheorie stellt die Behauptung auf, dass Elemente der heutigen Finanz- und Wirtschaftswelt, einmal von Profis und „Vulgarisatoren“ übernommen, dazu beitragen, das von ihnen beschriebene Phänomen neu zu formatieren und zu organisieren, und zwar derart, dass die Welt sich der Theorie anpasst. Praktische Technologien, Rechengeräte und mobile Algorhythmen geben den Handelnden Mittel, um spezifische Handlungsmodelle umzusetzen. Ich zeige hier, dass die Analyse der sozialen Netzwerke im Sinne dieser Literatur performativ ist. Die Analyse der sozialen Netzwerke und der Finanztheorie sind in wichtigen Bereichen ihrer Entwicklung und Auswirkungen vergleichbar. Im Falle der Wirtschaft gibt es gute Beweise für die schwache Version der Performativitätstheorie, und gewisse Umstände bestätigen die starken Versionen. Die Netzwerktheorie erfüllt nicht nur problemlos die Kriterien der schwächeren Versionen, sondern ich schlage gleichfalls verschiedene empirische Beispiele vor, die die starke Version, so die von Barnes, bekräftigen. Die Frage, ob diese Parallelen die Performativitätstheorie verstärken oder schwächen, bleibt jedoch offen. Ich behaupte, dass die als performativen Einheiten betrachteten Technologien und sozialen Netzwerkmodelle Systeme verallgemeinernder Gegenseitigkeit, Vernetzung und Produktionsteilung schaffen. Dies widerspricht sowohl der Vorstellung eines begrenzten Netzes bezüglich der individuellen Interessen und der geschäftlichen Nutzung von Gelegenheitsstrukturen, als auch einem „performierten“ Aktionsmodell durch wirtschaftliche Techniken.

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