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Organization Science informs ®

Vol. 20, No. 3, May 2009, pp. 676–678 doi 10.1287/orsc.1090.0433

issn 1047-7039  eissn 1526-5455  09  2003  0676 © 2009 INFORMS

Performativity of Theory, Arbitrary Conventions, and

Possible Worlds: A Reality Check
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Teppo Felin
Marriott School, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602,

Nicolai J. Foss
Center for Strategic Management and Globalization, Copenhagen Business School, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark, and
Department of Strategy and Management, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration,
N-5045 Bergen, Norway,

W e argue that Ferraro, Pfeffer, and Sutton build on a scientifically problematic conception of the relationship between
theory and social reality. Specifically, the performativity perspective that they build on makes tenuous assumptions
about the role that theories, whether true or not, play in strongly constructing social reality, but the perspective fundamentally
ignores central matters related to human nature and the boundaries of possibility. We argue for a more realistic approach to
theory building and social science, one that recognizes the role that true theories play in helping us understand and explain
reality, but also in turn shaping that reality given this better theoretical understanding.
Key words: performativity; economics; philosophy of social science
History: Published online in Articles in Advance April 27, 2009.

We appreciate the opportunity to briefly address refuting. But FPS nonetheless reduce other’s theoretical
Ferraro, Pfeffer, and Sutton’s (2009) response (hence- efforts, particularly in mainstream economics, not just
forth “FPS”). Given space constraints, we will largely to arbitrariness but false ideology. Logically, the perfor-
focus on the merits and implicit assumptions of the “per- mativity perspective must also reduce its own theoretical
formativity perspective” that FPS build on heavily (Cal- efforts to historical, ex post story telling and labeling
lon 1998, 2007). (MacKenzie 2006), or worse, politics and ideology.
As FPS emphasize in their response, their arguments If not truth, what then should be the basis for choosing
build on a much wider literature in the philosophy a particular theory over others? On this front, the perfor-
and sociology of science, the performativity perspective. mativity perspective develops an agenda that radically
The performativity literature argues that theories (pre- changes the very purposes of science, specifically, where
dictions, assumptions, explanations, and expectations), social scientists “no longer have to choose between inter-
independent of ex ante correspondence with truth and preting the world and transforming it” (Callon 1998, p.
reality, fulfill themselves due to social, political, and 352). Competition, self-interest, incentives, and markets
technical reasons, and create the very realities that the (or any other factor for that matter) may just be arbitrary,
theories predict. According to the performativity per- cultural or theoretical constructions; in line with this
spective, then, we cannot even meaningfully speak of agenda, the “point [of the performativity perspective] is
the ex ante “truth” or “reality” of theories, because theo- to question the very naturalness of markets” (Fourcade
ries themselves participate in defining and creating what 2007, p. 1025; cf. MacKenzie 2009). Indeed, if the con-
is truthful and what is real. Theories, as argued by one tent of our theories is arbitrary, then why not create the
of the founders of this perspective, are “arbitrary con- best of all possible worlds?
ventions” (Callon 2007, p. 322) that are self-fulfilling But, even if we reduce theoretical efforts to ideology,
(MacKenzie 2006)—arbitrary conventions that are not an immediate question then is which of many competing
true ex ante but they “perform” themselves and thus ideologies ought to be adopted and why? Thus, ironi-
become true ex post. cally, we come back to the need to judge the ex ante
The problem, however, is that if one holds that the content of the theory itself, along with associated evi-
content of theories indeed is arbitrary ex ante, how is dence. The problem is that the performativity perspective
one then somehow able to assess the falsity or truth does not allow for any form of ex ante judgment about
of other’s theories? Logically, one cannot—any asser- the potential correctness of given theories because “there
tions of the falsity or truth of theories would be self- are no context-free or supercultural norms of rationality”
Felin and Foss: Crossroads
Organization Science 20(3), pp. 676–678, © 2009 INFORMS 677

(Barnes and Bloor 1982, p. 27) by which to judge truth. (for an overview, see Pinker 2007) as well as philosophy
An additional problem is that the performativity perspec- (Searle 1989).
tive only focuses on selective, ex post evidence for its A final concern with FPS’s arguments is that they
arguments, and thus the approach amounts to the stalk- have, perhaps inadvertently, taken a rather definitive
ing of various historical models and all-too opportunisti- stand with the strongly social constructionist side in
cally pointing out how (some of) these models changed the so-called “science wars” (Boghossian 2006, Brown
or constructed the world. In other words, the performa- 2001, Goldman 1999) by heavily anchoring their argu-
tivity perspective—as a recent incarnation of the science ments on the performativity perspective. But, if orga-
studies program, which failed (Mirowski and Nik-Khah nizational scholars want to be taken seriously, then we
2007, cf. Latour and Woolgar 1979)—never addresses cannot simply reduce science to arbitrary convention,
the range of possible, other (ex ante “arbitrary,” “false,” rhetoric, and ideology. Thus, our hope is that a modicum
or “true”), competing theories that may potentially also of reality is infused into interdisciplinary discussions,
have been realized nor the possibility of meaningful and that the arguments and evidence rather than rhetoric
progress. Might, for example, the Black-Sholes model and ideology drive the joint effort to create the best of
have worked better than other ex ante approaches to all possible worlds.
understanding option value? Undoubtedly so, which is
partly why it was used; thus, one can scarcely label the References
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