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Performativity is an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and language in particular, as well as other non-verbal forms of expressive action, to intervene in the course of human events. The term derives from the work in speech act theory originated by the analytic philosopher J. L. Austin, who did not use the word "performativity," but did give the name performative utterances to situations where saying something was doing something, rather than simply reporting on or describing reality. A "performative utterance," Austin argued in How to Do Things With Words, cannot be said to be either true or false, as a constative utterance might be. It can only be judged either "happy" or "infelicitous" depending upon whether the conditions required for it to succeed have been met. In this sense performativity can be said to investigate the pragmatics of language.

Austin's account of performativity has been subject to extensive discussion in philosophy, literature and beyond. Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick are among the scholars who have elaborated upon and contested aspects of Austin's account from the vantage point of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism and queer theory. Particularly in the work of feminists and queer theorists, performativity has played an important role in discussions of social change (Oliver 2003).

The concept of performativity has also been used in science and technology studies and in economic sociology. Andrew Pickering has proposed to shift from a "representational idiom" to a "performative idiom" in the study of science. The sociologist Michel Callon has proposed to study the performative aspects of economics, i.e. the extent to which economic science plays an important role not only in describing markets and economies, but also in framing them. Karen Barad has argued that science and technology studies deemphasize the performativity of language in order to explore the performativity of matter (Barad 2003).

Other uses of the notion of performativity in the social sciences include the daily behavior (or performance) of individuals based on social norms or habits. Philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler has used the concept of performativity in her analysis of gender development, as well as in her analysis of political speech. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes Queer Performativity as an ongoing project for transforming the way we may define - and break - boundaries to identity. Through her suggestion that shame is a potentially performative and transformational emotion, Sedgwick has also linked queer performativity to affect theory.

Judith Butler's perspective on performativity

Main article: Gender performativity

Theoretical ideas

Judith Butler, the philosopher and feminist theorist who offered a new, more Continental (specifically, Foucauldian) reading of the notion of performativity, which has its roots in linguistics and philosophy of language, describes performativity as “…that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.” (Butler 1993) She has largely used this concept in her analysis of gender development. This idea was first introduced in 1988 in an issue of Theatre Journal. (Brickell, 2005)

The concept places emphasis on the manners in which identity is passed or brought to life through discourse. Performative acts are types of authoritative speech. This can only happen and be enforced through the law or norms of the society though. These statements, just by speaking them, carry out a certain action and exhibit a certain level of power. Examples of these types of statements are declarations of ownership, baptisms, inaugurations, and legal sentences. Something that is key to performativity is repetition. The statements are not singular in nature or use and must be used consistently in order to exert power. (Hall qtd. In Identity: A reader, 2000)

Performance theory and gender perspectives

Judith Butler, as mentioned above, has done much research and writing on performance theory, and has focused much of this work on gender performativity. Butler sees gender as an act that has been rehearsed, much like a script, and we, as the actors make this script a reality over and over again by performing these actions. “For Butler, the distinction between the personal and the political or between private and public is itself a fiction designed to support an oppressive status quo: our most personal acts are, in fact, continually being scripted by hegemonic social conventions and ideologies.” (Felluga, 2006) Butler sees gender not as an expression of what one is, rather as something that one does. According to Butler’s theory, homosexuality and heterosexuality are not fixed categories. A person is merely in a condition of “doing straightness” or “doing queerness”. (Lloyd, 1999)

Theoretical criticisms

There are several criticisms that have been raised against Butler's concept of performativity. The first is that the theory is individual in nature and doesn’t take other factors into consideration. These factors include the space within which the performance occurs, the others involved and how they might see or interpret what they witness. Also, the unplanned effects of the performance act are overlooked and the contingencies are not taken into consideration. (Lloyd, 1999)

Another criticism is that Butler is not clear about the concept of subject. It has been said that in her writings, sometimes the subject only exists tentatively, sometimes they possess a “real” existence and other times are socially active. Also, some observe that the theory might be better suited to literary analysis as opposed to social theory. (Brickell, 2005)

Others criticize Judith Butler for taking ethnomethodological and symbolic interactionist sociological analyses of gender and merely reinventing them in the concept of performativity (Dunn 1997; Green 2007). For example, Green (2007) argues that the work of Kessler and McKenna (1978) and West and Zimmerman (1987) builds directly from Garfinkel (1967) and Goffman (1959) to deconstruct gender into moments of attribution and iteration in a continual social process of "doing" masculinity and femininity in the performative interval. These latter works are premised on the notion that gender does not precede but, rather, follows from practice, instantiated in micro-interaction.


  • Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, John L. 1970. "Performative Utterances" in "Philosophical Papers", 233-52. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Barad, Karen. 2003. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward and Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 28 No. 3. pp. 801-831.
  • Brickell, Chris. 2005. "Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion: A Sociological Reappraisal", Men and Masculinities, 8(1), 24-43.
  • Butler, Judith 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex, London: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, London: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith 2000. "Critically Queer", in Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications
  • Callon, Michel 1998. "Introduction: the Embeddedness of Economic Markets in Economics", in M. Callon (ed.) The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Dunn, R.G. 1997. “Self, Identity and Difference: Mead and the Poststructuralists,” Sociological Quarterly, 38, 4:687-705.
  • Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Butler". Retrieved on 10/30/06 from
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor
  • Green, Adam Isaiah. 2007. “Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self in Sexuality Studies”, Sociological Theory, 25, 1:26-45.
  • Hall, Stuart 2000. "Who Needs Identity?", in Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.
  • Kessler, Suzanne and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lloyd, Moya 1999. "Performativity, Parody, Politics", Theory, Culture & Society, 16(2), 195-213.
  • Oliver, Kelly 2003. "What Is Transformative about the Performative? From Repetition to Working Through" in Ann Cahill and Jennifer Hansen, eds., Continental Feminism Reader.
  • Pickering, Andrew 1995. The mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Searle, J 1969. "Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • West, Candace and Don Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender”, Gender and Society, 1, 2: 121-151
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