Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Performativity studies of public policy and administration


The performative approach to policy and administration studies emphasizes how phenomena come into being - how they are enacted. It is not about things or subjects as they are, but how things and subjects emerge and how they create each other. The performative approach helps to reveal the ways in which both human and non-human agents are involved in shaping political and administrative processes.

In many ways, the performative approach is propelled by Judith Butler’s understanding of performativity. Perhaps the most precise accurate definition of Butler’s understanding of performativity can be found in her 1993 work Bodies that Matter. Here, Butler frames performativity as a “reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names”. It may be argued that both Butler and Karen Barad understand discourse in the broadest sense, as encompassing not only linguistic practices but also, for instance, bodily practices. Barad also emphasizes the agency of matter.

This approach provides the research programme for Policy futures with the necessary space for analysing the performative effects of non-human agents such as policy instruments. In this way, the move towards performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from correspondence between description and reality to practices and doings. Broadening the concept of performativity to include ontological/material matters offers a way to explore how certain follow-up mechanisms, such as scorecards and graphs comparing performance or progression, are constitutive of how the reality of an educational reform may materialize, for example. In this way, the performative approach enables the analysis of how governing technologies are involved with the creation and shaping of realities, rather than simply offering different perspectives on a pre-established reality.