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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

Performativity and economic demonstrations: pitching quality and quantity

Trevor Pinch

Texte intégral


1One of the great strengths of Michel Callon’s work over his academic career is that he has not been afraid to leave the world of science studies to explore the bigger topics and issues which engage the social sciences. One of the boldest moves he has made is to suggest a performative approach to economics (Callon, 1998). Rescuing economics from the sad state of affairs it finds itself in at the start of the twenty-first century is surely a task worthy of any scholar, especially a scholar who started off studying little things like scallops, batteries and the like (e.g. Callon, 1986, 1987). Small scale material objects do a market make and studying what a market is and how economists make them has been at the heart of his performative approach. In his most recent work with Fabian Muniesa (Muniesa & Callon, 2008) he explores notions such as experimentation and demonstration (ideas, of course, at the core of science studies) within the new field of experimental economics as part of showing how economists perform economics.

2In this essay I examine specific economic performances. Rather than look at how a group of actors perform demonstrations in an experimental setting, I focus on a context where economic demonstrations are part of day-to-day, routine work. The demonstrations of interest here are not carried out by economists, neither are they part of some esoteric market or fancy experimental set up using sophisticated economic theory. Rather they take place in open public markets, such as are found in many town centers. I draw upon a study we carried out in the 1980s of a group of sellers called “market pitchers” (Pinch & Clark, 1986; Clark & Pinch, 1995). These are a special form of seller found on many markets in the UK (and some places in Europe) who sell goods by an elaborate verbal spiel, accompanied by humor, antics and demonstrations. They are specialists in attracting a crowd of ordinary shoppers to their stall; they are not interested in single sales but want to make many sales of the same goods at the appropriate moment in their routines.

3To forestall one possible criticism; these sellers are anything but unsophisticated – they appeal to and use basic economic notions as learnt and understood from the sharp end of the economic activity they engage in. They understand economic behavior in relation to buying and selling all too well. They take it as axiomatic that the goods they offer will not sell themselves and that they have to use speech and other actions to persuade customers to buy. Think of it like this: they are like the experimental economists studied by Muniesa and Callon in that they are interested in real-life economic behavior, but they go further, they have to make their livings from their observations of economic life. It is as if a bunch of experimental economists, having found out something about economic behavior, then had to use these same observations to try to raise money to fund their next set of experiments! It is this “double refraction” of economics which makes this group so interesting – they articulate and perform economic behavior and at the same time their livelihood depends on bringing off these performances successfully.

Selling in action

4Selling is one of the more remarkable features of mundane human activity. It nearly always involves an act of persuasion. Furthermore the goal, unlike in many persuasive tasks where people are asked to give, say, their support, friendship, political solidarity, and so on, is actually to get people (who may be complete strangers) to part with their hard-earned cash. Given the predominance and importance of sales and selling as activities, I am struck by how little academic work there has been on selling (notable exceptions are Prus, 1989, and Darr, 2006). In particular there has been hardly any attention given to what actually happens during a selling encounter. Developments in video technology (cameras and recorders notably became smaller in the late 1980s) has made it possible for more and more different types of interaction to be studied using video recording. At the University of York Sociology Department in the 1980s we studied many forms of selling including “pitchers” using video and audio recordings. The pitching research was a three-year study which also involved extensive interviews, and participant observation (Clark & Pinch, 1995).

5Market pitching is one of the oldest forms of selling (see Fig. 1). Variants of pitching were probably used by “hawkers” in medieval fairs and many of the same sorts of techniques are used today by street entertainers. Pitching and pitchers have also informed the sort of selling that one observes on TV shopping channels and infomercials. Our research shows how pitchers use talk and interaction to build a crowd, secure interest from them, and then turn that interest into commitments and obligations to buy the goods. We treat selling as a form of social interaction whereby sellers build increasing persuasive resources (which buyers in turn use strategies to resist), such as to put the buyers under pressure (obligations) to buy the goods on offer.

Figure 1: Pitcher “Mad Mick” selling clothes on a Midlands market in the late 1980s (The woman standing to the right is modeling some of the clothes lines he sells).

6Pitchers have prepared spiels (which can last as long as thirty minutes). In fact the way that new pitchers learn (as we learnt as part of our participant observation study) is for the pitcher to say the script quietly into the ear of the beginner. The neophyte simply repeats the script word for word. Although the patter or spiel is prepared, skillful and experienced pitchers always adapt to the circumstances of the sale and never mechanically repeat their patter. This was very evident when we started our research. I recall sitting in a market café in York wondering how the pitchers would respond to the presence of the research team with video cameras and whether they would even give us permission to film. The cameras we used in the early 1980s were huge Sony Umatic cameras and they were very obvious. I had even been warned off this project by a sociologist colleague whose father was a market trader: “No way would the pitchers let ‘namby pamby’ academics like you on the market.” Eventually we plucked up courage. “We are from York University Sociology Department doing a study of pitchers – do you mind if we film you?” Much to our surprise the response was “Of course lads, no problem. Set your cameras up right here at the front.” We had immediate access, and we soon learnt why.

7Within a few minutes the pitchers would say things like, “We are making an advertising sale; that’s why the goods are cheap”. They often pointed to us as a TV company making an advertisement. We didn’t look much like a TV company – being scruffy sociologists who would roll up onto the market in our VW Beetle. One group of pitchers on Leeds market, whom we shot several videos with, asked us to smarten up a little and try to look more like a proper TV crew. We got a clapper board from the University Audio-Visual services and before filming we would say “TAKE ONE” and bang the clapper board together. It was great fun! The market pitchers are skillful opportunists as well as performers – they were using us for their selling project and we were using them for our sociological project. Pitching is very much a form of performance with the pitchers acutely aware of the audience and monitoring how their spiel is going over.

8Any goods can be pitched and according to pitchers themselves, in earlier periods before the mass production of goods, pitching was the predominant way that goods were sold on markets. In the UK during our research, china sets and pottery (mass produced from pottery works in the West Midlands), towels, perfumes (often sold by “fly pitchers” on Oxford Street, London), household items and toys were the most common items pitched. But we observed a range of other items being sold in this way including meat, flowers (on a market in the Netherlands), and clothes. Often goods are sold in collections, such as offering four different perfumes for sale together rather than a single perfume.

9The pitchers describe their routines as consisting of four main sequences: building the edge, doing the dem, the bat, and twirling the edge. Let us briefly look at each element.

Building the edge

10The pitchers name for the crowd who gather at the stall is the “edge” (this comes from Cockney rhyming slang for “hedge and ditch”). The hardest move to bring off is persuading a crowd of people to stop and listen to the spiel. Getting the very first person to stop is the hardest thing of all. Sometimes pitchers will use an accomplice (a fellow pitcher or a member of the “pitch crew”) known as a “rick” (in the US this is known as a shil) who will stand prominently at the front of a stall pretending to be the first customer. Other ploys are used such as giving away goods for free (or “for a matter of pennies”) at the start of a sale. Pitchers need only to build the edge a few times during a day’s pitching, because having completed sales for one item, they can move onto the next without too many of the crowd dispersing.

11The audience for a pitcher also performs. We have sometimes used two video cameras – one on the pitcher and one on the audience. Some audience members will try and stand in such a way as to show disdain. There is a way of standing to show that you are not fully engaged; as if you are just about to leave for somewhere else. The pitcher is aware of the potential audience unease and neophyte pitchers are trained never to look the audience in the eye early in the sale. The audience members as they arrive at the stall will leave a discrete distance between themselves and the pitcher, rather as in an academic seminar where no one wants to sit too near the speaker. The pitchers will eventually ask the audience to close up, or “move forward”. They sometimes add little humorous phrases such as, “The closer you get to me, the closer you get to heaven”. Often problematic actions for the pitchers are accompanied by the use of humor. For the pitchers humor is rarely humor for humor’s sake but is nearly always strategic (Mulkay, 1988; Mulkay, Clark & Pinch, 1993; Mulkay & Howe, 1994).

12In the extract below a pitcher and his rick are building the audience for a sale of jewellery:

[P:] Prices, look, you will not believe POSSIBLE. Now watch. An’ never mind, look, FORTY pence or thirty pence. Watch this! Never even mind twenty pence. Look. For the purposes of the advertisement I’m gonna make them now the cheapest you’ve ever seen them. If I say cheap I mean exactly what I say, and I’ll say exactly what I mean.
Now look. I’ve got all the latest colours for 1985 in fashion matched jewellery. And watch. In fact the man who owns this jewellery, he’s in Spain with my wife, and what he’s doin’ to my wife right now I’m gonna do to his business. Now watch.
But it’s the first come, the first served with them. Never mind thirty pence, look, never mind twenty pence. Look at these, I’ve got all the new colours, look, I’ve got the new pastel shades, I’ve got them in the pink, I’ve got them in the lilac, I’ve got the electric blue, I’ve got the powder blue, I’ve got just one or two left in the lemon.
But if you want them from me now. In fact when I tell you the price in a minute’s time you’ll swear blind they have been pinched. But look. They are here for a very simple reason. It’s all that’s left, look, from a huge consignment of bankruptcy stock. A large boutique in London went up in the air, they went out of business and we bought the stock from them. But I do assure you one thing, if you’ve paid more money for them in the past you’re not gonna get an apology from me. Because I only apologize when the price goes up, not when it comes down like this. But look to be fair to every single one of you, I wantta give everyone the same equal chance, I’m gonna charge you all the same price, which ever lot you pick, I’m not bothered. Now Watch But it will be the first come
[aside to Rick:] pastel ear rings
the first served.
Could you just do me a simple favor could you move right in love, please, move right up to stall. Just move in. I want everyone at back a chance to see.
I’ve got every color you can think of to choose from. Now watch.
[Large crowd have now gathered at the stall]

The dem

13The dem is the pitchers’ term for demonstrating the goods: that is showing them to the audience visually. Since it is these demonstrations which are particularly interesting for the purposes of this essay, I will describe “the dem” in more detail below.

The bat

14The strategy of the pitchers is to build up the worth of the goods they are describing. Often the goods are elaborated upon in great detail, with their qualities being emphasized (for instance, a blue color becomes a “powder blue” or an “electric blue” in the above extract). This form of description, emphasizing particular qualities of the objects can be seen as part of what Michel Callon calls the economy of qualities (Callon, Méadel & Rabeharisoa, 2002). It is made clear to the audience that these are highly desirable goods. Pitchers often hint that the goods they sell have been stolen or fire damaged as in the extract above. They are not. They are actually bought wholesale from special warehouses or direct from the manufacturers. Why describe the origin of the goods as dubious when they are not? The reason is to provide an answer to a puzzle the audience members may have: why are these goods which are being described as being desirable being sold so cheaply? Are they not simply cheap, shoddy, schlock goods? The pitcher wants the audience to reason that they are good quality goods which can in fact be sold cheaply in this form because they are stolen, or fire salvage.

15The building of the high worth of the goods is known as “ramping”. As one pitcher told us, “to sell something cheap you first have to make it seem worth something”. Once the worth has been established – a matter of qualities – a price is suggested – this is the price the goods might be worth. This is a key transition; qualities now have a quantity, a price, attached to them. The movement or translation between quality and quantity, between words and numbers is at the heart of many economic techniques (Ashmore, Mulkay & Pinch, 1989; Porter, 1995). To bolster the credibility of this chosen price the pitcher might announce that this is a price to be found for the same item in familiar high street stores. Often a specific well known “quality” chain store is named, such as Marks & Spencer or Harrods. On some occasions we have seen warrant for this price being given by reference to a glossy magazine which the pitcher produces where the same objects are listed for sale. A selected audience member may be asked to read out this price thereby further bolstering its credibility.

16Having established a high worth as now marked by a quantity – a price – the strategy is to make it clear that the pitcher will not charge this price but a much cheaper price. The pitcher slowly reduces the price in increments (known as “batting” down the price – hence the bat) through a series of ever lower prices that the pitchers will not charge. Lower and lower prices are announced often to the accompaniment of claps or loud bangs (pitchers sometime carry mallets or bats for this purpose). The very final price receives the loudest bang of all.

17For example in the following extract a pitcher working from a lorry at a London market has just finished describing and demonstrating a pair of toy dolls. The dolls are “twins” and they are connected by some electronic device such that when the dummy (pacifier) is taken out of one doll the other twin will start crying!

Dolls that THINK together, dolls that LAUGH together, dolls that CRY together, dolls that DRINK together. NOT sixty – I’ll give you your bus fare home if it helps you. NOT fifty, NOT forty, THIRTY FIVE IS CHEAP, NOT thirty-two fifty, ’ere, an’ to CLEAR ’EM, I won’t even charge you thirty.
[numerous sales follow]

18During the batting process the pitcher will on occasions solicit interest from the audience by asking them if they would be interested in the goods if the price was even lower. Sometimes they mark these expressions of interest by asking people to raise their hands (known as getting the “forks” up). They then turn this interest into a commitment to buy by dropping the price even further than the one at which interest had been expressed. Sometimes these commitments are turned into an even more ineluctable obligation to buy by handing out bags (known as “the nailer”) to those customers who have expressed interest (Pinch & Clark, 1988). On very rare occasions the goods themselves may be handed out to customers even before they know the final price.

19The final price stated by the pitcher may seem as if it has been arrived at in response to the audience’s interest (as in bids at an auction, see Smith, 1989), but in actual fact the pitchers always work with a pre-established final price. We have seen the same goods being offered for sale time and again over the course of many hours and they are always sold at exactly the same price whatever the audience interest. It is the skill of pitchers’ performance that creates the illusion that somehow they are responding to the audiences’ bids made on their own volition rather than the pitchers having orchestrated these responses.

20Another tactic the pitchers will introduce into this part of the sale is to “create scarcity” by saying they can only offer the goods at a certain price to a limited number of audience members (“I can only do it for the first twenty hands I see, if you’re the twenty-first, I don’t care if you give me a hundred pounds. I’m NOT serving you.”). Often the number of audience members who buy is greater than this limit and pitchers never enforce this scarcity and audience members never seem to notice. It seems that the scarcity works by providing yet another resource for the audience members to reason that they must act quickly to purchase.

Twirling the edge

21As was mentioned earlier, the pitchers want mass sales rather than single sales. Their whole strategy is to get as many audience members as possible to buy. Thus, once the price is announced, they will start to make sales, but rather than make the sales quickly (and despite claims to make the transaction “quickly and sharply now”) they will often wrap up the goods slowly, elaborately displaying each item in a collection, or place each item one at a time in bags, always restating the nature of the bargain they are offering. Pitchers are acutely attuned to timing here and will sometimes speed up if they sense that willing buyers are getting impatient. It seems there is nothing more persuasive to audience members to buy than seeing a fellow audience member make a purchase. The pitchers will point out to the audience who is buying (“Another one over there”) and the pitch crew (pitchers’ assistants) will join in by sometimes echoing this shout (“OVER THERE”), building up the sound to a crescendo of sales activity. Working the crowd, to entice more and more people to participate, is known as “twirling the edge”. The pitcher seems to twirl from customer to customer bringing more and more people into the sale. Finally when no one else can be persuaded to take part, the routine is over and if the pitcher has other items for sale the pitcher will make use of the gathered crowd to start over again with a new “dem” and a new object for sale.

22The pitchers’ task is to turn the anonymous people who have shown up, and who may not necessarily have much in common, into a social group who share a common project. In short the pitcher has to inculcate the audience into a shared social, and one might say economic, understanding of the situation. Performativity and materiality are crucial to their success. The performance of the pitcher is full of rhetorical moves which we have analyzed in detail elsewhere (Pinch & Clark, 1986, 1988; Clark & Pinch, 1995). Apart from specific linguistic ploys, such as using contrasts and lists (Atkinson, 1984) in presenting prices and describing goods, the pitchers work at building obligations sequentially and incrementally throughout the sale. The materiality of the stall (see Fig. 1) provides an architecture around which the gathering audience can stand but not interfere with the pitcher’s own movements. Pitchers often pitch from a raised stall or lorry (as in the doll sequence) – which enables them to monitor the audience more easily and the audience to see them. The bodily arrangement of the audience – tightly packed bodies with eyes directed forwards – again means that the pitcher can see many people while the audiences’ dominant view is of the pitcher plus the backs of heads of other nearby audience members. The pitcher also holds the trump card in terms of sound. Often with the aid of a microphone and amplifier the pitchers establishes a moral sonic order whereby they determine the sequence of turn taking and that theirs’ is the main voice heard. If audience members get to speak or respond, their responses are rendered for other audience members by the pitcher. Sound and mechanical ways of making it also play a key with the banging of the mallet to mark the final price. The materiality of the objects play a role not only in terms of display but also as part of the nailing strategy of obligation where bags and the objects themselves are handed out to audience members who express interest. In short material arrangements enable the staging, performance, and the mediation of this activity.

Demonstration as performance

23Now let us examine in more detail just one aspect of this activity: the demonstration or dem. The first point to bear in mind is that although we have described a section of the routine as the “dem” (as pitchers themselves do), all aspects of how the goods, are displayed and handled are crucial. For example, the visual display of the goods on the stall, how they are laid out and arranged, is known as the “flash”. Pitchers have a saying: “Flash means cash”. They are careful to have the most eye-catching goods prominently displayed, and they try to make sure that a big range of goods can be seen by the audience to entice them to take part in a later sale even if they have no interest in the line the pitcher is currently working.

24What the pitchers are working at with demonstrations is to reinforce visually the verbal descriptions they produce. They frequently implore the audience to “watch” or “watch now”. Here the science studies work on demonstration dovetails nicely with what the pitchers attempt. Muniesa and Callon write, drawing upon Claude Rosental’s work on proofs in logic, that “a demonstration is about exhibiting something or, in other words, about rendering some aspects explicit while taking for granted other aspects” (Muniesa & Callon, 2008: 169). This “exhibiting something” means that particular emphasis is placed upon the way certain goods are handled and displayed.

25This could be observed during the earlier mentioned jewellery sale. As he builds the edge, the pitcher moves up and down behind the long trestle table on which the “fashion matched” colored jewellery is displayed. He sometimes pauses to fuss over the exact lay out of the bracelets and necklaces, caressing them in a sensual way. This conveys to the audience that this is something they would feel comfortable wanting to wear and display. Towels are often treated similarly and selected audience members are on occasions asked to “feel” the towels to reinforce the sensuality of the item being sold. Often male pitchers will pick an older female audience member to “feel” the towel and at the same time make a veiled sexual joke hinting at the audience member “feeling” more than just the towel. Delicate bone china cups will be held up tenderly against a light bulb so the audience can see the light shining through the china – showing the quality of fineness of the china. In short the economy of qualities is also a visual economy but must not be out of sync with the same rendering of verbal qualities.

26Pitchers are also skilled at rendering up quantity as they demonstrate the goods. As was mentioned earlier, pitchers often sell quantities of similar goods together in collections. A collection of books will be fanned out impressively in the hand of the pitcher like holding up a hand of cards. Pottery and china dinner sets will be elaborately laid out and stacked up in baskets, one on top of another (often held up dramatically by a member of the pitch crew). As the stack of plates and dishes gets higher, with each item being described before being added to the pile, it almost seems like a circus acrobatic act with the arts of balance and strength being coupled with the beauty of the set. People can literally see “quantity” being performed and the worth of the goods being “built up” in front of them.

27The pitchers have a saying which nicely draws attention to the power of these visual demonstrations, “What can’t speak can’t lie”. It is as if they are attending to the possibility of the audience not believing what they hear or the possibility that the pitchers’ no doubt considerable verbal skill, the “gift of the gab”, is itself a possible source of doubt. Sometimes this appeal to the visual over the verbal is made explicit as in the following case where a vegetable slicer is being demonstrated:

[P:] The washing-up’s simple. Look [P quickly rinses slicer in basin of water]. We don’t just tell you it’s simple, we show you it’s simple.
It seems that a visual appeal will somehow offer up the truth as to the qualities of the goods or at the very least will be more convincing. In short the illusion is given that all the artistry and work of the pitcher is effaced such as if the goods are allowed to speak for themselves. But of course it is the very art of the pitcher to bring about this effacement. This of course, is similar to demonstrations in science, where the trick of the scientists is to efface their own role and make it look as if nature is speaking for itself.

28The science studies work on demonstration indicates that, unlike experiments, demonstrations are rehearsed (Collins & Pinch, 2008). Pitchers certainly rehearse their dems, making sure that a product will do what it is supposed to do, for instance that a siren will wail in a toy car. But there is a fine line between a rehearsed demonstration and an overly slick demonstration where sleight of hand might be suspected. This fine line is often crossed when the item being demonstrated requires a particularly skilled operator as with many kitchen gadgets and devices which slice food. Demonstrations of kitchen implements such as knives are often so slick that shoppers will have reservations as to whether the gizmo on offer will work as smoothly when they are the user. Street entertainers are aware of the same problem – we have observed skilled skateboarders sometimes deliberately fail in the warm-up tricks to draw attention to the difficulty and veracity of what the audience is about to witness.

29Part of the performance of a demonstration is to keep the audience attentive. This is hard to do when the items being sold are rather mundane such as pens, perfumes, household objects and the like. The pitchers often will stage a particularly dramatic and ridiculous demonstration, known as “the big gesture”, which seems to serve the purpose of keeping audience interest. Pitchers that sell dinner plates which they have claimed to be durable will sometimes throw the plates high in the air. The ruggedness of a fountain pen being sold, was demonstrated by using it to open a can of coke. A kitchen knife known as the “miracle blade” was used to hack through some wood. These “extreme” demonstrations again serve to emphasize, albeit it with overkill, some quality of the item being sold. The effective demonstration is all about a quality of the product (or more than one quality), rather than the skill or virtuosity of the pitcher.


30This little excursion into the world of real life selling reminds us again that the fundamental activity of economics – exchange – is something that must be continually performed. Part of that performance involves demonstration – itself a key element of persuasion. In the world of pitching the props are not sophisticated technologies and the instruments of exchange are simple material and rhetorical devices. But the transformations that are elicited are profound. Qualities can become quantities and a rudimentary digitality, such as in displays of hand raising which are then rendered into numbers by the pitchers, is used to translate interests into intentions and obligations. The materiality of sound and sight, the objects themselves and the bags they are placed in, and bodily arrangements and the architecture of the pitching stall all play a role in staging the performance and enabling the strategic interaction which takes place. Pitchers have experience, they have skill, and they choose what to sell under what conditions, but the customers also have experience and skill in avoiding being placed under obligations to buy. The outcome is an ordered interaction, a performance, and at the same time an economy in microcosm.

31The real economy and real markets are far more interesting and embedded in social interaction and materiality than economists have yet made them. Callon’s path breaking work on the performativity of economics is a welcome first step in developing a new economics but needs also to be coupled with the insights of investigations of the interaction order (Goffman, 1983) as I have tried to suggest in this short essay in his honor.



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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Pitcher “Mad Mick” selling clothes on a Midlands market in the late 1980s (The woman standing to the right is modeling some of the clothes lines he sells).
Fichier image/jpeg, 164k


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