Performative Models

One of the most difficult things for me to convey in describing my research is the idea that I am not primarily interested in the representational aspects of modeling. In other words, questions about what the models include, how well those things are represented, the accuracy of the models, and what is excluded – these are not my first questions. I think that the bias for seeing my project this way stems from a tendency to see models as a form of cognition. Models are generally considered extensions of our minds. While I think that’s true, I also think they are much more than that. Models are also technological structures with elaborate architectures, powered by material processes. They require human and non-human labor to produce, maintain, translate, and implement.

Conceptualizing modeling in this way means that I am interested in the performative dimensions of modeling – what models do – more than in what they represent. I am interested in the activities that go into producing the models and using them to decide how to manage environmental problems. From there, I am interested in how those activities produce not just models but also social relationships, institutions, management structures, and so on. 

This doesn’t mean that I am not at all interested in the representational aspects of modeling. I am in the sense that representations are, themselves, performative. The act of deciding how to model certain dynamics, how to best represent the flow of water and the effects of nutrients on the system – these representations have important consequences for the way that water quality is managed. As a result, I would argue that the classic division between the model (or map) and the territory breaks down. The model may not be the territory, but it is certainly part of the territory that it attempts to represent. The question is – rephrasing it again – how do we confront the model as both representation (cognition) and material activity (performance)? How might this view of modeling change the way we engage in modeling? My research so far suggests that there are a lot of factors to consider beyond representational issues, and I’m hoping to develop a more systematic way to confront those issues. 

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