Blanchet Vivien (2017), Performing market categories through visual inscriptions: the case of ethical fashion

Organization. Online First. DOI: 10.1177/1350508417743805.


Whereas categories are important cogs of market dynamics, their construction process has been largely overlooked to date. Drawing on the Actor-Network Theory, the article tackles this issue by redefining categorisation as a translation process transforming multiplicity into unity through inscriptions. This process sheds light on the very practices of categorising, the devices involved, and their agency. Combining multiple data sources, it describes how organisers and exhibitors at a trade fair use visual inscriptions like pictures and movies, logos and maps, catalogues and fashion parades to define ethical fashion, make compromises between ethics and aesthetics, and project a fashionable image of the nascent category. This offers new insights into the construction of markets by breaking down the performative process of categorisation and revealing the visual mediations involved.


Bien que les catégories soient des ressorts importants de la dynamique des marchés, l’étude de leur construction a jusqu’à présent été escamotée. Cet article, basé sur la théorie de l’acteur-réseau, s’empare de cette question : il redéfinit la catégorisation comme un processus de traduction consistant à transformer une multiplicité en une unité par le truchement d’inscriptions.  Ce processus permet d’éclairer les pratiques de catégorisation, les dispositifs impliqués et leur agence. Ainsi, en combinant différentes sources de données, cet article décrit comment les organisateurs et les exposants d’un salon utilisent des inscriptions visuelles comme des photographies et des films, des logos et des cartes, des catalogues et des défilés pour définir la mode éthique, construire des compromis entre éthique et esthétique et projeter une image attrayante de la catégorie. L’article éclaire d’un nouveau jour la construction des catégories de marché en décomposant son processus performatif et en révélant les dispositifs visuels impliqués.


Categories drive market dynamics by enabling organisations, consumers, and public authorities to make sense of and act on markets. In particular, they help organisations to identify their competitors, position themselves accordingly and define their targeting and pricing strategy. Furthermore, by imposing social codes to which actors have to conform, they establish status and hierarchies among market participants, thereby shaping consumer expectations. Until now, category studies have mostly focused on the effects of categories. These are usually viewed as disciplinary mechanisms, which, once cemented in a cultural code, set a categorical imperative forcing actors to comply with the features and behaviours of the category to which they belong. If not, they run the risk of being sanctioned by their audience. For instance, firms that fail to fit into taken-for-granted categories are less attractive to investors and their shares more volatile. However, by paying attention exclusively to the disciplinary effects of categories, previous research evaded the question of their origins, meaning that we know little about the actual construction of categories. This blind spot leaves the way in which markets transform shrouded in mystery. Recent articles have called for efforts to fill this gap by shifting the analysis from categories to categorisation.

The present article answers this call by initiating a theoretical shift. Whereas categorisation is usually defined merely as a cognitive or discursive practice, this paper theorises it as a material translation process transforming multiple market actors into a single categorical unit. Drawing on the Actor-Network Theory (ANT), it recommends a focus on three overlooked aspects of categorisation: categorising practices, the material market devices involved, and their performative effects. The paper does this by stressing the role of visual inscriptions, which bring categories into being by inscribing them onto paper, screens, or in space.

The article follows innovative agents—and intermediaries particularly—in order to study a nascent category rather than existing ones. It thus analyses how a trade fair, the Ethical Fashion Show (EFS), contributed to the formation of the ethical fashion category. Located at the intersection of commercial, aesthetic and ethical principles, this category faces three issues inherent in emerging categories. Ethical fashion needs to alleviate uncertainty over its definition, enmesh rival principles, and acquire legitimacy. Combining multiple data sources, the article shows that visual inscriptions like lists and maps, fashion parades and video clips help the EFS’s organisers and exhibitors to overcome these concerns. These visuals embody the category by defining its boundaries and subcategories, its members and prototypes. They combine aesthetic and ethical principles by publicising the trendy and ecological, social and traditional qualities of its goods. Finally, they break with the stigmatised image of ethical fashion by staging an ideal representation of the category.

The article makes a double contribution to organisational scholarship. First, it theorises the material process of performing categories. Departing from the fuzzy performative argument that devices produce what they represent, this process unfolds the successive practices that bring categories into being. It thus provides a more nuanced and complex approach to performativity. Second, the paper formalises three visual mediations through which inscriptions transform what they represent. They enrich our understanding of the agency of visuals and, thereby, participate in the growing attempt to unpack the material aspects of performativity.