This article contributes to the field of innovation studies by addressing the role of cultural legitimacy in technical innovation journeys. The article develops a new perspective that connects insights from discourse theory, interpretive approaches to culture, cultural sociology and social movement theory. In contrast to functionalist and structuralist approaches (which tend to conceptualize culture in a top-down deterministic manner), our cultural-performative perspective emphasizes agency, collective sensemaking and framing struggles. Cultural change is a contested process, in which various groups perform on public stages to influence the attitudes and opinions of relevant audiences who provide financial resources, protection or support relevant for innovation journeys. We demonstrate the usefulness of this perspective with a longitudinal case study of nuclear energy in the Netherlands (1945-1986), which encompasses both the creation of legitimacy in the 1950s and 1960s, and its contestation by an anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s, which halted the innovation journey. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.