6.15%: Taking Numbers at Interface Value (2017-12-05)
This article discusses a number, 6.15%, as it comes into being in the course of an evaluation study of education in a southern Afghan province. This number indicates that out of 100 school-aged girls 6.15 go to school. While this kind of number may invite refl ections on its epistemic accuracy, more often it draws attention to its inherent negative — the girls that do not go to school — substantiating a need for sustained international commitment. As this article will show, numbers work to establish girls as research entities, as part of populations, and as a concern for the Afghan government and the international intervention. This interfacing work of numbers — between girls, states, interventions, and research protocols — is often absent from academic work that takes numbers to be stable and passive tools with which the world can be known. This article, instead, takes numbers to have an internally complex multiplicity and to actively engage with their environments. In this article, I use the interface between numbers and environment as a space for ethnographic exploration of world-making. By describing three moments in the lifecycle of the number — data cleaning, analysis and presentation — I describe three distinct moments of interfacing in which the number comes to act in three capacities: effecting reference, constituting proportional comparison, and evoking doubt and certainty. Detailed understanding of numbering practices provides an opportunity to not just critically assess numbers as end products but to carefully assess the worlds that emerge alongside numbering practices and the ways in which numbers contribute in processes of governance.
Making Nature Investable (2018-05-25)
In response to perceived valuation problems giving rise to global environmental crisis, ‘nature’ is being qualified, quantified and materialised as the new external(ised) ‘Nature-whole’ of ‘natural capital’. This paper problematises the increasing legibility, through numbering and (ac)counting practices, of natural capital as an apparently exterior ‘matter of fact’ that can be leveraged financially. Interconnected policy and technical texts, combined with observation as an academic participant in recent international environmental policy meetings, form the basis for a delineation of four connected and intensifying dimensions of articulation in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’: discursive, numerical-economic, material and institutional. Performative economic sociology approaches are drawn on to clarify the numbering and calculative practices making and performing indicators of nature health and harm as formally economic. These institutionalised fabrications are interpreted as attempts to enrol previously uncosted ‘standing natures’ in the forward-driving movement of capital.
More Than a Scientific Movement (2018-03-22)
The green chemistry (GC) concept originated in the United States during the 1990s to describe an approach to chemistry that aims to lower impacts on health and the environment. Based on 70 interviews with scientists from France and the United States, I investigated green chemists’ practices and motivations, and the socio-political influences on their attitudes to GC. The results show that GC has a hybrid character, bringing together scientists with different motivations (funding, career, communication, ethical, political). The boundaries of the definition of GC are constantly shifting under the influence of research funding and environmental, industrial and agricultural policies. GC reflects the perfect adaptation of a terminology to the external conditions of chemistry’s socio-political contexts. While this is a strength that gives GC the potential for changing overall practices in chemistry, this might also be its major weakness as it might completely lose its original environmental relevance, depending on the evolution of external drivers.
Programming Visuals, Visualising Programs (2018-07-06)
This article examines the role of visualisations in astrophysics programming work, showing that visualisations are not only outputs for those producing them, but can help those developing them understand how to do their work. Studies of visualization in programming have mainly been of social and cultural factors influencing scientific research. We concentrate on the material aspects of scientific work, as of interest in their own right and on methodological grounds (since capturing the material practices of computer screen-work is an underexplored area). Using a ‘video-aided ethnographic’ method we analyse an episode of computational astrophysics involving the use of the Python programming language. We identify a selection of activities comprising the screen work of an astrophysics researcher to unpack how those activities contribute to the production of scientific knowledge.
The One-Dimensionality of Scientific Relativism (2018-04-26)
The historicist approach to science has been accompanied by a spatial one in the last decade or two. Referring to the cultural origin of the fundamental standards, advocates of the “geographical turn” claim that “just as there is a rich history of science, so there is a rich geography of science” (Withers and Livingstone, 2011: 3). The emerging localism is perpendicular to the old historical segmentation and the combination of the two present science as a bunch of quasi-independent cognitive endeavours scattered in time and space.
Taking the debate about the existence of the N-ray as an instructive example, I argue that by developing location-independent disciplinary communities, history made the community-structure of science culturally unique. Different historical eras may use incompatible concepts, methodological norms, and epistemological standards, but as this diversity does not extend onto its synchronous dimension, relativism remains one-dimensional in science.
The Factish in the Field (2018-07-15)
Research in GM crops is of pressing importance to biotechnologists, development economists, government officials, and concerned citizens. Each of these stakeholders carries preconceived notions of success and failure that not only influence how data regarding GM crops is shared but also reify the objective reality of GM seeds as a technology that might exist outside the idiosyncracies of a farmer’s field. In this essay, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among GM cotton planting farmers in Telangana, India to deconstruct the process by which scientific facts are created, leveraged, and then divorced from their subjective contexts in agricultural research. In paying closer attention to the ways that the science of agricultural development has limited possibilities of farmer experience and transformed GM seeds into autonomous beings, this paper attempts to take up Latour’s call for a compositionist investigation of a common world slowly assembled by its constituent actors.
Citizenship in Collision (2018-07-10)
In 2004, the Norwegian Accident Investigation Board (AIBN), previously restricted to civil aviation, was expanded to include a new section for road traffic, which was to investigate individual road accidents. The overall ambition behind the new organisation was to reduce the number of fatalities in road traffic. This article explores the idea that the main task of the Accident Investigation Board’s section for road traffic was to construct a new kind of narrative about road accidents, which would in turn open up new possibilities for intervention. The article examines what characterizes the narratives they have constructed and how these narratives interact with conceptions of risk and causality. It also discusses how they fit into the existing structure of road safety work in Norway. It concludes that the Accident Investigation Board’s narratives are implicitly political, as they partly deconstruct the notion of liberal citizenship underlying the legal system, and that this deconstruction can potentially have far-reaching practical consequences.
We Are Standing Together in Front (2018-07-10)
Reputation building and visibility represent pressing requirements for living and working in academia today. These demands have been key to the corporate world and are acted upon through ‘branding’ practices. ‘Branding’ has further been shown to impact on employees and workplace identities. In academia, researching identity work is especially important because of a competitive funding climate that requires research groups to resemble an outstanding image and reputation. At the same time, stable jobs are scarce, bringing forth insecure and volatile environments characterized for example by temporary limited contracts and required internationalisation in scientific careers. Based on ethnographic work in globally recognized life science departments, I explore how individual and departmental identities relate. Thereby, I propose the concept of ‘enrolling’, that conveys how a research unit acts as a ‘brand’, and show how ‘enrolling practices’ produces stability through coherence and distinctiveness in individual and collective identities. My analysis thus allows a critical reflection on academia and the re-orderings in today´s universities that create pervasive demands for living and working
Method Matters in the Social Study of Technology: Investigating the Biographies of Artifacts and Practices (2018-07-12)
Science and Technology Studies understandings of technological change are at odds with its own dominant research designs and methodological guidelines. A key insight from the social shaping of technology research, for instance, has been that new technologies are formed in multiple interlinked settings, by many different groups of actors over long periods of time. Nonetheless, common research designs have not kept pace with these conceptual advances, continuing instead to resort to either intensive localised ethnographic engagements or extensive historical studies, both of which can generate only partial and limited accounts of the processes they suggest are at playThere has, however, been increasing interest in extending current methodological and analytical approaches through longitudinal and multi-site research templates, which include the emerging ‘biographies of artifacts and practices’ (BOAP) framework. Since its onset in the 1990s, there are now numerous exemplifications of the BOAP approach. This paper outlines its basic rationale and principles, and its significant variations, and discusses its contribution to STS understandings of innovation, especially user-led innovation. We finish by arguing that if STS is to continue to provide insight around innovation this will require a reconceptualisation of research design, to move from simple ‘snap shot’ studies to the linking together of ‘a string of investigations’.
Lost in translation (2017-12-22)
This study explores the journey of a model for stakeholder involvement called RISCOM. Originally developed within the field of radioactive waste management in Sweden, it was later used in the Czech Republic to re-establish public dialogue in the process of siting a geological repository. This case offers an opportunity to empirically study the fragility and ambiguous results of organized spread of public involvement across various domains of technological innovation and national contexts. We show how three circumstances – (1) the ambition to make RISCOM an internationally used model for public dialogue, (2) the specific situation in the Czech siting process, and (3) the short-lived and limited success of the subsequent Czech dialogues by Swedish design – were intrinsically related and sustained each other. Better understanding of such complexities might contribute to a more realistic attitude toward technologized democracy, i.e., toward practices of public deliberation increasingly becoming instrumental, transferable, and depoliticized.
Something and Nothing (2018-07-06)
This paper explores the ways that qualities and quantities can be enacted, bringing realities into being and how qualities and quantities might also be undone, and sometimes in order to do realities better. In particular, undoing has become a focus for accountably resisting quantification. Utilising the neologism of the qualculation, the paper begins by exploring a particular kind of undoing: deletion. Questions are raised regarding the legal, technical and organisational aspects of deletion and then how we might bring ideas from Science and Technology Studies (STS) together to pose questions of deletion and accountability. Subsequently, data from a study of the development of an algorithmic deletion system is presented to explore qualculation, undoing, deletion, accountability and market value in action. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the nature of undoing qualculations, of how undoing is a constitutive action in itself.
Escaping Numbers? (2018-07-12)
Numbers have long been associated with statecraft. In bureaucratic processes of accounting, regulation was effected by forming centres of calculation. This paper suggests that contemporary post-bureaucratic regimes are evolving new forms of accounting, in which the centre inserts itself into individual sites to exercise authority. This ‘intimate accounting’ involves technologies of transparency through which individual sites such as schools are required to declare intimate information publicly. In turn, the public, armed with information, is exhorted to become informed and to exercise influence on institutions to excel and to hold them to account. Using the case of Australia’s ‘Education Revolution’, this paper describes the processes of intimate accounting. It then explores the efforts to resist, subvert and undo such calculations. Finally, it speculates on why these calculations have continued to appear robust in the face of opposition and what would need to be done to escape or resist such calculations.
Keywords: Sociology of Numbers; Education Policy and Numbers; Accountability