Monday, December 01, 2008

Steve Woolgar: Mundane Governance

Designers wary of social theories - imagining that intuition, or something like it, will produce good design - would benefit from being attentive to the work of sociologist Steve Woolgar. In his recent lecture on the occasion of winning the J. D. Bernal Prize by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), Steve produced a thoughtful demonstration of how it's hard to talk about "the social" without talking about objects and how they are involved in constituting it. Many designers, of course, have the opposite problem - they find it hard to talk about anything but objects and aren't interested in what "the social" might be.

Outside of social science, Steve is perhaps less well known than his close collaborator Bruno Latour, but he is an important figure. Their Laboratory Life (1979), is one of the most influential books in social studies of science published in the past 30 years. Steve enjoys telling people that his job title when hired at Saïd was professor of marketing. More recently - having along the way run whole events on the perplexing question of what Science and Technology Studies (STS) is doing in a business school - he has worked with Dan Neyland (now at Lancaster) on studying what they call mundane governance: looking in ethnographic detail at the now day-to-day, possibly boring objects that are involved in governance and accountability. Their examples include things like speed cameras, recycling boxes, and bottles of water. The latter, for example, are turned into weapons of terror once you pass from one zone into another in an airport. Key questions for Woolgar are who, which and what, is accountable to what, which and whom? Once governance is not just about the governance of people, but also about the governance of things, then the categories (and practices) that constitute mundane, ordinary life, should be considered.

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