EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(IW002)

Standards and the quest for technocratic certainty

Location R13 (in V)
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University) email
Daniel Seabra Lopes (CSG-ISEG/University of Lisbon) email
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Short Abstract

Standards are widespread rules that act as guarantors of certainty, by ensuring that a good part of the world we live in remains stable, compatible, predictable, even automated. This session intends to shed light on the ambiguities surrounding the construction, adoption and operation of standards.

Long Abstract

Standards are rules for the organisation of time, space, people, objects, institutions, policies and ideas, whose influence affects different communities of practice and social environments. They are ubiquitous and are seen as guarantors of certainty, by ensuring that a good part of the world we live in remains stable, compatible, measurable, predictable, even automated. The agency of standards, however, is never complete or unproblematic. This session intends to shed light on the ambiguities of standards.

Corporations, banks, state bureaucracies, and transnational organisations, such as the European Union (EU) or Fairtrade International, all engage in the standardisation of people, objects, policies and ideas according to common indicators, codes, forms, labels and the like. Standardising is about having control over processes and making members (whether individuals, states or corporations) readily auditable and accountable for their actions. Processes of developing standards are often guided by negotiations on what categories should be included in the standards. When standards are established these negotiations are often forgotten. Yet, the standards continue to influence and organise the terms and the scope of discussions, ideas and practices in our everyday life as if they were stable and politically neutral.

This workshop invites a wide range of papers that shed light on standardisation processes: Who are the standardisers? How are standards adopted by their users? How do standards function in practice? What type of images they produce and which organisational processes they set in motion? How does power enter into standards? What kind of power is embedded in standards?

Chair: Lopes/Thedvall
Discussant: Steven Sampson, Lund University

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Making social work scientific, standardised and transparent: the idea of evidence-based practice in Sweden

Author: Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University)  email
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Short Abstract

The idea of evidence-based practice in social work answers both to the trust in scientific knowledge and the increased scepticism against the value of scientific knowledge by advocating standardised, pronounced and transparent knowledge that is possible to examine and evaluate.

Long Abstract

It is possible to order a start package in evidence-based practice at the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden. The package explains what evidence-based practice means in social work. It gives examples of systematic, evidence-based methods that social workers can use in their daily work-life. This is the culmination of a trend that had its beginning with the former General Director of the National Board of Health and Welfare's statement that social work needs to be handled with the same professionalism as medicine and show that social workers use methods that are scientifically proven to work. The trend has its roots in a wider, global trend of implementing evidence-based practice in social work. The paper examines what kind of knowledge that is valued with the arrival of evidence-based practice and how evidence-based practice both answers to trust in scientific knowledge and the increased societal scepticism against the value of scientific knowledge by advocating standardised, pronounced and transparent knowledge that is possible to examine and evaluate.

Can there be a standard translation of standards? An analysis of social welfare provision in rural Romania

Author: Ioan Mihai Popa (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email
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Short Abstract

The standardisation of persons is a prerequisite for the operation of the modern state. In this paper I use ethnographic material from fieldwork in a Romanian village to depict the operation of social welfare standards in the everyday practice of local state officials. I argue that welfare provision standards are not adopted but translated by local officials in the course of everyday administrative practice.

Long Abstract

The standardisation of persons is a prerequisite for the operation of any modern state governance technology, from border control regimes to systems of tax collection and welfare provision. In the field of social welfare, eligibility criteria are standards that frame what the state sees as being the "poor" or "needy" persons.

In this paper I use ethnographic material from long-term fieldwork in a Romanian village to depict the operation of social welfare standards in the everyday practice of local state officials. I argue that welfare provision standards are not adopted but translated by local officials in the course of everyday administrative practice.

In the examples discussed, local officials operate in two ways: they adapt legal eligibility criteria (revenues, land surfaces, material possessions) to local social conditions (biographies, status hierarchies) and they code local social reality into official documents. In a translation model of policy implementation, local officials are located at the interface between two modes of seeing and ordering the social landscape: one peculiar to the central state and one peculiar to the local community.

On an everyday basis local officials make compatible local standards of deservingness and need with legal standards of eligibility. Their practices are conditioned by the double accountability they have to villagers and to higher levels of state administration.

In the analysis presented the operation of standards is necessarily unstable. The translation of standards is an everyday feature of local administrative practice and marks an ongoing rather than settled struggle between different layers of the state concerning the accepted view of those governed.

The Hidden Land Practices Within Standardized Plots in Mexico

Author: Gabriela Torres-Mazuera (Centro de Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social)  email
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Short Abstract

In the 1990s land-titling programs launched by neo-liberal governments sought to generate standardize plots in the countryside. Ethnographic observation reveals in Mexico, an array of land practices continue to exist within those newly created plots.

Long Abstract

Attempts to standardize land-tenure have existed since the formation of liberal States. Simplistic categories such as "private", "public" and "social" property have been legalistic ways of coping with complex land-tenure structures and property regimes in rural areas. In the 1990's, land-titling programs were launched by neo-liberal governments all over the world in order to fix farmland boundaries, generate standardize plots with measured limits and registered individual property owners with clear rights to land. In Mexico, 20th century rural landscape has been dominated by ejido, a form of collective land-tenure that legally gives right to use the land to members of ejido community. The ejido land-tenure allow the co-existence of an array of property relations where multiple social actors hold different bundles of rights. The land-titling program launched between 1993 and 2006 aimed to individualize and privatize ejido lands attempting to legalize some of these relations while nullifying others. Ethnographic observation reveals that despite the alleged success of land-titling program in Mexico, an array of property practices not considered by law continue to exist and reproduced within those newly created standardize plots.

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Technocratic responses to social organization? From NGOs' managerial capital to the standardization of revolutions

Author: Theodora Vetta (Universitat de Barcelona)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will focus on standardization and isomorphic processes within NGOs as models of social organization in Serbia. I will first address questions of power entanglements around the introduction and endurance of technocratic standards and managerial techniques and then critically discuss ‘NGO-ization’ theories of political struggles

Long Abstract

This paper will tackle processes of standardization of social organizational models in the context of democracy-interventions in Serbia, a locus where hundreds of 'civil society programs' have been put in place by the international donor community as a way to foster democratic participation, active citizenship and post-conflict reconciliation. Albeit their failures or success, these programs have certainly resulted in what has been called an 'associational revolution', i.e. in the proliferation of local NGOs sharing a very particular and standardized organizational structure and culture. Standardization has come along with professionalization and bureaucratization whereas the introduction of standardized techniques such as managerial practices, analytical toolkits and project-making have deeply influenced the NGOs' patterns of knowledge-production and concrete interventions in social realities.

The first part of the paper will address questions of power relations among different social actors in the production and reproduction of standardization processes. Far from univocal relations of domination between powerful donors and passive recipients, standardization has created a technocratic capital with both symbolic and material dimensions and consequences, such as local elite-production. Standardization doesn't simply aim in audit and control, but also serves as a powerful strategic resource for social mobility and status.

The second part of the paper will continue an ongoing discussion on the 'NGO-ization' of political struggle. What new insights can we gain from an ethnographic case where activism and dissidence is part of a powerful claim-making discourse and where the making (and standardization) of revolutions is seen as the best export-product of the country?

CO2 capture, transport and storage: an industrial coalition working on the idea of "technology demonstration" for reducing CO2 emissions from industries

Author: Rebeca Neri O'Neill (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)  email
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Short Abstract

When ethnographic observations help us to understand and make tangible a technological policy. Investigating the way in which actors are working on the need of standardizing technology demonstration: a study conducted among a European Technology Platform.

Long Abstract

This paper concerns the very specific way in which CO2 capture, transport and storage (CCS), has evolved towards the development of a large-scale technological demonstration. This orientation, fuelled by political actors and industry, aims to bring about a solution to the problem of CO2 emissions from industries such as fossil fuel power plants or the steel industry. Recently, the European Union adopts new standards to ensure the safety of CO2 storage and decided to target massive investments on demonstration projects. I'm interested in exploring the question of how actors attempt to guide the development of this controversial technology?

I study an association working on arguments and actions that support regulatory and political tools on CCS. I propose results from a qualitative survey of the technology platform called ZEP - The European Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants - established in 2005. We rely on qualitative techniques: interviews and ethnographic observations of meetings of ZEP. We'll try to understand the trajectory and how they develop a "political vision of CCS". The deeper purpose is to extend the interpretation and provide a pragmatic analysis of lobbying practices. I try to propose an approach capable of linking, symmetrically, political practices noted at European, national and local levels. In so doing, we can understand how the technology standards are developed (European) and at the same time how political debates and conflicts (national and local) are also involved in the creation of counter-standards.

Standardising for excellence: new public management and audit cultures in German universities

Author: Asta Vonderau (Stockholm University)  email
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Short Abstract

My paper investigates processes of standardization adopted by German universities in the process of implementing new online management systems. It demonstrates how these processes lead to the formation of auditable subjects, transforming the traditional understanding of quality teaching and learning.

Long Abstract

In the context of decreasing public funding and increasing demands on international competitiveness the future development of the German university system seems uncertain. German universities are under pressure to find ways of managing these uncertainties. One way to do so is to participate in so-called 'excellence initiatives' called out by the government in order to obtain the rank of an 'excellent university', which allows universities to profit from increased funding, amongst others.

Besides the sucessful implementation of the Bologna process, participants in the 'excellence initiatives' are expected to make the quality of their work seazable in economic numbers and terms. As a consequence, many universities are currently introducing new online management systems through which different disciplinary cultures and everyday routines of teaching and studying are standardized and translated into economic figures and concepts following arguments of transparency, efficiency and fairness. Using the University of Mainz as an empirical case, where I followed the implementation process of the central online management system over a number of months, this paper will discuss how the transfer of everyday knowledge into technical data is constituted, how economic understandings of quality, communication, learning and teaching are introduced, and how different groups such as teachers, students and administrative staff actively take part in this process. Referring to anthropological investigations under the banner of 'anthropology of policy' (C. Shore, S. Wright) and 'audit cultures' (M. Strathern), my talk will shed a light on the intended and disciplinating, as well as unintended effects of these standardization processes.

Redefining standards: how Insurance (re)makes claim-types according to "day-to-day catastrophes"?

Author: Marie-Laure Cuisance (LESC (Nanterre))  email
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Short Abstract

We are going to explore how claim, a standard produced by insurance, become effective during day-to-day negotiations between claims agents and customers, how the claims management process automation serves to reinforce the standard, and what are the consequences on risk perceive and insurance role.

Long Abstract

My current research, based on 2 years of fieldwork in a claims management department, bears on how the world's leading insurance groups represents its relationship with its French customers and how it organizes the latter when presented with their loss.

At this very moment, any loss or accident that is recognized by insurance as a type will become a claim, that is an event for which the insured party can seek compensation.

The aim of my talk is to explore how claim categories produced by actuaries become effective once the given loss or accident occurs and how the automation of the claims management process, to improve efficiency, serves to reinforce the pre-identified standard too.

We are going to shed light on a somewhat contradictory approach of the interaction between insured parties and claims agents: on the one hand, the unexpected and singular nature of "day-to-day catastrophes" and on the other hand, the sifting of information to identify one of the claim types and to set into motion its corresponding set process.

By using the example of a claims management software re-engineering project, we are going to delve into how the claim notion has been completely re-examined and rethought at the head-office by some experts during the assessment phase and how the new categories have subsequently been frozen in computer codes. We are going to analyze the consequences of this IT system on agents cognitive work, on risk perceive, and on day-to-day negotiations between claims agents and insured parties.

Credit standards and the discipline of large scale payment behaviour

Author: Daniel Seabra Lopes (CSG-ISEG/University of Lisbon)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on an ethnographic study of retail credit, this communication intends to discuss the link between consumption, freedom of choice and identity construction, by focusing on the framework of rules and standards that structures the credit business. It will be argued that such a framework is designed to enhance a specific discipline (in the Foucauldian sense) of mass payment behavior.

Long Abstract

This communication intends to question the common association between consumption, freedom of choice and identity construction, by showing how consumption practices are in fact framed by very specific rules and standards designed to enhance mass payment behavior. The main empirical example will be that of retail credit, approached from the viewpoint of suppliers. Regardless of how much individualism may be found in average acts of consumption, the work of marketers and other banking professionals reveals that such acts are strongly tied to the generation and management of substantial cash flows stemming from clients' regular payments (such a regularity implying, on its turn, the access to regular sources of income, usually salaried jobs). Hence the critical importance of the Foucauldian concept of 'discipline' allied to contemporary forms of governance involving several forms of population management through statistics and other quantified procedures (cf. Peter Miller, Nikolas Rose). In other words, what emerges is the mass instead of the individual; and self -control instead of freedom. Under such circumstances, even the very role of bankers seems to be quite limited with regards to innovation, as most players in this field are essentially providing the same type of service, in compliance with international norms and regulations. In sum, though money and credit can be thought of as mediators of value enabling citizens to escape the dull routines of work and exert their freedom of choice through consumption, such freedom would not be possible without the voluntary obedience to specific payment schedules.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.