Jan-Hendrik Passoth and I’s (Nicholas Rowland’s) comments at 4S

Jan and I organized Sessions 201 and 222 back-to-back on the topic of states, state measurement, and state theory. These talks and our comments were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Social Studies of Science in Cleveland, OH, November 05, 2011.

Session 201: Counting and Measuring

The relationship between science, technology, and governance is a relationship that shapes and is shaped by contemporary states. While this relationship has been influential in STS research on how contemporary modes of governance influence scientific practice and technological innovations, the converse question of the influence of both on governance is relatively underrepresented.

These sessions, therefore, take-up the task and explore this relationship and its depiction in history and social and political theory. The first session (session 201) is presenting a series of five case studies on the role of conflict, measurement and performativity for the enactment of stateness, drawing from rich empirical projects. The second session (session 222) is focusing on conceptualization and theoretical approaches, dealing mostly with the mechanisms and techniques of creating, maintaining and shifting the multiple ontologies of stateness.

Anat Leibler will show us the traditional science-state relationship, but from a new angle wherein the science of population measurement is embedded in states of conflict, in this case, being Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Hector Vera also emphasizes the central role of measurement, in his case; however, it is about measurement standards adopted by Mexico and the US, in a historical comparative case study approach.

Michael Rodriguez brings together the dual-tasks of counting and countings of populations, but on the level of micro-practices in his work on the role of “partnerships” with Latino communities that are often “undercounted” by traditional census techniques.

Keith Guzik returns our attention back to Mexico where rather than counting techniques or practices, he emphases the role of techno-infrastructure in his historical account of national security programs.

Daniel Barber also provides a historical view, but one more fine grained, drilling-deeply into the 1940s US Department of the Interior where two models of future energy use were evaluated quite openly; however, as we can all see, one of these methods has obviously become taken-for-granted.


Session 222: Theory and Ontology

Patrick Carroll shows us, through a detailed but theoretically oriented case study, how diverse, seemingly unrelated issues of water and water infrastructure became a – read, grouped or combined – political object of state governing.

Hendrik Vollmer describes another transformation which invokes the state; this time, however, through micro-measurement for sake of global comparison and regulation.

Erich Schienke grounds his paper in the fertile fodder of Ecocities in China, which do not yet fully exist (other than in discourse), showing how aggregated environmental indicators will be used, we think/he thinks, to re-position the Chinese state as an ecological civilization in the global theater of political action.

Kelly Moore’s (not in attendance) work challenges us to say “how does the state get into our bodies?” the answer to which turns out be a neoliberal story of government intervention into bodies through what she calls the promulgation of “pleasured self-discipline.”


Concluding Comments (once presentations end, and before questions):

All of the papers tackle the crucial, which we will crudely frame here as the classical concern over the relation between micro processes and macro entities. For example, the micro processes seen in Michael Rodriguez’s work on the day-to-day, on-the-ground counting of the undercounted, or Patrick Carroll’s work on water infrastructure where many seemingly distinct matters relating to people, land, and water where lashed-together and inverted to become one concern over water for some manner of macro entity usually referred to as the state. The relation between micro processes and macro entities is a debate worth studying.

And these presenters do much justice to this enduring debate by taking much more nuanced interpretations into their analyses, especially of counting practices, and their theoretical approaches to understanding where the state is and is not, and its multiple purported effects.

We observe empirically, and we all have seen this here today, that there are important similarities too between what we “see” on-the-ground and the conceptual tools we have inherited from our respective disciplines in sociology, history, geography, political science, and the like. The perhaps surprising link we speak of is between (a) the historically-embedded, highly-contingent, ongoing-accomplishments that we observe in our empirical investigations and (b) the conceptual apparatus that we invoke, as scholars.

To our minds, and this is our closing remark, which is perhaps c
ontroversial: it is of the utmost importance for scholars to remember that the concepts we make and their appearance and use in our field-sites are linked together. These are not merely opportunities to verify or reject our theories. Instead, they are valuable analytical opportunities to critically and empirically engage them.

Whether or not “the state” exists is a waste of our time; rather, it is precisely these ephemeral moments when, by whom, and how the state is brought into existence or invoked as a partner that we should direct our analytical and empirical attention to …  as we consider this a fertile site for STS’s group contribution to state theory.