"Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS." Govind Gopakumar

“Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS” was presented by Govind Gopakumar of Concordia University in Canada. Govind is Associate Chair and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society.


I first met Govind at last year’s 4S conference in Cleveland, OH, where he gave a terrific presentation on infrastructure and the Indian state. See below (CV available here):

“Knotty and Naughty: Seeing the Indian State through a Technoscientific Lens,” Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual conference, Cleveland, November 4, 2011.

I was immediately impressed by the work, which draws largely on Patrick Carroll‘s incredible and longstanding research on the technoscientific state. In fact, Govind had a book coming out that I subsequently reviewed for the Social Studies of Science, which you can check out here and was featured in a special issue about water (because Govind’s book is about water infrastructure in Indian citites and states).

Keep in mind that our 2012 theme for the panels was “On states, stateness and STS: government(ality) with a small “g”?” Govind rose to the challenge of seeing governments and governmentality with a “small g” — the small g meaning that instead of answering big questions in sociology by referring the power of macro structures that (must exist but) are always just immediately beyond firsthand observation (such as ‘the state’), we instead go to the micro-machinery of their makings (or even their underpinnings). And so, Govind did.

He took up the case of literally building state capacity, in this case, of infrastructural reform especially of the transformation of transportation. In the end, and these were short presentations that we asked emphasize theoretical points of relevance, Govind comes to a great conclusion. The state is not just out there (the state being the high-modern understanding of states as omnipresent actors forcefully shaping domestic and international matters of interest), the state comes to us during what he called ‘encounters’.


As if Erving Goffman and Theda Skocpol had been fused together into some hybrid-Franken-theorizers, Govind suggested that of course the state is not out there, but that we occasionally come into its tenacles in the minutae of our daily lives, during spectacles where the state’s proverbial ‘muscles’ appear and are subsequently flexed, but also during (and this was quite nice) periods of construction, reform, and maintenance where the ‘dirigiste’ state is obvious.

In this way, instead of seeing like the state (a reference to Scott’s book from the 2000s), we see the state. We see these points of encounter (my words) as moments or locationalities wherein the state can be penetrated or penetrates our lives as citizens. These “close encounters” of another kind might just prove to be a great way to conceptualize the issue of macro-states from a relational, irreductive vantage point.

Bravo, Govind!

4 thoughts on “"Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS." Govind Gopakumar

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  3. The idea of a state as dirigiste has a long and interesting lineage. One important strain in the history of the term is the role of the French republican state in the post-war context to manage re-industrialization of France through a selective state-led industrialization agenda through companies such as SNCF, EDF etc. The role of the state was cast as a protector and guarantor of citizen needs. Annette Fiero in the Glass State (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/glass-state) speaks about the notion of dirigisme in Mitterand’s actions of constructing some spectacular public buildings in Paris. The other usage of the term is within the political economy of development and statist readings of the social and economic development actions of ‘developmental states’ in the post-colonial context. Dirigiste developmental states became common in the postcolonial context with several newly independent countries launching ambitious programs to both socially and economically develop their populations. Within a cold-war setting and the compelling pull of free market vs communist strategies, several larger developing countries experimented with mixed economic strategies where the state as a dirigiste presence attempted to actively intervene in the social and economic lives of their populace. Statist readings adopted by several authors such as Peter Evans, Meredith Woo Cumings attempted to identify key reasons that allowed some states to be more effective than others in developing their countries. Thus terms like embedded autonomy were identified as reasons for the success of states like Korea in quickly developing their societies.


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