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.

4S in Cleveland, a first couple of notes

Since I am the only one of our little outfit to be still left in Cleveland I might just as well start off reporting from the 4S meeting with a couple of quick Sunday morning impressions.
As usual, the meeting as a whole was well attended, and the organizers did a good job of providing a well-balanced mix of themes and issues.
Before I get to the sessions organized by Nicholas and Jan, I should say that the “author meets critics” panel with Marion Fourcade and with Daniel Breslau, Mary Morgan, and Ted Porter discussing Fourcade’s book about “Economists and Societies” somewhat stood out for me. For one thing, the discussants provided excellent commentary, but more generally speaking, I just love this format. Rather than having four+ different papers cramped into 90 minutes, you actually get a couple of very smart people discussing the same piece of work. Maybe the organizers could think about making this format a still bigger part of the overall schedule.
Then, of course, the two sessions about “Seeing states and state theory in STS”, organized and hosted by Nicholas and Jan, were surely the place where things were happening with respect to the interests represented in this blog. The powers that be provided one of the finer rooms and a good crowd of people was present, despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon. If I should pick a presentation that impressed me the most, it was the presentation by MIchael Rodriguez-Mu??iz. He is studying the work of census representatives in getting the cooperation of people whose data have to be collected. What I liked so much about this study is that it nicely illustrates the work that has to be done at the periphery to make a technology that is historically highly crucial for establishing state power work in actual practice. It turns out that sometimes, rather than the state being summoned as an authority to implement a certain obligation, the actual exercise of state power benefits from being dissimulated. Fascinating stuff right there.
Thanks to Nicholas and Jan for making it all happen! I sense an STS field in the making here and maybe a continuous series of sessions for future 4S meetings. And one more reason to look forward to next year’s 4S in Copenhagen.

The Wisdom of Conferences?

During a rousing visit to Penn State, Fabio Rojas and I were discussing the organization of conferences and he suggested that I take some of my insights and hunches and put them to the test. In particular, we were discussing the idea that a group of attendees might better organize a conference as compared to one organizer or a set of expert organizers; of course, I am not talking about the logistical issues of organizing the venue, dates, etc., but the papers themselves.

In effect, we wondered if you could harness the wisdom of crowds (a la Surowiecki) for the purposes of conference improvement — whether or not you can crowd-source conference sessions/panels?

In an imperfect way, sessions/panels are already crowd-sourced, for example, at 4S, where members of the professional community do the work of organizing sessions for other members of the community. Still, this is not really what Surowiecki was describing, and I am imagining a much more radical Surowieckiian model of paper selection.

Surowiecki’s three major criteria are that the wisdom of crowds can be unlocked, but only if:

(1) a definitive answer exists or will exist such as the eventual winner of the next World Cup or, in one of the famous examples from the book, the unknown position of a sunken subermine (i.e., the Scorpion),

(2) matters of coordination are necessary, for example, where individuals create suitable trading arrangements or determine how to drive safely in heavy traffic, or

(3) matters of cooperation are necessary wherein otherwise self-interested, potentially distrusting individuals must find a way to establish, for example, what suitable compensation might be even with competing interests at play.

Likewise, circumstances must be “right” meaning that the wisdom of crowds operates most effectively under conditions of independence among decision-makers who are also, in some meaningful way, diverse and decentralized (so that they can connect and share information, but not too much as to homogenize decision-making).

Is there a wisdom of conference attendees worth harnessing?

Better conferences follow-up: How to schedule conferences

Unfortunatly there is not much to report form the world of STS right now: all email-lists are silent, 4S proposals are send out, EASST is missing this year. But time is a scarce resource these days, so I don´t mind. 

Since I run from workshop to workshop, from conference to conference these weeks, I wonder how conferences get scheduled. Nicholas comment to the Stengers workshop (“Why not in the summe?”) made me aware that also in here in old Europe most academic gatherings are all taking place exactly when our schedules are already full. Take these weeks: it is the beginning of the summer term here in Germany, and I travel to two different places to meet people each week.

I wonder why? How does the practice of scheduling academic gatherings work? Are there mechanisms, strategies and tactics I don´t get?


Why never to write a paper for a conference theme

Jan-Hendrik and I recently wrote a paper to align with a conference theme and a proposed papers session — what a mistake. Thankfully, we also submitted a sort of “back-up” paper should the first fall on hard times.

The conference is always rather large so perhaps we should have known better than to fall prey to the theme and/or take the theme seriously. Still, when we got the call for papers and read the theme, it is hard to ignore (at least in a way) because it has an feeling of legitimacy, it feels (when you’re actually taking it seriously) as if it just might be meaningful, and if it is, then you just might land a better session spot if you bend your work to the theme.

Again, we were wrong, falling prey to the (awkward) siren song of conference calls.

So, themes: this is a fairly straight forward empirical question — under what circumstances do themes shape conferences?

The answer to a question like this we probabaly all have a “good hunch” but I’d be curious to see data.

What is the point of large conferences having organizing "themes"?

As part of my part-time life-mission to figure out how to make better conferences, I pose this question:

*What is the point of large conferences having organizing “themes”?*

As a case to consider, this year’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association has the organizing theme “Social Conflict: Multiple Dimensions and Arenas” (meeting, without a shred of irony, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV). The theme goes like this:

Social conflict is constantly in the headlines, in the breaking news, but also under the surface of social life. Wherever there is change, struggle, or domination, there is conflict. Social conflict involves many dimensions, including not only economic and power struggles, movement dynamics, and violence, but also forms of inequality and domination latent with conflict, and practices which resolve conflict or which divert attention from it. Sociology is the only social science that takes conflict as a major topic, and the only field that throughout its existence has been crucially centered on class, race, and ethnicity. New fields focused on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are also concerned with conflict, but the intellectual driving force in most of these fields is a sociological perspective. There is a reason why sociologists were heavily involved in the rebellious movements of the 1960s and 70s—sociologists are experts at understanding both power and group mobilization. This has continued to be sociology’s special strength.

Apart from the theme being the clear “pet” of whomever happens to organize such a massive conference, and apart from shaping the plenary talk(s), these themes, in my experience,

(1) fail to shape the broader conference, and

(2) tend to be fairly dated (i.e., so mainstream that they fail to generate much innovation).

So, what is the point of large conferences having organizing “themes”?

Making better conferences

After proposing my first session at a conference with Jan-Hendrik, and, in particular, after his recent post about a forthcoming conference at LSE and Hendrik’s reflections about this year’s ISA annual meeting, I started to wonder if anyone writes on how to make conferences better?

I wrote in my comment to Jan:

This reminds me of something I have always wanted to know more people’s opinions on: WHAT MAKE A GOOD CONFERENCE GOOD AND WHAT MAKES A BAD CONFERENCE BAD??? Seriously, I have been to so many conferences and sometimes they are outstanding (networking opportunities, good papers, etc.) and sometimes they are terrible (poor attendance, bad food, etc.).

Perhaps you have unlocked one of the first possible answers. You write above: “how can a forum that adopts the “social studies of —” title gather people to talk about finance, crisis and IT without any recognizable input from another “social studies of —” field, namely the “social studies of finance”? “

Perhaps this is one of the characteristics: too many off-topic scholars as a ratio to on-topic scholars (in your case, all social studies of X with out any sociology of financial market folks).


I wonder: What makes a good conference good? What makes a bad conference bad?

*BUT MORE THAN THAT, can you control these characteristics as to improve a conference or conferences as a whole?*

You have to imagine the major funding agencies such as the US-based National Science Foundation or the DEU-based DFG would be interested in knowing whether or not conferences can be improved, and if so, how. Conferences make-up a massive proportion of all scientific communication. Therefore, improving them systematically over time would be an obviously good thing. Perhaps there is something about the size of the conference that matter or perhaps the setting…

So, if I think of conferences over the last year or two that have been really good, here is what I have:

Best conference of the last year, hands down, was EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology) set in Trento, IT, summer 2010. Why?

It was set in Trento amid the Dolomite Mountains. I was “forced” to visit Verona and the greater Veneto (in particular,  Valpolicella wine country, home to Bertani, perhaps my favorite winery) after the conference and Milano before the conference. Still, what made this conference so wonderful was the carefully put together sessions — the dual session on health technologies that Jan and I participated in was just great and also where I first met Wouter Mensink and learned about his exciting work on eHealth. The building too was fantastic — the views out the window were great, but not distracting because the infrastructure was fantastic; great projectors, large clear images, good spaces, good seating, etc. Likewise, the sessions on IT put together by my the bright and friendly Gian Marco Compagnola, which featured papers from among others Neil Pollock and Antonios Kaniakakis. Dare I also say that the food, which can be doubly attributed, both to EASST administrators and the the great University of Trento, was unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference — and better than any food I will likely see at any future conference.

What can be learend from this?

A. Good setting — something about how embedding the conference in a particular location or setting influences attendance and expectations.

B. Careful planners — getting good people to organize sessions is no easy task, although there are few incentives to do this really well, unless I am missing something.

C. Excellent food — this is, frankly, something more conferences should think about. I remember saying to Jan, jokingly, the food was so good it actually helped us to think more clearly (although that might have been counteracted by the wine available with lunch).  Also, there was day-long excellent Italian coffee available.


So, what else makes a good conference good? And, dare we discuss: what makes a bad one bad?


ISA conference notes repost (sigh)

I am now reposting this after an unknown error occurred earlier today with the posterous template. So here we go again…

I am taking a day off at International Studies Association Annual Convention in Montr??al today, looking forward to visit the Museum of Fine Arts and see the Terracotta Army (the by now global presence of which might inspire a separate post in the future). To start the day, here are a couple of quick notes and early impressions from the conference.

To begin with, this conference is huge. The total sum of events and panels is 1,094, cramped into four days. This means that panels start as early as 8.15 in the morning, and up to 99 panels are on at the same time – at least that’s the high-score I was getting when browsing throught the conference program which, needless to say, looks somewhat like a phone book. I also got the impression that the organizers assigned panels which they thought would be crowd-pullers preferably to the early slots. Here’s a sample of panel themes which also gives you an idea about the variety of topics discussed here:

– Confronting the Transnational State

– Why Did the U.S. Invade Iraq?

– Intelligence Analysis and Decision

– Religion, Values, and Common Faith as Facilitators of Governance Mechanisms

– Making Offers You Can’t Refuse: The Art of Coercion in International Politics

– Natural Disasters and Political Unrest

– The Chinese Puzzle: Democracy vs. Autocracy

– Using Movies as Teaching Tools

– The Body in International Relation

– Choosing Terrorist Strategies: Outbidders, Specialists, and Two-Level Games

– Human Rights: The Hard Feminist Questions

– Piracy Studies: The Legalization of Contemporary Responses to Piracy

By the way, the general theme of the conference is “Global Governance: Political Authority in Transition”. The variety of panels also reflects the variety of sections within the ISA which range, as I found out just now, from Diplomatic Studies, International Ethics, Peace Studies and Political Demography to Feminist Theory and Gender Studies, Intelligence Studies, and to the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, & Allies Caucus”.

According to my little theory about the placement of panels within the schedule, the organizers must have considered the panel I was on mildly interesting, since it took place at 10.30 in the morning. As posted here earlier, the panel was on “Numbers in Global Governance”, and I think it went quite well. The papers from which I personally benefitted the most were written by the two organizers, Hans Krause Hansen and Tony Porter who reflected generally on the role of numbers in global governance, and by Lars Th??ger Christensen and George Cheney on the notion of transparency, and on the problems and paradoxes it entails. Overall, the panel was, I think, one of the few not dominated by political scientists who as a profession appear to be very much in control of the ISA. The discussion was generally sympathetic to the understanding shared by the speakers that tracking the circulation and use of numbers, ranking, ratings, performance measurements, and so on, is a critical element in understanding contemporary forms of global governance.

Our panel chair was Mikkel Flyverbom from Copenhangen Business School. I saw him present his paper on internet politics yesterday on another panel, and he might be an interesting colleague to watch with respect to the general interest of this blog. Actually, I asked him whether he would like to contribute to this blog occasionally. Mikkel is applying ANT to analyzing emergent forms of authority in governing the internet, and though he had a hard time to present his case effectively as one paper among six during the 105 minutes of the panel, and to an audience largely innocent of both ANT ire and ANT interest, he surely did leave a mark. He has a book coming out about his understanding of entangled authority that will definitely be worth a look.

Which brings me to pick up on our earlier discussion about good and bad conferences. It is hard but manageable to get four papers discussed in 105 minutes if the discussant is really well prepared and effective in addressing the papers, as Brad Epperly surely was in the case of our panel. Increasing the number of papers further however, as was the case in the “Getting to Grips with Internet Governance” panel that hosted six papers, must leave the audience somewhat disoriented even if the discussant somehow manages to address all of the papers in, say, 15 minutes. If any author on the panel additionally chooses to present an approach that is somewhat incongruous to the other papers (as Mikkel did with arguing along ANT lines rather than presenting another customized IR approach), this is very likely to be somewhat drowned out. So, I was asking myself, if you already have 1,094 panels to deal with in organizing a big convention, would it really hurt to have a couple of double panels to accommodate an effective discussion of all the papers which panel organizers have deemed interesting enough to have included???

There is also something to be said about hosting an event like this in a big corporate style hotel (or, as in this case, in three of them), with panels taking place in “hospitality suites” and conference rooms named after local heroes, politicians, business men, artists, or, most conspicuously, militarists, in an environment littered with all sort of “luxury” fabrics from deep carpets to table cloths which look more like curtains (not to mention that in the corridors of one of the hotels, you suffer from continuous exposure to “easy listening” elevator style music), and with, most annoyingly, having to wear your name badge all the time (since otherwise you are very likely to be asked by one of the very friendly hotel clerks to present them). The premises of McGill and a couple of other local universities are within a short walk of the conference sites, so why lock us away like this? Like he who shall not be named at this point, I would prefer to have outsiders in, and insiders out, at least to some extent. The latter I now happily implement immediately.