Steve Woolgar and Mundane Governance


What is it about the mundanity of objects that so intrigues the modern academic? Steve Woolgar is but the latest in a recent line of people interested in the political agency of ‘everyday things’. In support of his upcoming book with Daniel Neyland entitled ‘Mundane Governance: How Ordinary Objects Come To Matter’ (Oxford University Press, 2013) Woolgar gave a brief lecture on some of the relevant subject matter and his theoretical entry points in the book in an IKON Distinguished Speaker Seminar at Warwick Business School. Most will of course know him as the co-author of the seminal STS title Laboratory Life (1979) alongside Bruno Latour. His latest project has followed a similar ethnographic path, or as he would prefer in reference to this current strand of work; an ‘ontographic’ approach. It should become apparent as I continue here as to what Woolgar means when he says ‘ontographic’ (‘existence’ – ‘writing’). I want to summarize some of Woolgar’s main points here and will roughly follow the structure used in the lecture as a way of covering the breadth of topics in the book.


Woolgar opened with a couple of slides charting the ‘discontents’ of modern day governance practices and the apparent bureaucratization of life. His main example came in the form of the weekly recycling regimes of local councils. A couple of images flashed up on the screen of the types of packages, objects and items deemed recyclable and non-recyclable by Oxfordshire County Council. As he understood it, residents have been forced to become ‘experts’ in this procedure, parsing the vague commands issued by councils nationwide. Previously, he said, people could simply throw away anything they desired in a single designated sack at the end of their road. Now, he argued, residents are forced to decide, sort and put out a number of different coloured sacks and bins on different days and weeks depending on the type of waste to be collected. A tabloid news headline showing a women fined for using the wrong coloured refuse sack was shown to be indicative of this ‘accountancy culture’. A sign of a country ‘gone to the dogs’ as it might be colloquially expressed. In Manchester for example we have four waste receptacles; green bins are for ‘organic’ waste (garden, food etc.), brown for glass and tins, blue for paper and cardboard and black for all remaining non-recyclable items. For many, said Woolgar, this represents a kind of slow creep of the NannyState and all its prying control mechanics onto law-abiding citizens. Again, as this will become clear, this is far from an appropriate framework for understanding the nature of these everyday, ontological, political battles.

Perspectives on Governance

Next Woolgar moved onto the concept of governance. He noted the inadequacy of common neo-Foucauldian definitions of ‘self-governance’ as an internalizing, individualizing process. Traditional understandings of governance speak of human, social and organizational relations rather than material and object-focused ones. This, said Woolgar, was particularly short-sighted, partly because there are few empirical studies that show unilaterally that individuals do fully internalize governance protocols. He introduced the example of compliance (or non-compliance perhaps) of air travellers with recent hand luggage restrictions in the post-9/11 world. Few understand why these restrictions exist, yet most if not all comply with them. This might at first sound like an internalization process in action. But for those who go through the banality of complying with such procedures do so with constant reference to textual material at all stages of the flight preparation and passenger control measures. If individuals had been so successful in self-governing in such instances why the constant textual and visual aids plastered over the walls of flight check-in areas the world over reminding passengers of the necessary restrictions? Why also, as Woolgar mentions, the disconnect between these ‘rules’ and the common interaction and negotiation (or lack of) with these rules between security staff and passengers? What happens, as Woolgar explains, if travellers take a 500ml bottle in their hand luggage with a legal proportion of liquid contained within? Common sense would suggest that the security risk is eradicated in this instance if the liquid itself is the risk rather than the bottle per se. Trying this out as a risky ethnography as Woolgar says he did leads to some rather fraught exchanges. Compliance is the only option. No compliance? No flight. Further, these kind of exchanges lead to chagrin from fellow passengers. Security checkpoints are not the place for glib questioning of the rules.

This ‘weak’ neo-Foucauldian position of self-governance, Woolgar says, does not explain the potential for resistance, description and sheer ambivalence to such accountancy protocols. Frankly, it seems, people do not care. Not enough to internalize what they see as the banalities, but also, epistemologically, the necessities of modern air travel. The neglect of material objects in these theorizations further leaves such approaches isolated, or perhaps, protected from, the reality of everyday life. So as Woolgar proposes we would do worse than to consider an ‘ontological politics’. An understanding and consideration of the various ways in which everyday objects (recycling bins, lotion bottles etc.) acquire a political valence or agency. A discussion of how apparently mundane and ordinary items can assume a rather integral position in a much wider entanglement of individuals, protocols, technologies and organizations. The classic STS research principle, as Woolgar explains, of “it could be otherwise” is key here. Considering how things come into existence is important if we are to avoid assuming the enduring obstinacy of things. The term ‘mundane’ as Woolgar pointed out not only means ‘everyday’ but also, following the Latin mundus, ‘of the world’. So, to put it another way, the aim here is to interrogate the ‘whatness’ of objects; how they acquire this ‘whatness’ in the world and what could be different. This is what Woolgar means by ‘ontography’; a study or writing of the existence of things.

Mundane Governance in Action: McOntology

Following these theoretical points Woolgar went on to discuss what he, perhaps gratingly called a ‘McOntology’. The neologism stems from two legal cases involving McDonalds in which the nature of accountability was tested. In the first instance the claimant fought a battle over the extent to which the fast food company could be responsible for the likely obesity of its customers should they indulge in too many Big Macs and Happy Meals. Without going over the details, the case resulted in McDonalds not being held responsible for such cases due to a lack of causation (These McDonalds burgers caused this particular claimant’s obesity), although a certain level of responsibility was put on them in regards to package labeling (calorie content, salt levels etc.). In the second instance, again involving the nature of individual accountability, a claimant sued McDonalds for the burns she received from a particularly hot coffee purchased from an outlet. This time however, McDonalds did have to assume a level of responsibility in providing customers with a satisfactory product; a not-too-hot-coffee rather than a scoldingly-and-culpably-hot-coffee. In each case the level of accountability shifted back and forth from prosecution to defence; from individual to company and back again. The objects in both cases (burger, coffee) were ‘ontologically re-specified’ dependent on legal circumstance; from culpable burger to liable coffee and back.

Mundane Governance in Action: Speed Cameras

Another fine case study by Woolgar involved the re-education of speeding drivers and the performance of driver awareness courses. Faced with the prospect of heavy fines and licence points, drivers are offered the chance to attend a cheaper, educational workshop in order to re-engage them with the rules of the road. As any good ethnographer would, Woolgar actually participated in one of these sessions too. He suggested it was a stroke of luck having been caught speeding during the early days of the project and so he took it upon himself to write up the exchanges taking place in such sessions. He picked up on the reiteration by the course leaders that they definitely were not police officers, despite dressing and acting suspiciously like them. He also noted the rather nervous yet apathetic exchanges between offenders and course leaders on a range of subjects including why they were speeding in the first case. Being late for an engagement or simple carelessness were the too most popular answers. This question (“why were you speeding?”) was then radically re-framed by a following one: “what would you say to the family of a child killed by your speeding car?” or words to that effect. And of course, participants naturally dropped the more casual approach for a moment of sombre reflection. Woolgar noted the power of this rhetorical approach, and its strength in making participants think more carefully about their reasons for speeding and thus their responsibility.

Another conversation also arose in Woolgar’s driver awareness course on this matter. One participant claimed that some cars were just meant to be driven fast and ergo, that s/he wasn’t the only agent involved in the speeding incident. Of course, this sort of statement wasn’t going to particularly please the course leader because, after all, the driver awareness sessions are all about drivers taking responsibility for their actions. But it does open up another line of questioning that I thought Woolgar touched on but didn’t really explore. That is of technological agency.

What if a driver was to say that his satellite navigation system told him/her the road s/he was driving down had a 30mph speed limit when in fact it had a 20mph limit? Or perhaps more contentiously and annoyingly for the driver, that it failed to spot a fixed speed camera by the roadside? The reason drivers trust such devices is because they are supposed to be truthful representations of the driving world (whether this is actually the case or not is another issue). Does it not make sense for people to trust the information on routes, speed limits and cameras within the device’s software? Presumably device manufacturers absolve themselves of responsibility from a liability point of view, but practically, I don’t think this stands up. If drivers are told to take more individual responsibility when driving a vehicle what technology does this mean they can trust? Is it enough to say that the foot pedal sends too much power to the wheels when minimal force is applied? Is it enough to trust an electronic parking meter that alerts you to nearby objects should you happen to crash into a wall or another vehicle? The driver awareness courses, arguably, are elevating the accountability of the driver above all other agents. Yes, whilst I agree that maintenance of the mechanical parts of a car is the responsibility of the driver/owner of the vehicle, and if you drive into the sea/to Scotland/into a ditch whilst blindly following your sat-nav it’s probably your own fault, I don’t think this gets us particularly far theoretically.

The ontologies of the driving experience are predicated on the capacity of the technological agents in the driving network – new driving worlds are imagined through the satellite navigation system, the parking sensor and the power-steering, for example. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that most people would but their faith in the information of speed camera, limits etc. flashed up on a GPS device in their car – all things being equal (software, updates, proficiency, knowledge etc.). If we are to consider the ontological politics of driving then we need to pay more attention to how such technological objects and devices affect the accountability of individuals.


Lastly Woolgar touched on another driving example. This time it was centred on a spoof online driving database for speeding individuals. As the email goes, drivers are invited to sign up to an online repository of offences that record all speeding misdemeanors along with a photograph taken of your vehicle from the offending camera. When new users discover an offence they are invited to click through to what they think is a photograph of the offence, but instead is a stock image and a ‘Gotcha!’ style catchphrase that says they’ve been fooled. The interesting dynamic in this process is that drivers already presume an organization, body or agency has more information than they do on their own vehicle. Although ostensibly they drive it everyday, use it as a mobile home, ferry friends and family around in it, the object itself is nonetheless recorded, visualized and accounted for by the relevant authorities. The spoof works because people begrudgingly accept that although their automobile lives are private in many senses, there is in fact a dimension of it that is distinctly public, or at least state-authorized. Again this points us back towards people’s fears over the so-called Nanny State, ‘Big Brother’ and government control. When it appears to be a spoof, fooled drivers are prompted to comment underneath, with an array of responses from the relieved to the angry. This kind of comic resistance to the apparent bureaucratic mechanics of modern Britain allows people to find solace in their own individual agency and accountability, but nonetheless alerts people to the understanding that technology and the lives of objects can be a ‘politics by other means’ as the STS slogan goes.

Mundane Governance: How Ordinary Objects Come To Matter (Oxford University Press, 2013) is out in November according to Amazon.

The ESRC funded research report which led to the book can be read here.


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