How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards.

Les datajournalistes utilisent des outils, qui doivent répondre à des normes et des standards: utilisation et réutilisation assez aisée, insertion possible dans le CMS (le système informatique utilisé pour mettre en ligne les articles) utilisé par la rédaction, etc.
Cette question des standards, loin d’être réservée aux techniciens, doit interroger le rapport de chacun à ce qu’il considère être son domaine de compétence. A quel moment n’est-on plus tout à fait à l’aise avec ce qui se passe…
C’est la question à laquelle ont tenté de répondre, il y a 20 ans, Geoff Bowker et Leigh Star, à l’appui de la théorie de l’acteur-réseau.
Bowker, Geoffrey, et Susan Leigh Star. « Actor Network Theory and Classification », 18 novembre 1996.
L’article est consultable ici :


  • Star (1995b) notes that even engineers black box and think of technology `as if by magic‘ in their everyday practical dealings with machines.
  • What work do classifications and standards do? We want to look at what goes into making things work like magic: making them fit together so that we can buy a radio built by someone we have never met in Japan, plug it into a wall in Champaign and hear the world news from the BBC.
  • The hype of our times is that we don’t need to think about the work any more (…) However, we endeavor to demonstrate that there is rather more at stake – epistemologically, politically and ethically – in the day to day work of building classification system and producing and maintaining standards than in these philosophical high-fliers. The pyrotechnics may hold our fascinated gaze; they cannot provide any path to answering our questions.
  • We will move towards an understanding of the stuff which makes up the networks of actor network theory. Latour, Callon and others within the actor-network approach have developed an array of concepts in order to describe the development and operation of technoscience. Their valuable concepts include: regimes of delegation; the centrality of mediation; and the position that nature and society are not causes but consequences of human scientific and technical work.
  • We draw attention here to the places where the work gets done of assuring that delegation and mediation will work: to the places where human and non-human are constructed to be operationally and analytically equivalent. And following both Dewey and Latour, we also question the indifference — of nature, and of machines. So doing, we explore the political and ethical dimensions of actor-network theory, restoring the interlinked and webbed relationships between people, things, and infrastructure.

Two definitions

  • We will take a `classification’ to be a spatial, temporal or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world. A `classification system’ is a set of boxes, metaphorical or not, into which things can be put in order to then do some kind of work – bureaucratic or knowledge production. We will not demand of a classification system that it has properties such as:
    • the operation of consistent classificatory principles (for example being solely a genetic classification (Tort, 1989) classifying things by their origin);
    • mutual exclusivity of categories;
    • completeness (total coverage of the world being described).

No working classification system that we have looked at meets these `simple’ requirements and we doubt that any ever could (Desrosières and Thevenot, 1988).

  • We will take a `standard’ to be any set of agreed-upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects. There are a number of histories of standards which point to the development and maintenance of standards as being a key to industrial production. Thus, as David Turnbull points out, it was possible to build a cathedral like Chartres without standard representations (blueprints) and standard building materials (regular sizes for stones, tools etc.) (1993). However it is not possible to build a modern housing development without them: too much needs to come together – electricity, gas, sewer, timber sizes, screws, nails and so on.
  • Key dimensions of standards are:
    • They are often deployed in the context of making things work together – computer protocols for Internet communication involve a cascade of standards (cf. Abbate and Kahin, 1995) which need to work together well in order for the average user to gain seamless access to the web of information.
    • They are often enforced by legal bodies.
    • There is no natural law that the best (technically superior) standard shall win – the QWERTY keyboard, Lotus 123, DOS and VHS are often cited in this context. Standards have significant inertia, and can be very difficult to change.
  • Classifications and standards are two sides of the same coin. Every successful standard imposes a classification system.

Understanding classifying and standardizing

  • Inverting our commonsense notion of infrastructure means taking what have often been seen as behind the scenes, boring, background processes to the real work of politics and knowledge production and bringing their contribution to the foreground. The first two, ubiquity and material texture, speak to the space of actor-networks; the second two, the indeterminate past and the practical politics, speak to their time.
  • The first major theme is seeing the ubiquity of classifying and standardizing. Classification schemes and standards literally saturate the worlds we live in. This saturation is furthermore intertwined, or webbed together.
  • The second major theme is to see classifications and standards as materially textured. Under the sway of cognitivism, it is easy to see classifications as properties of mind and standards as ideal numbers or settings. But both have material force in the world, and are built into and embedded in every feature of the built environment.
    • How do we « see » this densely saturated classified world? We are commonly used to casually black-boxing this behind-the-scenes machinery, even to the point, as we noted above, of ascribing a casual magic to it.
    • So, for example, when someone says something simple like « things are running smoothly, » the smoothness is descriptive of an array of articulations of people, things, work and standards.
    • These are not merely poetic expressions, although at some level they are that, too. As Schon pointed out in his seminal book, Displacement of Concepts, a metaphor is an import, meant to illuminate aspects of a current situation via juxtaposition (1963). It is also a rich and often unmined source of knowledge about people’s experience of the densely classified world.
  • The third major theme is to see the past as indeterminate. (…) In looking to classification schemes as ways of ordering the past, it is easy to forget those who are overlooked in this way. Thus, the indeterminacy of the past implies recovering multi-vocality.
  • The fourth major theme is uncovering the practical politics of classifying and standardizing. (…) The negotiated nature of standards and classifications follows from indeterminacy and multiplicity that whatever appears as universal or, indeed, standard, is the result of negotiations or conflict.

Infrastructure and actor network theory

  •  Our position is that through due attention to these infrastructures, we can achieve an understanding of how it is that actor network theory comes to be a useful way of describing the nature scientific knowledge on the one hand and the (increasing) convergence of human and non-human on the other.
  • In order to clarify our position here, let us take an analogy. In the early nineteenth century in England there were a huge number of capital crimes – starting from stealing a loaf of bread and going up… . However, precisely because the penalties were so draconian, few juries would ever impose the maximum sentence; and indeed there was actually a drastic reduction in the number of executions even as the penal code was progressively strengthened. There are two ways of writing this history – one can either concentrate on the creation of the law; or one can concentrate on the way things worked out in practice.
  • The point for us is that both of these are valid kinds of account. Early actor-network theory concentrated on the ways in which it comes to seem that science gives an objective account of natural order: trials of strength, enrolling of allies, cascades of inscriptions and the operation of immutable mobiles. It drew attention to the importance of the development of standards (…); but did not look at these in detail. (…) We got to see the `Janus face’ of science. In so doing we `followed the actors’.
  • However, by the very nature of the method, we also shared their blindness. The actors being followed did not see what was excluded: they constructed a world in which that exclusion could occur.
  • We ascribe to Latour’s (1987) definition of reality as `that which resists’ (again, a concept with strong American pragmatist resonances, se e.g. Dewey, 1916). The actor-network will be changed by the resistances that it encounters. We have suggested that the work of dealing with resistance is twofold:
    • Changing the world such that the actor-network’s description of reality becomes true.
    • Distributing the resistance in such a way that it becomes marginalized and can be overlooked.(…) The Iowa Intervention Team are producing a classification of all nursing work – a nursing interventions classification (NIC). However, there is also a danger in representing. It is more difficult to hive off aspects of nursing duties and give them to lower paid adjuncts, if nursing work is relatively opaque.


  • Actor-network theory tells us quite clearly that a theory should not be judged according to an absolute set of indicators, but according to the work that it does in the world. (…) We have argued that it can do a good job in drawing our attention to the real political work that is being done in the development of technoscience; and can provide us with some useful concepts for analyzing that work.  (…) The central point is that technoscientific societies are powerful precisely because they are so good at delegating and distributing; and that actor-network theory is well position to track and describe the work of delegation and distribution.Does this mean that actor-network theory is the theory for our times? Indeed not. However, it is a theory which takes the work of classification and standardization seriously; and so provides one way of understanding the development of a master narrative (Western science) which is not a master narrative (because it frequently breaks down locally as postmodernists would remind us) and yet which act likes one (in that it enacts the very exclusions and silencing that allow it to appear to be true). The magic of modern technoscience is a lot of hard work.

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