Call for papers: Document-ing power

Call for Papers, AAA 2015: Document-ing Power in an Age of Accountability
Organizer: Kathleen Inglis, PhD Candidate, Anthropology, Simon Fraser University

Studies in institutional ethnography, science and technology, and literacy have taught us that texts (including their material forms) play a central role in the cultural and institutional deployment of governance. In a neoliberal world increasingly preoccupied with accountability—is this policy working? Is this procedure profitable? Is this program on-course? Are these people performing well? How can this technique be more efficient?—texts have become progressively crucial to regulation. Their increasing use is also due to recent technological developments which have made information-sharing about the progress of policies and programs possible to a new degree (for instance, in the forms of computer databases and software, and the internet). This means that ethnographic research that recognizes the power of texts in organizing and naturalizing policies and people’s activities is especially currently salient.


It is not simply the physical presence of texts that (re)produces institutional discourses. Rather, it is the use of texts to coordinate people and actions, increasingly premised on their potential to represent results or factual data, which legitimizes definitions of problems and solutions. This panel is interested in the ‘textually mediated’ (Smith 2005) process of accountability and standardization. “Texts” are inclusively defined as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, qualitative and/or quantitative, forms, information systems, records, spreadsheets, charts, websites, reports, etc.

Compelling research in science and technology studies has illustrated that the functionality and generative power of standardized protocols—including of texts—depends on it being porous (Hogle 1995, Timmermans and Berg 1997): on there being space for discretion and adjustment in the use and completion of texts in practice. In addition to wanting to understand possibilities for such rearticulation of texts in the domain of accountability, we are also interested in the ways texts operate in settings where flexibility is more of a privilege than essential condition; in ‘resource-poor settings’, for instance.

This panel calls for ethnographic research that highlights the particular contexts and conditions through which ‘surveillance’ texts are followed, adjusted, or disregarded in practice as a way to examine various forms and negotiations of power in the areas of health, science, development and other fields of governance.

We seek papers that explore the following kinds of questions:

What role do texts play in the institutional concern for accountability and surveillance?
In coordinating the regulatory work of various people across time and space?
In framing and reifying categories, people, problems and risk?
In (re)producing the ways that these become acted upon?
How are texts used, experienced, performed, adjusted or deviated from in the practice of assessing policies, projects, or techniques?
What does this reveal about the different ways power is exercised and negotiated in various places?
What are the implications of the ways that texts are entangled within accountability procedures and priorities?

Please submit abstracts by 4/1/15 to [email protected]

Reference List

Hogle, L.F. (1995). Standardization across non-standard domains: The case of organ procurement. Science, Technology & Human Values 20: 482-500.7

Timmermans, S. and Berg, M. (1997). Standardization in action: Achieving local universality through medical protocols. Social Studies of Science, 27(2): 273-305

Smith, D. (2005). Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. AltaMira Press: Lanham, MD