Mundane Governance: Ontology and Accountability (OUP, 2013) by Steve Woolgar and Daniel Neyland is deservedly attracting a good deal of attention, attested to by the Conference on the topic at the Australian National University (Call for Papers_Mundane Governance. The book, in conjunction with a 2013 paper by S. Woolgar and J. Lezaun (“The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies?”, Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 321-340), provides useful reflections on some of the key issues in contemporary social theory. Specifically, these sources address what is or may be involved in references to the “turn to ontology”, with particular attention to STS (Science and Technology Studies). Their starting point is that constitutive interpretations have to be developed further. This injunction is particularly relevant to those who engage with WPR since a WPR analysis adopts a constitutive approach to “problems”, “subjects”, “objects” and “places” (see Bacchi and Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis, 2016). So, let us take a closer look at what is proposed.
The book and article mentioned above offer guidance on both what is intended by, and on the political implications of, the proposition that practices constitute (or enact) entities (including “objects” and “subjects”). This proposition is a basic contention of those who associate themselves with “the ontological turn”. The point of this claim – and it is a perspective shared with WPR – is that it directs attention to the unfinished nature of things that are deemed to be fixed and, equally importantly, to what gets left out of particular conceptualizations of the “real” world. The primary target in Mundane Governance is the “mundane” objects through which governing takes place. Examples include micro-chipped garbage bins, speed cameras and security devices in airports. A key part of the argument is that none of these “objects” sits outside the complex relations that shape them; hence, they are ontologically uncertain. It follows that entities are politics by other means.
While endorsing this perspective, I am less convinced by the critique of neo-Foucauldian governmentality theory (perhaps not surprisingly!). Woolgar and Neyland (2013) make the case that such theory offers too smooth an interpretation of the operations of power and tends to portray political subjects as “cultural dopes” (p. 27). They prefer to emphasize the “messy” aspects of social relations and to insist on space for resistance and irony. This view clearly suits the ethnomethodological research position they occupy, with the focus on the sense-making capacities of people.
The WPR position on subjectification (see Question 5 in Bacchi WPR CHART) can be described as neo-Foucauldian. In subjectification, political “subjects” are constituted, or made, provisionally through policy practices (see Chapter 5 in Bacchi and Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis, 2016). With governmentality scholars there is a particular interest in how some of those practices promote identities that “perform” behaviours deemed to be desirable, rendering “subjects” governable. However, there is no suggestion that regimes of governance determine the kinds of “subjects” we become. So, we certainly do not have “cultural dopes”!
On this issue it would be fruitful to compare how power is theorized in Mundane Governance and in WPR. Woolgar and Neyland seldom mention power and then only within its conventional political sense as “power over”, a view they find limited. An alternative theorizing of power as productive may have proved useful in thinking through the constitution of “subjects”. This position is clearly developed in Chapter Chapter 5 of Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice (Bacchi and Goodwin, Palgrave, 2016). On a related topic, while Woolgar and Neyland (2013, p. 335) deem it to be worthwhile to consider the extent to which researchers may themselves be involved in ontological constitution, they do not pursue the matter. By contrast, WPR considers self-problematization and hence reflection on one’s (perhaps inadvertent) role in constituting particular “realities” to be a paramount responsibility (see FAQ 5 and Step 7 in Bacchi WPR CHART).
Given the focus in WPR on how governing takes place (see Bacchi, Analysing Policy, 2009, p. xiii), reflection on the “mundane governance” argument is clearly important. It is particularly useful to consider this argument in the context of “nudge theory”, which, as we will see in a forthcoming entry, enthusiastically endorses “mundane” behavioural interventions. What to make of “nudge theory”? – coming soon!