Ethnographizing Regulation as Government

Panel for the American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2021 Conference

Baltimore, November 17-21

Organizers: Sarandha Jain, Gustav Kalm, Eduardo Romero Dianderas (Anthropology, Columbia University)

Discussant: Professor Kregg Hetherington (Anthropology & Sociology, Concordia University)

Quality standards, standard operating procedures, and quantitative rankings are technical regulatory tools that operationalize environmental protection, healthcare, finance, international trade, supply chain management and myriad other endeavors that subtly shape our everyday lives. Technical regulation proceeds by enacting practices of commensuration and standardization, enforcing margins for what counts as acceptable, and repressing that which escapes their own programs. 

Over the past four decades, the explosion in technical regulatory frameworks, standards and procedures at various scales and across state and nonstate institutions seems to point at an epochal transition in modes of governance. Inquiries addressing regulation as government in political science and economic sociology have mostly adopted the very institutionalist language that regulatory bodies use for describing their doings. While such analyses offer sophisticated accounts of the macroscopic effects of regulation in the making of contemporary capitalism, putting ethnographic pressure upon the concepts, narratives and presumptions of contemporary forms of technical regulation can throw light upon underexplored and undertheorized dimensions of rising forms of technical regulation as a defining mode of governance in contemporary capitalist formations. 

How do the politics of technical regulation get encoded into the objects and people that are enlisted into regulatory projects? And, dialectically, how do resistances and creative engagements transform the regulatory projects themselves? Ethnographic enquiries into the social life of regulatory projects allow us to explore what its everyday operations end up doing politically and socially. Ethnography of how regulations are executed, achieved, and disrupted questions the practical fictions enacted to meet global standards as well as the paradoxes embedded in the processes of standardization and commensuration. Paying close attention to the different arenas of regulation, from industry to bureaucracy to global investment, brings to light the pedestrian ways in which power operates.

We call for papers that ethnographically interrogate technical regulation, and the inroads regulatory governance has made in different forms of life. Papers may address – but need not be limited to – the following themes: 

  • practical generation of commensurability, compatibility, uniformity, and difference; 
  • everyday workings of technical regulation and its bureaucratic enactment; 
  • forms of sociality, domination and subjectification operational in and arising from regulation; 
  • analysis of the entanglement and disentanglement of private and public in regulation; 
  • policing of the boundaries between political and technical;
  • the relation of regulation to standardization and modernization;
  • regulation as continuation or rupture to neoliberalism;
  • uneven geographies of regulatory norm-setting;
  • the dialectics between regulation and resistance to regulatory control; 
  • the frictions and illegalities produced within and around regulatory regimes;
  • the politics of knowledge production in technical regulation.

Please send a 300-word abstract with a title, your name, and affiliation to by May 10th 2021.