Ep. #22 Just the way things are: Steve Woolgar talks mundane governance, & the rules that run our lives

iTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com)“Although this stuff is very ordinary, very day-to-day, very unremarkable… it’s actually quite dangerous, too.”

Steve Woolgar, emeritus professor at the Saïd School of Business at Oxford University and giant in the field of Subscribe on Androidscience and technology studies (STS), spoke to our own Jodie-Lee Trembath about the little niggling rules that we run up against everyday. Together they unpack what it means to be an “everyday person,” how we all operate in a thicket of regulations, the storytelling that elevates rule-breakers and vilifies enforcers, and how to turn your speeding tickets into a valuable part of your research project.

Find more of Steve’s work on his Academia page: http://oxford.academia.edu/SteveWoolgar


“There’s been a long history of looking at the products of science or the products of technology and trying to develop an analytically skeptical perspective on those things. So you say, with a scientific claim, which appears very objective, you approach that by saying, well, actually, that’s the upshot of a whole series of complex social and political processes, it’s contingent, it could have turned out differently, and so on.”

“Ideas like ‘proof’ and ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ and so on, you can re-specify those as the practical work that scientists do. The same with ideas like ‘governance’ and ‘control’ and ‘regulation;’ you can re-specify that as the ordinary stuff that people get on with in their lives.”

The “mundane” is “a state which cannot be reduced any further, because it’s just ‘the way things are.'”

“It’s a very mundane act to try and check somebody’s bag, or to put a parking ticket on them. But the system at work which makes all that possible is very vulnerable to people documenting it and producing information about it, and so on. So, I mean, it was a big insight for me, because I realized that, again, although this stuff is very ordinary, very day-to-day, very unremarkable, and son on, it’s actually quite dangerous, too.”

“For sure, it seems like one has delegated to the extent that the system now has more power than you do.”

“We [academics] have a very poor ability to figure out what it is that people outside the academy actually want from us, and I always find that a really fascinating gap.”


Pollner, M. (1974). Mundane reasoning. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 4(1), 35-54. doi:10.1177/004839317400400103

Woolgar, S., Neyland, D., & UPSO (University Press Scholarship Online). (2013). Mundane governance: Ontology and accountability (First ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Jodie also mentions The Wholesome Show podcast: here’s a link: https://soundcloud.com/wholesomeshow/magnificent-mundane-governance-steve-woolgar-simone-dennis-kate-henne

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Ian Pollock

Image: parking signs in Cambridge MA. Source: http://bestride.com/news/trouble-parking-des-moines-has-1-6-million-parking-spaces


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  1. Pingback: Post-Bureaucratic Stress: Reflections on getting a police check in Vietnam | The Familiar Strange

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