Lecture by Annalisa Pelizza (Paris IAS fellow), within the framework of the ISCC's seminar
This lecture introduces a project that has started in March 2017, titled “Processing Citizenship” (ERC StG No 714463). It is also aimed at contextualizing it in my broader research trajectory, wich I named “Vectorial Glance”.
Amongst the concepts introduced or consistently used by Science and Technology Studies (STS), the notions of “co-production” and “performativity” are probably those that had the largest diffusion. This does not however speak for the capability of the concepts to retain a constant meaning throughout different contexts of use. And indeed, co-production, especially, has almost become a synonym for collaboration of heterogeneous actors. Less superficially, co-production actually refers to the processes through which “natural and social orders are being produced together” (Jasanoff, 2004 : 2). Performativity, on its hand, refers to the epistemological choice to look at how social actors are constituted, brought into existence, instead of a priori assuming essentialist definitions (Butler, 1997, Callon, 1998, Latour, 2005).
Drawing on these concepts, this presentation discusses some literature on technology and state formation, specifically on the performative relationship between population measurement and state (Akrich, 1992, Foucault, 2007, Mitchell, 2002). In particular, it lingers on the relationship between state and information infrastructures (Agar, 2003, Edwards, 2010, Hull, 2013, Mukerji, 2011). These historical cases remind us of the performative principle : information infrastructures are not so much a set of technologies introduced to make bureaucratic activities more efficient and reliable, but – on the contrary – the bureaucratic machine of the state has been built as a response to information handling needs.
I will then briefly introduce my recent work showing how contemporary digital information infrastructures can similarly shape the order of the modern state, either by shifting functions and responsibilities from the local to the national level (Pelizza, 2016), or by creating knowledge asymmetries between civil service and contractors (Pelizza Under review).
The presentation will then try to translate the performative, historical argument to contemporary governance reordering. If analogue information infrastructures contributed to state formation, are digital technologies for data handling contributing to state disassembling, as most literature on globalization seems to suggest ?
While I oppose simplistic and determinist arguments that look at nation states as delegating powers to supra-national organizations, with data infrastructures supporting this process, I nonetheless locate the historical argument on performativity in the context of the multi-level European construction (Schipper and Schot, 2011). This effort allows a more open question : if historically information infrastructures have contributed to the formation of the most powerful techno-social assemblage for knowledge handling – the nation-state, how do contemporary data infrastructures shape the European order ?
This is the main research question that informs the “Processing Citizenship” project. I call “citizenship processing” the material practices through which citizens, polities, and territory are co-produced with the mediation of data infrastructures.
Methodologically, the fact that the research addresses contemporary issues raises two concerns. On one hand, scholars of contemporaneity cannot rely on corpora that are recognized as archives, but have to build them, searching even the most remote and least probable sources. On the other hand, we do not know in advance which form(s) of governance we are heading to. Therefore, either we assume a priori the definition of stabilized entities like “state”, “Europe”, “citizenship”, and accept that we can only trace minor changes in their “nature”, or we pursue the original question, which remains open to not-yet-known orders of governance.
In order to handle these two constraints, I have adopted two methodological decisions. First, together with traditional sociological/anthropological methods like participant observation and interviews, the team will be analysing computational texts. Second, I have adopted a methodological solution proposed by the sociology of translation. In order to trace new formations, we can resort to the opponents of that formation (Latour, 2005). So, instead of looking at how the population and polities of Europe are defined, the project looks at the non-populations : migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, in one word : aliens.
These two methodological choices set the field of investigation for Processing Citizenship : data infrastructures for alien registration and identification. After a discussion of the project goals and research questions, I will openly address some methodological gaps and issues related to the analysis of computational “texts” like ontologies, algorithms and web-services.