Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: General Anthropology Division
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Technology
Secondary Theme: Science
In scholarship and popular media alike, neoliberalism has long been regarded as an unstoppable force that transforms everything standing in its way — turning public goods into market commodities, making individual choice the basis of all decision-making, and favoring experts rather than publics in processes of decision-making. Pushing back against such totalizing claims, scholars like Stephen Collier and Tania Li have used assemblage theory to argue that neoliberal action and thinking come to being as certain experts draw on existing devices, norms, and ideologies to propagate forms of calculation and competition. Far from being a fait accompli, neoliberal solutions — school vouchers, electricity meters, carbon cap-and-trade regimes, or just-in-time online courses — have to be assembled out of existing elements and shown to be effective in solving a variety of governance problems. That these come to be seen as "neoliberal" is as much an outcome of this process as it is a cause.
Extending this analysis further, this panel focuses on the economic work of technical thinkers in domains of governance — electricity exchange, online education, logistics, and others. Experts like software programmers, computer scientists, power grid designers, and transport engineers enact technical structures that facilitate competitive and calculative market relationships in everyday life without any overt claim to or interest in market-making. While they do not draw attention to their work as market-minded, these technical experts produce the bulk of the market relationships that we live with. Who are the engineers and scientists of contemporary markets? How do the economic and political dimensions of their work fit in their professional or personal biographies? How do sources of patronage and intellectual genealogies shape the way they construct technical problems and solutions? What kinds of techniques, practices, and norms factor into their work? What new can we learn about the workings of neoliberal action and thought from an anthropological attention to the unsuspected experts of the economy? This panel traces neoliberal thinking into science- and engineering-driven assemblages and opens up to discussion the role of technical experts in designing the economies of everyday life.
Collier, Stephen J. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Murray Li, Tania. "Practices of assemblage and Community Forest Management." Economy and Society 36.2 (2007): 263-293.