Standards & Their Stories

Standards & Their Stories book cover. Thank you amazon.com.

May I post a book recommendation of a book for which I have only read one chapter, dear readers?  I would like to, and because I’m the blogger, I shall.

Standards & Their Stories is (thus far) fabulous.  If you are already familiar with the sociocultural research on infrastructure, tools, sets of practices, etc., this book is definitely for you (and perhaps you’ve already read it as it was published a few years ago).  If not, it is eminently readable sprinkling in paragraphs with humorous, serious, fascinating and incredibly important anecdotes illustrating their theoretical discussions.

The book offers a look into how people currently engage with (obviously or more tacitly) standardized forms, technologies and modes of practice.  One purpose of their little group writing this book, a group once self-proclaimed as “The Society of People Interested in Boring Things,” is to illustrate and underscore the point that standards and standardization are totally worthwhile and more importantly critical as objects of social scientific study.

The authors describe some attributes of standards:  that they are nested, distributed across the sociocultural landscape, are relative to specific communities, are integrated across entities, and codify or embody ethics and values “often with great consequences for individuals.” (My emphasis).  They describe how standards can become invisible, and their histories completely obscured or forgotten.  And they discuss how they approach studying and analyzing standards and standardization by providing some research questions.

To paint a picture of just how important this ostensibly banal topic is to our every day and broader lives, they tell some stories.  They start the whole book with an anecdote to which I am sure many can relate:

A friend, who has recently moved to the Netherlands, makes an appointment to see a U.S. tax preparer.  She has no phone.  She walks in to the tax office and schedules a time for the next day.

 

“What is your phone number, please?” asks the polite young man managing the office calendar.

 

“I don’t have one.”

 

“I’m sorry, I can’t put your appointment in to the calendar without a phone number.”

 

“Yes, but I don’t have one.”

 

Silence.

 

“Would you like me to make one up?” asks our friend.

 

“Oh, yes,” sighs the calendar-filler, “that would be great.”

 

“1-2-3-4-5-6-7,” says my friend.

 

“Perfect!” the young man says.  “The computer accepted that just fine.  See you tomorrow!”*

This hypothetical illustrates the kinds of issues this book will tackle – uncovering how they come to be, what use they are and what societal, environmental, material and social implications derive from their existence and history.

Another story they tell points to how the International Classification of Diseases is rooted in Western and middle-class values.  There are labels for diseases such as heroin and absinthe addiction ( but not of petrol sniffing which is much more common in the developing world.  An accidental fall out of a car or off a toilet (common for elderly people in developed countries) are both codable, but falling from an elephant is certainly not.  And yet, these standards are worldwide and have implications for dealing with international health – moving aid money around, identifying epidemics, etc.

It’s not a dry book, in my opinion – though I do tend to get swept up in these things.  As I read more, perhaps I will share some thoughts here.  Maybe it should go on my list of ‘book-club-for-busy-people’ suggestions!

*Page 3 of Standards & Their Stories, edited by Lampland & Star (2009).

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