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David Edge Prize for Vital Systems Security

A prize! The Society for the Social Studies of Science awarded its annual David Edge Prize for an outstanding article in STS to my article with Andrew Lakoff, “Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency,” published in Theory, Culture & Society.

The commendation is below.


Edge Prize 2017: Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff

“Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency,” from Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 32, no. 2 (2015), pp. 19-51.

The Edge Prize Committee is pleased to present the award to Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff for their article, “Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency,” from Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 32, no. 2 (2015), pp. 19-51.

In a piece that seamlessly weaves deep theoretical engagement with rich historical analysis, Collier and Lakoff complicate our understanding of biopolitics as an organizing logic of modernist governance.  They demonstrate that the techniques of population management that emerged in the 19th century, such as public health and urban planning, and which have formed the basis of social scientists’ theories of biopolitics, represent but one approach taken by states to securing the health and well-being of their national populations.  Alongside these techniques of “population security,” Collier and Lakoff argue, the 20th century witnessed the emergence of “vital systems security,” which takes as its object the distributed, sociotechnical systems on which human populations have come to depend and aims at assessing and avoiding unpredictable, episodic threats to these vital infrastructures.

By demonstrating the distinctiveness of vital systems security and its significance in contemporary governance, Collierand Lakoff do more than extend theories of biopolitics–though that in itself would make a significant contribution to the field. They also engage theories of the risk society, showing how the techniques of vital systems security address potentially catastrophic events that exceed traditional forms of risk management. In addition, while adopting a rigorously neutral stance, the authors open up new possibilities for assessing techniques of contemporary governance, especially in times of disaster acute and chronic.  Arguing that the notion of the “state of exception” has been overgeneralized, thereby obfuscating whole realms of expertise and governance, they ask us as researchers to consider instead the ways vital systems security thinking shapes how states exercise power in their normal, and normalized, management of emergencies.

Collier and Lakoff’s paper was selected from among 22 nominees from the journals East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, Asian Medicine, Configurations, Social Studies of Science, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Theory, Culture & Society, Kronos: Southern African Histories, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Cities, and Engineering Studies. In evaluating this field of high-quality papers, the committee looked for work that combined empirical data with a clear theoretical framework in a way that reached beyond the boundaries of a particular case to advance thinking in STS.

2017 Edge Prize Committee: Gwen Ottinger, Drexel University, USA (Council Member, chair), Kristoffer Whitney, Rochester Institute of Technology, USA (2016 Winner), and Margarita Rayzberg, Northwestern University, USA (Student Representative to Council)

Awarded annually for an outstanding article in the area of science and technology studies.

The Prize is named in memory of David Edge (1932-2003). David was trained in astronomy, and worked with the BBC before becoming the first Director of the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh in 1966. He had a strong administrative and intellectual role in the development of science and technology studies, as we know it today. He was active with the 4S from its beginning, and served as President and received the Bernal award for lifetime achievement. Throughout his life, David lent his tremendous energy to a broad range of interests and activities. Especially pertinent for this award was his role as co-founder and long-term editor of Social Studies of Science (1970-2002). He was no ordinary editor: his unparalleled enthusiasm and unique personal touch pervaded even the most routine aspects of editing, and his encouragement and diligent work with new authors helped launch many careers in the field.

Acceptance Statement: Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff

We are honored to accept this year’s David Edge Prize, and grateful to the prize committee for its perceptive and careful reading of our article. It is especially gratifying for our work to be recognized within the field of Science and Technology Studies, which has been a site of continuing inspiration and lively engagement for us. Our article was the product of a lengthy process of collaborative research and writing, and we are grateful to a number of colleagues who provided feedback and encouragement along the way. In particular, we would like to thank the editors of the special issue of the journal Theory, Culture and Society in which the article appeared: Pete Adey, Ben Anderson, and Stephen Graham. We are also grateful to the Science, Technology and Society program of the National Science Foundation for its support of our ongoing research on contemporary forms of security.


Limn 7 — Public Infrastructure/Infrastructural Publics — Is Out in Print

Limn Number 7Buy it today. Or check out the articles online, from our terrific collection of contributors to this issue: Nikhil Anand, Soe Lin Aung, Jonathan Bach, Andrea Ballestero, Andrew Barry, Ashley Carse, Stephen J. Collier, Savannah Cox, and Kevin Grove, Kevin Donovan and Emma Park, Catherine Fennell, Andreas Folkers, Gökçe Günel, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, Andrew Lakoff, James Christopher Mizes, Canay Özden-Schilling, Ute Tellmann and Sven Opitz, Antina von Schnitzler, and Alan Wiig

Trump’s Fictional Crises and the Real Threats to American Democracy

Andy Lakoff and I published a short piece in The New Republic that recalls how some of the architects of the modern American state created mechanisms of executive power that, they hoped, would make crisis government compatible with democracy. The upshot, not surprisingly, is that President Donald Trump has been using these very mechanisms to undermine American constitutional order rather than to preserve it.

Public Infrastructures/Infrastructural Publics

The Preface to Limn #7 — “Public Infrastructures/Infrastructural Publics,” which I edited with Antina von Schnitzler and Chris Mizes  — is now online! The issue is worth checking out in full. See the description and list of contributors (with links to their articles) below.

Infrastructure has always had a privileged relationship to both expertise and the public in modern government. But in the early 21st century, this relationship is inflected in novel ways. The purposes public infrastructure was meant to serve—welfare, quality of life, economic development, and so on—persist. But they are often conceptualized differently, promoted by different agencies, and articulated through novel technological and collective relations. This issue of Limn explores new formations of infrastructure, publicness, and expertise.The contributions examine how new forms of expertise conceive the public and make claims in its name, how publics are making novel claims on experts (and claims to expertise), and how earlier norms and techniques of infrastructure provisioning are being adapted in the process.

Contributors: Nikhil Anand, Soe Lin Aung, Jonathan Bach, Andrea Ballestero, Andrew Barry, Ashley Carse, Stephen J. Collier, Savannah Cox, and Kevin Grove, Kevin Donovan and Emma Park, Catherine Fennell, Andreas Folkers, Gökçe Günel, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, Andrew Lakoff, James Christopher Mizes, Canay Özden-Schilling, Ute Tellmann and Sven Opitz, Antina von Schnitzler,
and Alan Wiig

Rebuilding by Design article “Rebuilding by Design in Post-Sandy New York” with Savannah Cox and Kevin Grove is out in the new issue of Limn (#7) on public infrastructures. The whole issue, which I edited with Antina von Schnitzler and Chris Mizes, is worth checking out.



Limn 6 available in print

And it is a beauty. You can buy it here.



What Is Neoliberal Expertise?

Vincent Ostrom with his wife and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was President of the Public Choice Society (the third, after James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock) and the Founding Director of the Indiana University Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

I finished a draft of a chapter–at the moment called Neoliberalism and Rule by Experts–for an upcoming volume edited by Wendy Larner and Vaughan Higgins called Assembling Neoliberalism. It focuses on Vincent Ostrom as an unexpected and confounding exponent of American neoliberalism who articulated a critique of expert rule and advocated for reinvigorated institutions of direct democracy.

I was particularly interested in Ostrom’s writing as an example of what Michel Foucault identified as a formation of neoliberal critique that took shape in the midst of what he called, in Birth of Biopolitics, a “crisis in governmentality.” Among the surprises I encountered in writing this piece was that Ostrom’s work anticipates Bruno Latour’s much later writing (particularly in books such as Politics of Nature).

Among my concerns in this chapter was argue that conventional critical understandings of expertise and government have significant blind spots and fail to take into account significant forms of programming truth and politics that have emerged in the last half century. The below is from the chapter’s conclusion:

[T]he point I want to emphasize is that Ostrom’s work points to a significant blind spot in much critical thinking about truth and politics as well as to a promising horizon of inquiry. Much recent social theory (or post-social theory) constitutes as its own field of adversity a set of assumptions about, and practical arrangements of, truth and politics that came under withering critique fifty years ago. And in at least a substantial number of cases it simply folds a critique of neoliberalism into a critique of that theory of truth and politics, as though nothing had changed in fifty years, as though the critique of that theory was not a constitutive moment for neoliberalism, and as though this critique had not been taken into account in the arts of government over the past half-century. At a minimum, this suggests that the critical social scientific discourse on truth and politics is badly out of date. It is not acceptable to continue to treat a particular configuration of truth and politics—which arose at a certain moment, bolstered by certain arguments, and actualized in certain institutions—to embody the unchanging terms of the modern settlement that repeats itself in place after place and case after case. Nor is it acceptable to proceed as though critique is the exclusive and privileged practice of social theorists, rather than a “line of development” in the arts of government that must itself be made the object of inquiry.