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Reviewed by:
  • Standards: Recipes for Reality by Lawrence Busch
  • Cory Knobel (bio)
Standards: Recipes for Reality. By Lawrence Busch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. Pp. x+390. $35.

Standards: Recipes for Reality by Lawrence Busch, the first in the MIT Press Infrastructure series edited by Geoffrey Bowker and Paul Edwards, examines the interconnected, complex, and path-dependent histories of social and technological standards that frame and facilitate the world around us. While topics such as licensing, accreditation, credentialing, and policy are often seen as mundane and dry, Busch treats his readers to a trove of carefully researched and engaging stories and insightful observations to expose the powerful role of standards in contemporary life. But as rich as it is with examples and vignettes of how the lived experience is framed by standards and standards-making processes, this book is much more than that. Even as he explains the details of standards, Busch deftly implicates Enlightenment-era philosophy and the implementation of neoliberal economic thought as deeply embedded systems of social value and accreting sociotechnical systems that control and direct markets, institutions, and governance at increasing levels of scale.

The opening chapter reveals the power of standards by examining common historical examples. Motivated by familiar theories of power and embodiment, such as those of Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour, Busch points out the significant agency (and its often hidden sources) imbued into systems of constraint and enablement that standards represent through the control of both humans and objects. Drawing a distinction between different benchmarks that standards set—Olympic thresholds, filters, divisions, ranks—he provides a useful set of criteria for examining the classifications and categories by which evaluative regimes are constructed. Moving through a broad range of historical examples that include religious standards of moral conduct, the normalization of scientific communication, achieving commensurable measurements of time, constructing a disciplined military through standardized construction of the soldier, and the [End Page 251] rise of scientific management, Busch lays out the applications and consequences of standardization processes as they are adopted, grow, and give shape to formative infrastructure.

While standards are often employed to assure consistency, Busch then inverts the argument to show how standards are also used to differentiate categories in measurable ways. Linking this to the early-twentieth-century rise of neoliberal economic reform, Busch traces the co-adaptation of standardized differentiation with the advancement of a new industrial society fueled by the creation of new standards, systems of certification and accreditation, and complex arrangements introduced by the legal regimes of licensing.

Delving into issues of ethics and justice, Busch scales up the argument once again by showing how the interaction between different standards often leads to tension in their implementations, and produces sticky questions of ethical import. If, as Latour has pointed out, technology is society made durable, then standards might be similarly considered social values made technological. He motivates a deep discussion of ethical friction visà-vis Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s six logics described in On Justification (English version, 2006). Describing the different considerations in civic, industrial, inspirational, domestic, opinion, and environmental standards, he explores in detail the question of what makes a “good-quality automobile” as a site of contention in the application of standards.

As standards implicate not just economic differentiation, but governance of both people and objects, Busch takes his narrative to the role of experts defined by standards of performance and their role in enacting the complex divisions of labor required for performing a functioning democracy. Through the standards-laden framework of cost-benefit and risk analysis, Busch draws out a historical case for these methodologies’ role in policy-based decision making that affects not only the individual, but necessarily enrolls larger demographic segments.

The conclusion draws together the observations on the historical dynamics of standards to suggest eleven guiding principles for future standards-making policy formation and implementation. With an eye toward fairness, equity, and effectiveness, Busch balances a reasoned consideration regarding the sensitivity of contexts in which standards are applied with the openness and indeterminacy of the futures opened and foreclosed by applying power through standards processes.

Lawrence Busch’s Standards: Recipes for Reality is an expertly told collection of...


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pp. 251-253
Launched on MUSE
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