Here are some scattered notes from reading Governing the Soul by Nikolas Rose with eye towards my field study (Rose, 1999). It’s quite a remarkable book given that it was originally written some 30 years ago, and the topic of how the sciences of psy* disciplines (psychology, psychiatory, anthropology, sociology, etc) have shaped our ideas about what it means to be a modern subject, still seems fresh and relevant.

In the section on work he devotes quite a bit of space to describing the Tavistock Institute which was instrumental to England during WW2, for developing methods for measuring how fit for particular combat jobs soldiers were, and for controlling morale. After the war the Tavistock Clinic became the Tavistock Institute, and it started translating these methods of measurement and analysis to the workplace, through partnerships with Unilever, Glacier Metals, and others. According to Rose it was during this time as they focused on the productivity of organizations that the theory of the “sociotechnical system” was created by Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth and A. K. Rice.

Trist and his colleagues thus claimed that the technology did not determine the relations of work – there were social and psychological properties that were independent of technology. Hence organizations could choose how tasks should be organized to promote the psychological and social processes that were conducive to efficeint, productive, and harmonious relations. The analytic procedure could, as it were, be reversed to conceptualize and construct the details of a labour process that would be in line with both technological and psychological requirements.

It was not merely that a new language was being formulated for speaking about the internal world of the enterprise, factory, plant, mine, or hospital. It was rather that the microstructures of the internal world of the enterprise (the details of the technical organization, roles, responsibilities, machinery, shifts, and so forth) were opened to systematic analysis and intervention in the name of a psychological principle of health that was simultaneously a managerial principle of efficiency. (p. 93)

It’s significant that the origins of sociotechnical theory are in warfare, and that the ideas were almost seemlessly translated to manufacturing and labor processes once the war is over.

The chapters concerned with the psy* disciplines production of ideas of the child and the family are also relevant for my own research, because part of the rationale of my informants is that their work is being done for the benefit and protection of children. The emergence of social welfare and rights for children, and the emergence of public space of the community, with the private space of the family in the 19th century. That these moves weren’t so much about the rights of children, as they were moves to provide “antidotes to social unrest” while creating modes of social control:

Further, it appeared that the extension of social regulation to the lives of children actually had little to do with recognition of their rights. Children came to the attention of social authorities as delinquents threatening property and security, as future workers requiring moralization and skills, as future soldiers requiring a level of physical fitness – in other words on account of the threat which they posed now or in the future to the welfare of the state. The apparent humanity, benevolence, and enlightenment of the extension of protection to children in their homes disguised the extension of surveillance and control over the family. Reformers arguing for such legislative changes were moral entrepreneurs, seeking to symbolize their values in the law and, in doing so, to extend their powers and authority over others. The upsurges of concern over the young – from juvenile delinquency in the nineteenth century to sexual abuse today – were actually moral panics: repetitive and predictable social occurrences in which certain persons or phenomena come to symbolize a range of social anxieties concerning threats to the established order and traditional values, the decline of morality and social discipline, and the need to take firm steps in order to prevent a downward spiral into disorder. Professional groups – doctors, psychologists, and social workers – used, manipulated, and exacerbated such panics in order to establish and increase their empires. The apparently inexorable growth of welfare surveillance over the families of the working class had arisen from an alignment between the aspirations of the professionals, the political concerns of the authorities, and the social anxieties of the powerful. (p. 125)

Later, Rose has this great Foucault quote that brings to mind how our current moment is different in terms of the documentation we are generating in social media and other spaces thanks to the Internet. I’ve included the full quote here, not just the excerpt from Rose:

For a long time ordinary individuality – the everyday individuality of everybody – remained below the threshold of description. To be looked at, observed, described in detail, followed from day to day by an uninterrupted writing was a privilege. The chronicle of a man, the account of his life, his historiography, written as he lived out his life formed part of the rituals of his power. The disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality and made of this description a means of control and a method of domination. It is no longer a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use. And this new describability is all the more marked in that the disciplinary framework is a strict one: the child, the patient, the madman, the prisoner, were to become, with increasing ease from the eighteenth century and according to a curve which is that of the mechanisms of discipline, the object of individual descriptions and biographical accounts. This turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection. The carefully collated life of mental patients or delinquents belongs, as did the chronicle of kings or the adventures of the great popular bandits, to a certain political function of writing; but in a quite different technique of power. (Foucault, 2012 , p. 191-192)

Rose goes on to talk about the institutions that mechanize this new form of description:

Michel Foucault argued that the disciplines “make” individuals by means of some rather simple technical procedures. On the parade ground, in the factory, in the school and in the hospital, people were gathered together en masse, but by this very fact they could be observed as entities both similar to and different from one another. These institutions function in certain respects like telescopes, microscopes, or other scientific instruments: they established a regime of visibility in which the observed was distributed within a single common plane of sight. Second, these institutions operated according to a regulation of detail. These regulations, and the evaluation of conduct, manners, and so forth entailed by them, established a grid of codeability of person attributes. They act as norms, enabling the previously aleatory and unpredictable complexities of human conduct to be charted and judged in terms of conformity and deviation, to be coded and compared, ranked and measured. (p. 135-136)

Rose says that in addition to Foucault he relies on Lynch (1985) for this analysis. The focus on the role of description, codes and inscription seems to echo Bruno Latour’s idea of “immutable mobile”, who is cited on the next page. The immutable mobile being some objects produced by inscription that can then be accumulated and put side-by-side for analysis (Latour, 1986). Of course, the connection for me here, is the way that computer file fixity, or digital signatures for software, are deployed out of web archives, basically functioning as immutable mobiles that enable a new way of seeing, or as Rose says “technologies are revolutions in consciousness” (p. 153). As I analyze my field notes and interviews, the centrality of fixity to my story cannot be overstated. It is both a means of preservation and identification. There is a slippage when atomic files become containers for other files. But most of all these fixity values are gathered and deployed to enable a forensic vision of software. I think it’s also interesting to connect work being done on this site with network infrastructures such as IPFS and Dat that use file fixity to enable new distribution protocols for “files” on the web, as well as records of transaction (blockchain). It’s fascinating how prevalent this idea of file fixity is to so much of our computing infrastructure. And not just a little scary.

I’m not done yet reading yet, so I suspect there might be a Rose Notes 2 coming.


Foucault, M. (2012). Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.
Latour, B. (1986). Visualization and cognition: Drawing things together. In H. Kuklick (Ed.), Knowledge and society: Studies in the sociology of culture past and present (Vol. 6, pp. 1–40). JAI.
Lynch, M. (1985). Discipline and the material form of images: an analysis of scientific visibility. Social Studies of Science, 15, 37–66.
Rose, N. (1999). Governing the soul: The shaping of the private self. Free Association Books.