Policy, Research, Outreach: Environment, Food & Biosecurity
Home » Research » Actor-Network Theory » Inspections as Boundary Spaces
Inspections as Boundary Spaces

Popular debates on the food safety regulation of artisan and other smaller-scale processing create an impression of two colliding phenomena: tradition vs. industrial modernity, craft vs. mechanization, free individual vs. the state. Yet in this study, interactions between artisans and inspectors were more collegial than these dichotomies would lead one to expect. Actor-network theory furnishes one way of looking at what was going on: an inspection offers a boundary space in which regulatory and artisan practices mingle and shape each other.

Social scientists using actor-network theory have developed the idea of boundary spaces to describe situations where people identify ways of cooperating in spite of disagreements (Star and Griesemer 1989; also, e.g., Callon 1991; Mol 2002). Artisans and inspectors may disagree about specific practices and requirements. But as they learn about each other’s practices and priorities, they may also identify ways to compromise. They “tack back and forth” on these matters during inspections (Star 2010). This is elaborated in the following short sections.

No Phenomenon Is an Island

As sturdy and self-contained as ideas of artisanship and regulation may appear to be, their boundaries are porous and malleable, and they cannot help but shape each other.

Artisanship is not a stand-alone phenomenon that is enacted independently of markets, ingredient suppliers, or inspectors. Legal requirements, input availability, buyer expectations, and cultural norms connect artisans to a diversity of state, industry, consumer, and other players. Artisans “are inescapably constituted within regulatory and market formations” (Paxson 2011, p. 117). Sewell’s argument concerning French artisans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries is equally true in the contemporary US: “The culture of artisans must be…defined in relation to the culture of other groups, and as both participating in and reacting to…larger social, political, and ideological struggles…” (Sewell 1980, p. 12-13).

Likewise, regulation is not a stand-alone phenomenon that is enacted only by politicians, scientists, and administrators (Callon 1986; Jasanoff 2004). One may not think of artisanship as shaping regulation. Yet an artisan’s practices and situation affect whether violations are recorded. A baker, for example, educated his inspector about craft production that used wicker proofing baskets and wood-fired brick ovens, and in so doing shaped her view of the potential food safety risks created during phases of production. Artisans’ demand for quality control advice shapes the role that inspectors play.

Many Hats

We all wear many hats (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006[1991]; Haraway 1988; Star 1991). Artisans and inspectors are more than their professional identities. They may have children, pursue hobbies, and be involved in community life. They call upon different strategies in doing the work they do, and they act from a variety of motives (Hutter 1989; Nielsen and Parker 2012; Tregear 2005).

In addition, artisan and inspector ways of working have much in common, as described in the previous section.

This helps them find common ground with each other. Artisans and inspectors both indicated that coming to understand each other as people made it easier to negotiate matters of regulatory compliance.

Interpretive Flexibility

Many food safety regulations are broadly stated, and inspectors must interpret them on the fly in the context of different facilities. It becomes obvious, when one observes an inspection, that there are limits to how far regulations can standardize food production. Regulatory practice does not necessarily shoehorn artisan practice into something that artisans do not want it to be. The craft dimension of inspection allows inspectors to apply regulations in variable ways.

The interactive nature of inspections creates opportunities for artisans and inspectors to reintroduce interpretation, decision-making, and “humanity,” as the jam maker previously quoted put it, “into a [regulatory] program that’s designed to remove it.”

Inspections may actually accommodate and maintain variety and adaptability rather than collapsing them, as regulations are otherwise expected to do (Scott 1998; Star 1991, 2010).