The Anthropology of “Boring” Things

Stacks of unbillable patient visits. Insurance cards. Medical codes. Telephones. Frequently Asked Questions databases.

These objects do not often spike people’s imagination and are easily reduced to being merely “boring.” Often times such “boring” objects like paperwork, tax returns, standards, plugs, and labels are integral to large bureaucratic systems or work routines. Yet the thing that is dull, tedious or uninteresting for one person can be an utter joy for another. What a “boring” object is, and how it functions, is not self-evident. A prepaid water meter, for instance, looks from afar like an inconspicuous thing. Closer inspection, however, reveals its crucial link as a pedagogical tool in a state’s efforts to produce “calculative citizens” who are to behave according to the values the state holds dear (Von Schnitzler 2008). In the early twentieth century, Malinowski, in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, taught anthropologists to closely observe the imponderabilia of actual life, such as people’s eating habits, casual conversations, hygiene practices, and food preparations, against the background of “more crystallized bonds of social groupings” such as rituals, economic and legal duties, and ceremonial gifts. He separated the actuality of life from the periphery in which it takes place. Calling attention to “boring” things challenges analytic separations of formal and informal, structure and agency, technical and emotional and instead brings periphery and actuality together, one emerging with the other (Larkin 2013). In this special series, authors do not take the boring as a given but study its emergence and financial, cultural, or political significance in tandem with the periphery of which it is part.

For a long time, anthropologists have not examined “boring” objects like paperwork, water meters, or plugs. Perhaps this lack of ethnographic attention is: because objects can hide in plain sight (Lampland and Star 2009), although that is true for some but not for all objects (Larkin 2013); because anthropologists use such objects themselves, they have failed to see their significance; or because the field considers itself as being concerned with human interaction and experience. The lack of ethnographic attention to “boring” objects is unfortunate, however, because anthropology is well suited to reveal the intricate ways boring objects are enmeshed in, part of, or otherwise linked to larger infrastructures. In health care, faceless information systems act as productive forces to deny health services or financial compensation for sustained suffering. Static billable codes stand in for power-laden clinical encounters. Insurance cards communicate authoritative cultural perceptions of personhood. Boredom inducing work with phone trees or unbillable patient encounters are essential to mitigate a fragmented health care system. The authors in this series on The Anthropology of “Boring” Things, inspired by Star’s call (1993) to study boring things, do not relegate “boring” things to the periphery as a sort of second-order anthropological strangeness but bring them to center stage.

Studying infrastructures and their “boring” objects can be tricky, however. Which object is an anthropologist to focus on, for instance, when many seemingly ordinary objects in people’s work are enmeshed in large, ostensibly abstract infrastructures? What is an anthropologist to do when they feel awkward studying work practices that the people they observe classify as moments where “nothing happens” and a waste of the anthropologist’s time? What if the work that people do induces heavy boredom on the part of the anthropologist? Is it an anthropological, professional sin to find fieldwork utterly boring? In this collection, authors tackle questions of “boring” objects and their relationships with health systems, the master narratives they employ, and praxis of fieldwork.

In this collection, Michael Esveldt draws attention to the convergence of heavy boredom with electronic health record systems, ethnographic method, and ethics of work. Daniela Heil focuses on Medicare cards that push for the inclusion of non-Aboriginal influences into Australian Aboriginal lives and practices. Marieke van Eijk analyses the financial stories that medical codes are to tell. Shannon Satterwhite argues that anthropologists’ discomfort of observing “boring” procedures reduces the ability to understand work practices where supposedly “nothing happens” as essential moments of care provision. Finally, Robert Frey focuses on faceless, rather than face-to-face, social relations that render a Frequently Asked Question section as a culturally significant rather than as a boring document.

Together, this collection of essays invites anthropologists to extend their ethnographic gazes and spend many inspiring moments analyzing the intricate and at times capricious workings of “boring” things and their linkages to faceless social relations, ethnographic praxis, inner resources, and, at times, heavy boredom.

Works Cited

Lampland, Martha, and Susan Leigh Star. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42(1):327-343

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Quinea. London: Routledge

Star, Susan Leigh. 1993. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3):377-391

Von Schnitzler, Antina. 2008. Citizenship Prepaid: Water, Calculability, and Techno-Politics in South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies 34(4):899-917