Problematic code-conduct relations

‘Compromising standards and the Politics of Development. Health, Safety and New Ways of Living on the Interoceanic Highway, Peru’ – Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox – University of Manchester


Penny discusses the implications on the notion of safety, code and conduct between different belief cultures whilst the construction of the Interoceanic Highway is built across Peru. Focusing particularly in the engineers strong belief in the health & safety code and the actual conduct and local customs of the Peruvian people. The research study can be found here at ESRC Centre for Research for Socio-Cultural change>



Notes written by students of Theo Vurdubakis -Department of Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University:

Penny’s presentation used notions of code and conduct in order to think about how health and safety regulations are often seen, or can be seen, as ways of stabilising ‘unstable’ environments. The aim of the discussion was to problematise notions of order and wonder by examining the relationalities of code and conduct in a particular empirical and cultural setting. The setting was a road building project running through Peru which involved an intercontinental network connecting different regions and cultures. Emphasis was placed on the juxtaposition of practices that took place between different regions, cultures and actors involved in this network and on how health and safety regulations came into play, or not, within this network.

The project was hailed as a local achievement in Peru and with it came new promises of connectivity for the local community to the wider world. For the local people the road meant many different things. Not only would it give them more connectivity to the wider world but it could offer a safer place for travel, albeit only for those who could pay. It also offered opportunities for employment for outsiders and the local people but this brought with it its own social problems, such as an influx of male workers.

In contrast to local ideals of what the road would or could bring to the community, this project was enmeshed in state regulations. These regulations gave the road an added promise which was of a new space of regulation, situated in neo-liberal control.

The construction of this new road brought not only opportunities of work to the local communities but also new rules for how the work should be carried out and by whom. These rules were encoded in the health and safety regulations and policed by the Department of Security. An analysis was made of an incident within the worksite where a man who was working behind a bulldozer was crushed and killed. In an attempt to preserve order, the blame for this incident was put by the company at the door of the driver of the bulldozer. However, for the local people, order was seen as wonder, and the belief was that the dead man was haunting the site. This ‘wonder’ forced the company to organise a special ceremony to rid the site of this ghost, putting the local people at ease.

Another incident used to demonstrate the juxtaposition of practices involved within this site was the imposition of codes of health and safety by the security officer. It was discussed how the workers had been shown a picture of the dead man in order to emphasise how, if they did not follow the codes, that this was a likely outcome for them. However this did not lead to an abiding of the rules but to an avoidance and working around of the rules. In practice therefore the safety code was found to be flaunted by everyone and kinship was seen to over-ride the code.

These incidents were linked to notions of order and wonder within the site in that the health and safety officer aimed to produce a collaborative understanding of how accidents could be avoided if everyone followed the safety code. However, what actually happened was that the local and culturally specific beliefs of the workers that were linked to the instability of environments and the belief in ghosts led to the questioning and compromising of the health and safety regulations.

What this study demonstrates is how within this local community standard codes of practice did not work. The attempt to regulate the workforce by ways of governance in this setting led not to order but to wonder and in turn to gaps between code and conduct and to ways of allowing for alternative understandings.

Notes written by Adrian Mackenzie – CESAGen, Lancaster University

What kinds of diverse knowledge practices come into play around the road construction site in Peru? The study concerns a road that is part of an intercontinental road network. The route of the road does not make full macroeconomic sense. It has a local dimension – people did not want to be by-passed. So the road is not totally top-down. It mediates widely divergent interests.

Road goes through difficult terrain. The WorldBank supports the road as a space of regulation, as participation in global markets, and will afford stable infrastructures of civic life. But the new road threatens existing ways of living in the name of safety. New vehicles will be regulated. People will not be able to travel on tankers. People living alongside the road will face new dangers of speeding vehicles. Informal services for travels are precarious, because people might not need to stop there. Many other social changes – new people, new toxins, lack of respect for local lifestyles, – are associated with the construction of the road itself. The workers themselves are partly locally recruited.

A fatal accident happened early in the construction phase. ‘The earth is alive and grabs hold of people.’ The engineers don’t believe this, because they are Brazilian. But other workers were haunted. The company acted to calm this. They dismissed a driver involved in the accident.

Divergent modes of abstraction – belief in maths vs. belief in haunting. The engineers test and retest materials in the lab. But maths doesn’t adequately address the insecurities and contingencies of engineering. Isabelle Stengers talks about ‘relevant science’. Relevant science engage all the practices that gather the messiness of the world. The problem with laboratory is that it is restrictive, and what is done there is overplayed. The contrast between order and wonder is important. The latter might be able engage ghosts. In practice, engineers know they have to engage with the messiness of the world. It offers challenges that exceed order.

The example of the safety office who was 100% signed-up to the safety code is important. The safety officer, Jose, was feared along the road because he expected the code to be observed absolutely. Jose tells people what should he know. He demanded obedience to the code. Code rules here. During the training talk, he monopolised attention. He would have no truck with black cats or owls. He showed photos of the dead man, and enumerated rules of forbidden conduct – running, smoking, reading, etc.

But networks of kin are vital to work and safety in the Andes. This involves lots of drinking and jumping. The conduct around these kinds of exchanges are not codified. They are relations without guarantee. Beneficial futures are kept open by these exchanges. A code of conduct, by contrast, is not convincing. Hence the contrast between ghosts comes back in.

Actually noone observes the safety code in the name of kinship. The specificity of the relationships really matters. Experts do not rule through imposition of code, which does actually engage with care. Regulation as a form of governance actually assumes a lack of compliance. This is an extreme case of the gaps between code and conduct. Only when the codes are taken as open can a ‘politics of elimination be avoided.’

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