|by Jack Boulton
Knowledge comes from, and is drawn into, different
organisational structures. At the same time, the notion
that knowledge travels
Invites one to reconstruct
communities in its wake, tracing connections after the
fact. (Strathern 2004: 15).
We are surrounded by knowledge in different forms. Although
your own personal understanding of technology may not
match that of, say, a computer programmer, the computer
you are using to read this piece or, indeed, the
printer you used to print it are the products of
applied knowledge, products which become symbols in a
particular context. Your computer may mean one thing
or nothing to you, but to someone else in a different
place it means something else.
The computer programmer is perhaps a good example of how
one form of knowledge can be turned on its head and transformed
into something else. The programmer uses the computer
to metamorphose his knowledge of programming into a piece
of software which in turn is used by another to transform
And so on. This transformation
flow of knowledge is common in contemporary society.
We are part of a culture which is obsessed with information.
I intend here to describe how information is produced,
particularly scientific facts, using examples from Power
(1997) and Latour and Woolgar (1979). I will also use
evidence from Strathern (2004), Tsoukas (1997) and Latour
(1999) to illustrate how knowledge changes meaning as
In Laboratory Life (1979), Latour and Woolgar apply sociological
theory to their ethnography of a scientific laboratory.
They successfully trace the construction of a scientific
fact to the creation of order out of disorder. To them,
the fundamental feature of a fact is that
it does not appear to be constructed by any outside forces:
it is a taken-for-granted statement unflawed by modality.
However they point out that in the laboratory situation,
the environment can be broken down into specific
histories which have enabled items such as scientific
equipment to become available at a certain point in time.
Bachelard (1953) refers to laboratory equipment as reified
theory, that is, that each piece of equipment is
a construct of a theory that has been proven factual at
a previous point in time.
The concept of the audit society was pinpointed
by Michael Power (1996, 1997) and concerns a very particular
pattern of knowledge designed to develop essentially
similar measures or conclusions from an examination of
the same evidence, data or records (American Accounting
Association 1966: 10). Essentially the audit is a process
by which information is gathered in order to verify that
something is happening as it should do, and/or to suggest
methods by which this activity can be adjusted in order
to function more effectively.
In the area of health and medicine, one use of audit data
is to stimulate more effective use of increasingly
limited resources by creating an element of competition
between those who supply medical services
who must purchase those services. (Power 1997: 104).
Tsoukas (1997) also states that
In a modern hospital the sick person is turned
into an information-rich patient; information about his
or her illness can be systematically gathered the
information speaks for, describes, represents the patient.
And when the NHS computerises its files, a patient can
be emailed, so to speak, from one part of the country
to the other. (1997: 833).
Here already we can see that information is on the move.
From its origination with the patient, an illness is reduced
to a number (for example, an ICD-10  code) and then
moved firstly to another part of the hospital and then
to somewhere completely different. The illness itself
will have significant meaning to the patient, whilst the
ICD-10 code will have a different meaning depending on
who is using the data. Another example is the QALY (Quality-Adjusted
Life Year) which is calculated using patient-reported
data obtained by using various measures and tests in interview
situations  (Hyland 1997). The QALY is a figure between
0 and 1, and is an indication of how good or bad a medical
treatment is based solely on how long it keeps a patient
alive for and at how high a quality of life. Whereas the
experience of illness is likely to have a significant
meaning in the life of the patient, it is equally likely
that the QALY will have very little meaning to them. It
will, however, be of significant interest to a health
economist or to individuals working within the field of
medicine. Of course I am not striving to point out that
information is interesting to different people. What is
important here that it is essentially the same information
that is undergoing a process of change as it moves around.
It is also worth pointing out that after it has undergone
its first change it is unlikely to be of interest to the
person responsible for reporting it.
Strathern (2004) points out that knowledge moves by virtue
of being embedded within the objects that it is used to
create. Therefore, for example, the price of buying a
computer includes not only the metal and plastic box that
you look at, but also the price of the research and development
that went into creating it. This is also extensible to
the creation of knowledge in the scientific community.
Embedded into any scientific paper is not only the immediate
knowledge that it purports to show, but also the information
contained in the papers that were used to produce the
hypothesis on which it is based.
We can return to the work of Latour for a clearer example
of how information changes as it shifts location. In Pandoras
Hope (1999) he describes a field trip by a group of scientists
to the Amazon, designed to investigate a botanical mystery
at the edge of the rainforest. Several small trees that
usually grow only in the savannah around the forest had
been found a few metres inside the wood, and there was
some debate as to whether this was a sign that the forest
was advancing (the tree was a scout) or retreating (the
tree was left over by a shrinking forest).
Latour traces the plot of a group of soil samples from
their position at the edge of the Amazonian jungle to
their eventual resting place in the academic literature.
From the ground, a sample is moved to a pedocomparator
(a briefcase-sized grid) whereby it can be compared to
other samples. Then via a process of inscription the same
soil sample becomes a figure in a chart. Latour likens
the process to a movement from thing to sign.
Once the soil sample has become a sign, it
can be transmitted and reproduced with ease (ibid 1999:
Information then, is transformed as it moves through both
time and space. Latour and Woolgars ethnography
demonstrates that as historical information (in the form
of facts) is used by people it becomes part of something
else, a new fact, in the present day. Tsoukas
points out that the individual is a rich source of data
which almost immediately becomes decontextualised and
readily moved about. As it moves, information takes on
new meanings dependent on the situation it is used in
and the person that is using it.
International Classification of Diseases Revision 10.
This is used be hospitals to classify patients according
to the illness, disease or accident that they are admitted
Commonly used tests include the standard gamble, feeling
thermometer and time trade-off techniques. The Health
Technology Assessment Programme has published a review
of all of these measures (see references).
American Accounting Association. A Statement of Basic
Accounting Theory. 1966; Sarasota, Florida: American Accounting
Bachelard G. Le Materialisme Rationnel. 1953; Paris, PUF.
Brazier J, Deverill M, Green C et al. A Review of the
Use of Health Status Measures in Economic Evaluation.
Health Technology Assessment 1999; 3: 9.
Hyland ME. Quality-of-Life Measures as Providers of Information
on Value-for-Money of Health Interventions Comparisons
and Recommendations for Practice. Pharmacoeconomics 1997;
11 (1): 19-31.
Latour B. Pandoras Hope - Essays on the Reality
of Science Studies. 1999; London, Harvard University Press.
Latour B and Woolgar S. Laboratory Life - The Construction
of Scientific Facts. 1979; New Jersey, Princeton University
Power M. Making Things Auditable. Accounting, Organisations
and Society 1996; 21 (2/3): 289-315.
Power M. The Audit Society Rituals of Verification.
1997; Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Strathern M. Commons and Borderlands - Working Papers
on Interdisciplinarity, Accountability and the Flow of
Knowledge. 2004; Oxon, Sean King Publishing.
Tzoukas H. The Tyranny of Light - The Temptations the
and Paradoxes of the Information Society. Futures 1997;
About the Author
Jack Boulton is the editor of Stimulus Respond, the E-Zine
for Urban Anthropologists (www.stimulusrespond.com). You
may reproduce this article with permission (obtained by
emailing firstname.lastname@example.org) and on the condition
that the author is credited along with a link to Stimulus