The Sociology of the Door-Closer Redux

In 1988, Jim Johnson of the Columbus Ohio School of Mines published an article in Social Problems titled Mixing Humans and Non-Humans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer. The article is a classic in STS/science studies for its very vivid examples of non-human agents, and of the problems of ignoring the agency of non-human things. The eponymous example is the humble door closer on the entrance door to the School of Mines. The empirical portion of the article begins:

On a freezing day in February, posted on the door of the Sociology Department at Walla Walla University, Washington, could be seen a small hand-written notice: “The door-closer is on strike, for God’s sake, keep the door closed.” This fusion of labor relations, religion, advertisement, semiotics,and technique in one single insignificant fact is exactly the sort of thing I want to help describe. As a technologist teaching in an engineering school in Colombus, Ohio, I want to challenge some of the assumptions sociologists often hold about the “social context” of machines.

The article goes on to describe how the utterly essential technology of walls necessitates doors. But doors, in turn, have the problem of tending to remain open if you forget to close them. Hence the need for door-closers (especially given the use of heating and cooling techniques for the interior – and why bother having walls if not to maintain a different climate inside and outside). The door-closers could be individuals – grooms or doormen – but why not automate the job? After all, it’s much cheaper. And so on. The point of the analysis is to illustrate the mixing and substitutability of human and non-human actors, and to emphasize the material/technological/social constraints that push for the use of one over the other. In a word, automatic door-closers are (usually) easier to discipline than human door-closers. But the automatic door-closer comes with its own constraints: depending on how it is disciplined (the tightness of the hinges, etc.) some individuals may have difficulty passing through (small children or the elderly) because the door is too hard to push; similarly, the door may slam shut and cause injury if it swings closed too fast. And so on. Read the whole thing; it’s short and quite a performance.

I was remind of Johnson’s* article when I received another in a series of emails about the door-closers in another sociology department – the University of Michigan’s. These door-closers are on internal doors that separate two ends of a long hallway on the 3rd and 4th floors of the LSA building which houses the Sociology Department. When the building opened after renovations in the mid-2000s, the doors were kept open. A year ago, a fire inspection revealed that such doors were supposed to swing shut automatically and remain closed, to seal off the two halves of the building during a fire. Automatic door-closers were installed. But with the doors closed, the Department community was cut in half. Worse yet, and just as Latour noted, these automatic door-closers which were so useful in terms of fire safety were absolutely harmful for accessibility and there were “numerous incidences of students on crutches and in wheelchairs having difficulty maneuvering the now-closed doors.”

What’s the solution? Another kind of delegation, to an even more advanced door-closer, installed this Summer: “magnetic hold-opens… now tied into the fire alert system” such that “the magnets will release in case of an alarm.” A tidy piece of work, and a further encoding of social relations into an ever thickening web of technological ties. I’ll end where Johnson ends:

If, in our societies, there are thousands of such lieutenants to which we have delegated competences,it means that what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans. Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability are not properties of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations without the nonhumans is impossible (Latour, 1988a) or adapted only to complex primate societies like those of baboons (Strum and Latour, 1987).

*Note, Jim Johnson is a pseudonym of Bruno Latour; the reason for the change of name (and affiliation) is given in a hilarious and bitter footnote with a back-and-forth to the editor:

The author-in-the text is Jim Johnson, technologist in Columbus, Ohio, who went to Walla Walla University, whereas the author-in-the-flesh is Bruno Latour, sociologist, from Paris, France, who never went to Columbus nor to Walla Walla University. The distance between the two is great but similar to that between Steven Jobs, the inventor of Macintosh, and the figurative nonhuman character who/which says “welcome to Macintosh” when you switch on your computer. The reason for this use of pseudonym was the opinion of the editors that no American sociologist is willing to read things that refer to specific places and times which are not American. Thus I inscribed in my text American scenes so as to decrease the gap between the prescribed reader and the pre-inscribed one. (Editors’ Note: Since we believed these locations to be unimportant to Bruno Latour’s argument, we urged him to remove specific place references that might have been unfamiliar to U.S. readers and thus possibly distracting. His solution seems to have proven our point. Correspondence to the author-in-the-flesh should go to Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines, 62 boulevard Saint-Michel, 75006 Paris, France.)

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