Accepted Paper:

Constitutive Invisibility: Exploring the Invisible Work of MPs staff  


Stefan Laube (Technische Universit├Ąt Dresden)
Jan Schank (Universit├Ąt Freiburg)

Paper short abstract:

Research on parliaments puts the spotlight on members of parliament (MPs) and neglects the invisible work of their staff. Based on ethnographic research we analyze the invisibilization of the work of MPs staff not only as practically accomplished by participants but also as constitutive for democracy.

Paper long abstract:

Research on parliaments generally puts the spotlight on its official members (MPs), whereas their staff does not greatly attract attention. Based on ethnographic research in three parliaments, we explore and question this asymmetry. Sensitized by STS and lab studies in particular, we argue that an understanding of politics as driven by MPs is not only due to a general methodological individualism in social science and beyond; it is also practically accomplished by invisibilizing MP's staff work. According to Leigh Star and Strauss (1999), invisible work follows from either rendering the work, the worker, or both invisible. However, Leigh Star and Strauss do not explicate whether and when invisibility is a means of deletion and exploitation of unskilled or secondary work of subalterns or an opportune/necessary quality of work in fields that may require invisibilization. In our paper, we investigate how the work in MPs' offices is made invisible in certain respects and due to certain practical purposes. We do so by comparing our ethnographic cases to versions of in/visibility in science (laboratories) and law (barrister's chamber). Contrasting these different versions of in/visibility enables us to explicate the specificities of "constitutive invisibility". In parliamentary politics, constitutive invisibility of staff's work serves to accomplish a central ideal of democracy: 'representativeness'. Accordingly, MPs ought to represent the electorate, and in doing so, they may be assisted by - but must not depend upon - staff providing knowledge and expertise.

Panel T036
Social Studies of Politics: Making Collectives By All Possible Means