Accepted paper:

Agency and the XRF


Peter Oakley (Royal College of Art)

Paper short abstract:

An analysis of the impact of a new technology on the social institutions and professional identities of practitioners in UK assay offices, focussing on issues of attribution and agency.

Paper long abstract:

X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) machines that identify the composition of precious metal alloys are a recent technological development. Unknown two decades ago, today they are routinely used in assay offices and portable versions enable operators to conduct assays at almost any location. Prior to their development, the only accurate technique for analysing gold samples was fire assaying, a process involving the use of strong acid and molten lead and described as 'destructive, time-consuming and operator-dependent'. Conducting a fire assay requires individual expertise; it is therefore obvious who has undertaken the assay and so is responsible for the outcome. In contrast, the XRF machine not only excludes its operator from the manual procedure, it is capable of independently quantifying the resulting data and presenting a numerical result. Using data gathered from participant-observation in assay offices and metal dealerships and drawing on documentary evidence, this paper will explore the social implications of this new technology and the crisis of attribution it entails. It will demonstrate that, due to the dispersal of agency, attributing responsibility for an XRF assay has become increasingly problematic. The impact this has on systems of governance and the structure and autonomy of organisations that undertake assays will also be discussed. Through this discussion the profound and unanticipated effects changes in material culture can have on social institutions and the social identities of subjects within them will be explored.

panel P26
Anthropology in the material world