Roundtable: Why I study maintenance and repair

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

Lara Houston

At particular moments, the historically invisible work of maintenance and repair takes on a renewed importance. Today in the social sciences, maintenance and repair – as overarching themes and topics – are finding new audiences. Perhaps this is because so many taken-for-granted orders appear to be breaking down before our very eyes. Here in the UK, Brexit is an ever-present example. But more importantly, I’m thinking about the failing relationship that we have with our planet and its climate. The material cultures of the global North, founded on the speedy and intensive consumption of goods, are being called into question with a new and wider urgency than ever before.

Ethnographic studies of maintenance and repair have shown how moments of breakdown and repair involve the negotiation of social and material orders. Scholars have argued that these are privileged sites of studyi: in a world where the work of fixing is so often overlooked, they provide an insight into how socio-material orders are reproduced (or left to unravel). With this in mind, how should we go about studying the most challenging form of breakdown yet – our climate emergency?

My colleagues and I tend to study those who work professionally in maintenance and repair – those people who call themselves fixers, menders, mechanics or restorers, in settings where those terms make senseii. But repair scholarship also operates as an important space for exploring what kinds of work social science should be doing – as in Jackson’s call for “broken world thinking”iii. Some caveats are necessary here: as terms, “repair” and “maintenance” are associated with particular constellations of reproductive activity, marked by gender, class and race – the obvious gender divide between repair and care labour being a case in point. Getting at the reproductive labour of social ordering means being alert to other equally obscured forms of work, including co-ordinating, caring or archiving. Part of the work of an expanded repair and maintenance scholarship that takes the climate crisis seriously means rethinking, reclaiming or surpassing theseiv.

So, what obligation do we have as social scientists to contribute to the work of planetary level repair? I grapple with this question in my ongoing friendship with London-based repair activists The Restart Project. They began by organising community repair events, where members of the public and their broken stuff are matched with skilled volunteers for collaborative troubleshooting. These experimental social formations aim to promote repair, disseminate repair skills and extend the lifespans of (at least some) products. They also now campaign for policy changes to promote repair. This month they launched a Europe-wide coalition for the “right to repair” digital products.

The “right to repair” campaign is actually an American import: it was initially started in 2013 in the USA by The Repair Associationv (a coalition of aftermarket and civil society groups). As repair activists have networked, it has evolved into a two-continent campaign: each rooted in distinctive forms of practice and responding to different legislative structures and traditions.

I’m interested in the kinds of rights claims these campaigns are mobilising. The US campaign is framed in terms of a clash of property rights: manufacturers’ intellectual property rights versus consumers’ property rights. Put simply: “if you can’t fix it – you don’t own it”vi. Activists want to settle this tension through new state legislation that explicitly provides the right to repair in law. This would compel manufacturers to provide new access rights to software systems – and oblige them to provide the parts, tools and documentation that are necessary to undertake repairs. Rather than simply having the right to use a product for a reasonable period of time (as mandated in consumer law, for example) activists are expanding ownership to include the ability to fix products when they (inevitably) break. Exceptions should be made for repair, as companies have unfairly eroded the notion of ownership (particularly in the turn to digital systems).

The European right to repair campaign seeks similar practical outcomes but brings environment and sustainability concerns to the fore. Activists write: “we believe products should last longer”vii. Implementing the right to repair is explicitly about extending product lifetimes, and therefore decreasing the need for the production and consumption of replacement goods. Activists have been campaigning for repairability criteria to be added the European Union’s (EU) product standards regime, the Ecodesign Directive. And they have been successful: last year, the first standards related to repairability were voted in by Member States. From 2021, manufacturers will be obliged to re-design some household appliances to make them easier to disassemble. They will have to provide spare parts for 7 years and make product information available to professional repairers. Repair is exceptional in this case, because of its potential to save carbon emissions, and help EU Member States meet their binding carbon targets. If, as consumers, we’re given new rights to repair, then what responsibilities might we have to follow this through?

It’s when I work with The Restart Project around right to repair that my practice as a sociologist is challenged most. Rather than simply explaining how existing orders have come to be constituted (my own instinct) The Restart Project push me to explore what sociological theories of change might help us to transition from our (unsustainable) orders to something new? This is a process that will inevitably require both making and unmaking particular ways of life. As themes and lenses, maintenance and repair can play a profound role in helping us to decide firstly, what we practices want to maintain, and secondly, what we need to let go of. But as a project, this is something that must include social scientists of all traditions – and beyond. Taking the example of Restart’s fight for the “right to repair”— this mobilises economic arguments about markets, ecological projections about materials and their sustainability, legal arguments about rights and ethical questions about how to live best on a finite planet. Multiple forms (inter) disciplinary knowledges are required.

It’s clear there is no easy fix to planetary breakdown. Repair as a purification strategy (in the nostalgic sense of “rolling back” to times past) is no longer an option. We will have to go forward, fixing ever more partially, from within the aftermath. This short article is an invitation to all sociologists to contribute to this repair-in-the-making.

References

i Henke, C.R. 2000. The mechanics of workplace order: Toward a sociology of repair, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 44, pp. 55–81.

ii Houston, L., Jackson, S. J., Rosner, D. K., Ahmed, S. I., Young, M. and Kang, L., 2016. Values in repair. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. pp. 1403–1414.

iii Jackson, S., 2014. Rethinking Repair. In T. Gillespie, B. Pablo, & K. Foot, eds. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society. Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press, pp. 221–307.

iv For example: Middleton, J. 2019. Mending the sensible: ontoexperiments for a politics of matter, PhD Thesis Lancaster University, https://doi.org/10.17635/lancaster/thesis/642

vi Quoted from the iFixit Self Repair Manifesto: https://www.ifixit.com/News/self-repair-manifesto

vii Quoted from: https://repair.eu/

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