Review; “Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job”, Julian E. Orr 1996

Kaj Feddersen and Thomas Balle, Anthropology BA, 3rd Semester, Aarhus University, 01/12/2020.

In the anthropological study of work the usual conceptual suspects have been those of Marxist theory, namely means of production, productive forces and power relations. In Talking About Machines, Julian E. Orr turns our focus to a more practice-oriented part of work, that is, how it gets done. By following the daily work lives of several Silicon Valley-based field service technicians, Orr examines how the job of fixing broken copy machines is, not only, a narrative process of diagnosis but also a question of maintaining and nurturing a triangular relationship between the technicians, their customers and their machines.

A former service technician himself, Orr believes that the execution of work is overlooked in anthropology as well as other disciplines; by studying a work in practice we will come to realize a complexity in what we usually assume to be simple and straightforward. Talking About Machines contains small vignettes of the field service technicians working lives; from participation in breakfast meetings between members of small teams to observations of technicians fixing and diagnosing machines at customer sites. These vignettes serve as the ethnographic vantage point for the analysis.

Talking About Machines can be seen as a counter to or critique of the anthropology of work. As described in the foreword, this book aids the understanding and respect of the contributions made by people in jobs often ignored. Instead of seeing the job of field service technicians through the lens of power relations, the author sets out to examine the little narratives of the technicians which unfolds in various locations and among various other actants. Orr makes sure in his analysis that the job of the field service technicians is more than what the job description says; drawing on Claude Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the bricoleur, the author argues that field service technicians rely on information about machines gathered on customer sites as well as ‘war stories’ (125).

While chapters 1 and 2 deal with respectively the purpose of the book and the ethnographic vignettes, chapter 3 introduces the territorial dilemma of the field service technicians. In territories, Orr recognizes an important aspect of the job of the technician; maintaining and nurturing a good relationship with the customers located in one’s own territory is essential to the technician. Following this statement, he turns to the three actants active in this relationship clearly inspired by an ANT-approach. Chapter 4 starts with the most important actant, that is, the technicians. He discusses their background and focuses particularly on how they within themselves as well as with each other diagnose broken machines in a narrative process. As is the case in several analyses in medical anthropology, the symptoms of the broken machine are put together in an attempt to create meaning with its imperfectability. Chapter 5 moves on to the second of the three actants, the customers. Orr claims that the technicians and the customers have a social contract; the technicians are necessary for the customers’ practice of their jobs and the technicians depend on customer sites in order to be technicians. This social aspect of the technician’s job is important, and the technician has to be able to work together with users of the machines at the customer sites. Chapter 6 is about the machines, but ‘…primarily about the ways in which technicians talk about machines…’ (89). This talk about machines is crucial to the understanding of the job of the technicians. With a discursive focus, the author discusses how the existence of and talk about machines plays a central part in the creation of the technicians’ selves. In chapter 7, the author looks to ‘the use of service documentation’ (105). Borrowing and extending ideas from Garfinkel (1967) and Suchman (1987), Orr concludes that “…the knowledge relevant to the job of diagnosis cannot be precisely defined [thereby making a service manual insufficient] (107). Chapter 8 discusses the role of ‘war stories’; stories of broken machines and their fixing circulate among technicians creating a discourse that technicians draw upon in their getting-the-job-done practice.

Talking about machines is an ambitious piece of work, as it aims to emphasize the relevance and an understanding of something that might seem a bit trivial at first glance. The result is an insight into work as it is done in practice and the many different dynamics that are involved in the process. Orr manages to succeed in his analytical conquest by making elegant connections to anthropological theory and keeping his analysis tightly knitted to his data. Furthermore, a bi-product of Orr’s work is that it becomes a tribute to the working man and woman. The book shows us the skillset and level of expertise that goes into a job, that might not be looked upon with great fascination from an outsider’s perspective. 

Orr’s approach to the ethnography of a modern job (in the 1990’s) is both humble and ambitious which is reflected in the book as it becomes both trivial and thrilling. Trivial in the sense that the topic at first hand pales in comparison to fieldwork among the Azande, thrilling as it makes this topic fascinating while simultaneously contributing to an anthropological debate about how work could be studied.

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