My dissertation examines how the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for verifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can remain technically authoritative in its judgments despite the fact that it is often accused of being politicized. What I describe on page 99 of my dissertation is a crucial moment in the way that the IAEA conceptualized the nuclear safeguards it carried out for treaty verification (see below). This moment was precipitated by the IAEA’s failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. I argue that a significant epistemological shift was required from a fundamentally quantitative-administrative logic to a qualitative-dynamic logic in the methodological transformation from considering only the activities a state had declared to the IAEA to attempting to evaluate all of a state’s nuclear-related activities (in particular, those relevant for the development and production of nuclear weapons). And, I further argue, this shift undermined the epistemic ideology of bureaucratic objectivity through which the organization had historically come to be seen as authoritative. Epistemic ideology–based on notions of language or semiotic ideologies–is a set of assumptions and values about what knowledge is authoritative and the forms of representation that render it such. By theorizing the production of authoritative knowledge as a semiotically mediated process, I develop a framework for studying knowledge and power in the world that takes into account the epistemic norms and representational conventions that most participants remain largely unaware of. This approach goes beyond reductivist narratives that explain what happens at international organizations in terms of competing national interests, to provide an alternative understanding of the aspirations and limitations to projects of international governance.
This is a critical and significant shift in epistemic mode. The original epistemic mode of accounting for the type and quantity of nuclear material in a state, previously the bedrock of the IAEA safeguards system, becomes in this new epistemic mode only a component (if an important one) of the entire approach to nuclear verification. The detection of clandestine nuclear activity requires a larger view of the state’s activities and relies on the accumulation and synthesis of information critically related to a state’s industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure. In this way, IAEA safeguards inspectors no longer exclusively focus on how a state might pinch off nuclear material from its safeguarded facilities when an inspector isn’t looking, but first attempt to identify the “technically plausible” paths to a nuclear weapon a state might pursue. This methodology requires the involvement of “analysts” whose expertise is constituted as language skills, subject matter familiarity, and technical knowledge, and whose work involves gathering a variety of data on industrial and scientific activities in the state that are relevant or potentially related to the development and production of a nuclear weapon. The work of analysts and the contribution they make to the evaluation of the “state as a whole” has been viewed with deep suspicion [by member states].
Anna Weischselbraun. 2016. Constituting the International Nuclear Order: Bureaucratic Objectivity at the IAEA.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.
Anna Weichselbraun is an anthropologist of nuclear governance, expertise, and bureaucracy. Her work mobilizes semiotic analysis to examine how technical knowledge infrastructures and political values combine to form the “common sense” of global technological governance. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vienna’s Department of European Ethnology. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.