anthropology and infrastructures
By Dimitris Dalakoglou & Yannis Kallianos
Anthropology touched upon infrastructures and their theoretical potentialities for the discipline in the 1960s and 1970s (Harris 1968; Godelier et al. 1978). Although the anthropological approach to infrastructures has always been distinct, these first infrastructural perspectives still drew upon the classical materialist social theory. As a result of this genealogy, infrastructures have commonly been considered, within social sciences, to be primarily connected to the material, economic and political spheres, rather than to the social one. This ‘anti-social’ understanding is reflected in ideas about infrastructures as stable and neutral technological systems leading to an everyday experienced normality that is so prevalent in the European infrastructural ideal. However, what the ethnographic approaches to infrastructures of recent years are showing is that if such ideas are ever relevant, they are mostly relevant in very few contexts, usually among the privileged global classes or in places with explicit infrastructural fetishism like post-socialist frameworks (Simone 2004; Edwards 2003; Larkin; Dalakoglou and Harvey 2014). In places where people are experiencing disruptions in infrastructural networks, infrastructures are much more ‘visible’ and are perceived as social and much less neutral technological elements (Dalakoglou 2009; Chu 2014; Dalakoglou and Kallianos 2014).
At the other end, more recent work suggests that lack of reliability is always embedded in infrastructures (Dalakoglou 2009; Soppelsa 2009), yet it often just becomes more apparent during times of crisis. The fragility that characterizes infrastructures is also reflected when, for example, one studies ethnographically the people behind the production of infrastructures, such as engineers, as they almost always take the unreliability of infrastructures as a given element of the process (Harvey and Knox 2011). Indeed, one could argue that such practices could potentially simply be ‘black-boxing’ by experts and specialists in an antagonistic relationship between technology practitioners and politicians on the one side, and common people on the other (Star and Bowker 2006). However, these roles of expertise might be imaginary, as it is not a rare phenomenon for the experts to be absent from the actual production and daily function of infrastructure systems, which instead function thanks to the work of mundane low-rank, skilled or unskilled agents (Dalakoglou and Kallianos 2014; Dalakoglou and Kallianos. Forthcoming).
All the above echoes a relatively banal but relevant statement: infrastructures are socio-technologicalelements that tend to embody ‘congealed social interests’ (Graham and Marvin 2001; Graham 2010). Although it is a cliché, if this statement becomes a parameter for the approach of IG, a unique window to a major theoretical paradigm shift is opened. Within this context—to put it schematically—soft and hard infrastructures do not produce socio-cultural superstructures, but socio-cultural superstructure produces infrastructural formations. So what are primarily social processes such as sharing, peer-to-peer production, ideas of the commons and solidarity are becoming the new force behind the organization and function of novel forms of infrastructures. Nevertheless, things are complicated. Such an approach to an extent attempts to turn the classical materialist scheme on its head, and opens up a series of very crucial questions that need to be answered. For instance, what are the relationships between soft and hard infrastructures under current circumstances, and what can we potentially learn about covering the IG of hard infrastructures by the way that soft IG is covered? This also opens up to potentialities of a new radically different definition of infrastructures which needs to study and take into account at least two parameters which mutate infrastructure during the crisis in Europe: first, as realms of social and political contestation—with a focus on hard infrastructures within the context of crisis, economic meltdown and political implosion; and second, as sites of socio-technological innovation with the potentiality of articulating new and alternative governance and socio-economic networks focusing on grassroots structures and self-organized initiatives. For the first time in recent Western history, we are also witnessing the pragmatic and theoretical potential of infrastructures not only to be run by the people themselves, but to become a new type of socio-centric, socio-technological hybrid forums and agoras (Callon, Lascoume, and Barthes 2001).
Callon, Michel, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe. 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World:
An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chu, Julie Y. 2014. "When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in
China." American Ethnologist 41(2): 351-367.
Dalakoglou, Dimitris. 2009. An Anthropology of the Road. PhD thesis, University of London
Dalakoglou, Dimitris, Penny Harvey, and eds. 2014. Roads and Anthropology. London:
Dalakoglou, Dimitris, and Yannis Kallianos. 2014. "Infrastructural Flows, Interruptions and
Stasis in Athens of the Crisis." City 18(4-5): 526-532. doi:
Dalakoglou, Dimitris., and Yannis Kallianos. Forthcoming. “Rethinking Infrastructures.” Article
Edwards, Paul N. 2003. “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time and Social Organization
in the History of Sociotechnical Systems.” In Modernity and Technology, eds. Thomas
J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg, pp. 185-225. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Godelier, Maurice, Maurice Bloch, Henri JM Claessen, David D. Gilmore, Oriol Pi-Sunyer,
and Zoltán Tagányi. 1978. "Infrastructures, Societies, and History [and
Comments]." Current Anthropology 19(4): 763-771.
Graham, Stephen, ed. 2010. Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. Routledge.
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Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. Psychology Press.
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Knox, Hannah, and Penny Harvey. 2011 "Anticipating Harm: Regulation and Irregularity on a
Road Construction Project in the Peruvian Andes." Theory, Culture & Society 28(6):
Larkin, Brian. 2013. "The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure." Annual Review of
Anthropology 42: 327-343.
Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2004. "People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in
Johannesburg." Public Culture 16(3): 407-429.
Soppelsa, Peter S. 2009. The Fragility of Modernity: Infrastructure and Everyday Life in
Paris, 1870-1914. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.
Star, Susan Leigh, and Geoffrey C. Bowker. 2010. “How to Infrastructure.” In Handbook of
New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs, pp. 230-245. London,
Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
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