Infrastructures are the systems that enable circulation of goods, knowledge, meaning, people, and power. In Splintering Urbanism (2001), Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin argue that we can see the role of public infrastructures and new technologies in facilitating the mobility of people, goods, and utilities when old forms decay. As Brian Larkin (2008) notes, the ongoing life of these structures and networks themselves create new social collectivities. With more and more scholars looking to infrastructure as an object of study, anthropologists are positioned to document and witness the role of infrastructures, both technological and human, in cultural life.
Susan Leigh Star calls for the ethnography of infrastructure in a 1999 article, and Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2007) point to infrastructures as significant components of how people experience space. Focusing on infrastructure also creates a conceptual space to examine the shifting boundaries between material and immaterial structures, and the shifting networks between assemblages of human and nonhuman actors. Furthermore, tracing infrastructure reveals power dynamics that transcend divides between public and private, state and NGO. Taking infrastructure as the object of analysis allows a different approach than that of neoliberalism, which has been criticized as a perspective that is too broad and can fail to consider everyday practices in local contexts. Mains (2012, this collection) argues that the broad brushstrokes of neoliberalism fail to account for the complex relationships people construct with states and other power structures.
Studying the everydayness of infrastructure means investigating the intimacy of power in human life. AbdouMaliq Simone (2009) and Filip De Boeck and Marie-Francoise Plissart (2004) suggest that when the state fails, people become the key forms of infrastructure in cities such as Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The positive and negative effects of infrastructure shift according to perspective. Michel Foucault’s (1997) concept of discipline emphasizes the role of individual bodies in the diffusion of power across society, and by examining the human life of infrastructure researchers can witness the differential exercise and effects of power.
Cultural Anthropology has published many articles that present and analyze situations where people create and interact with networks that facilitate flows of value. Rather than considering infrastructure to be something with static effects, anthropological approaches to the study of infrastructure look for its construction and maintenance through everyday practices in particular ethnographic contexts. Here we have brought together six articles published in CA that have contributed to the emergent anthropology of infrastructure. Though not all of the articles in this collection deal explicitly with the topic of infrastructure, or even use the word, they all analyze the affects of various structures and networks on cultural life.
To enrich our understanding of the selected articles, authors Nikhil Anand, Julia Elyachar, Daniel Mains, Jonathan Bach, and Filip De Boeck have offered new commentary on their works. Additionally, AbdouMaliq Simone, a scholar whose study of "people as infrastructure" has led the way in this emergent area of inquiry, composed an essay reflecting on this collection. We are thrilled to present these new insights, and we thank these scholars for their time.
Ethnographic research on disparate access to water in Mumbai neighborhoods sheds light on the formation of citizenship through infrastructure. This article provides a look at the vagaries of infrastructure, and how tracing it shows not only who has access to resources, but how that access is mediated by social/cultural power dynamics. Additionally, people find ways to access water outside of official infrastructure’s channels, suggesting how a focus on infrastructure subverts easy distinctions between private/public and formal/informal.
Bach gives a fascinating view on how government policies can have unintended and surprising effects on urban infrastructures and the built environment. In this case, the areas demarcated “rural villages” within Shenzhen serve as zones of incredibly dense development. By looking at government land use regulation, actual land use by the original villagers and new residents, governance, and architectural development in the urban village, Bach shows how these processes are intertwined with others and also with power, daily lives, meaning, and the larger city.
Christen describes the distribution of a compact disc of Warumungu women's music from Central Australia as a “framework for knowledge circulation” (425) that incorporates and organizes insiders and outsiders in cultural production. Like many indigenous groups, the Warumungu negotiate new meanings of the past by presenting their cultural products to global markets. The cultural product can circulate as a commodity, but does not itself contain the infrastructure for transmission of its specific meaning.
Filip De Boeck
De Boeck reads the Congolese government’s plans for the future of Kinshasa in light of the history of the expansion of the city from the colonial era to today. The article is, first, an examination of the historical ways in which urban infrastructure has developed, particularly with regards to class and race. And, second, an analysis of the government’s promises of new urban infrastructure in the form of spectacular new skyscrapers, hotels, and other developments, to which most of Kinshasa’s residents will never have access. Yet, the residents are caught up in the longing and dream of a better future in this infrastructure, nonetheless.
Elyachar examines the intellectual debates surrounding neoliberalism of 1920's and 1930's Europe, particularly those of Hayek who argued that because the economy cannot be known in its entirety, a thriving economy must utilize the tacit knowledge of individuals, which can be utilized in pricing and the free market and cannot be utilized by a central planning system. However, using ethnographic data on the private and public banking sectors in contemporary Egypt, Elyachar shows how the public sector can utilize tacit knowledge and the private sector can squash it, therefore undermining Hayek's claims. The article is an analysis of knowledge-making in banking and economic infrastructure and the dynamics of both publicly and privately supplied infrastructure.
This article deals explicitly with the creation and maintenance of energy infrastructure and road infrastructure. Residents of Jimma, Ethiopia criticize the state for failing to provide education and jobs, and consider the development of hydroelectric power infrastructure to be for private profit. At the same time, they praise the state for constructing new roads, even when these displace people. Mains examines the dynamics of public versus private provision of infrastructure and the power relations constituted therein. Following Stephen Collier’s call for a topology of power, Mains’ "concern is with the relationships between specific practices," such as how people’s perceptions of the government shift according to the perceived success of these infrastructures (6).
Send individual students or groups out into the area surrounding campus to take notes about local infrastructure. Look for sidewalks and bike lanes on streets, for transformers and overhead power lines, and for other visible forms that shape our uses of space. How do water and power get into homes and businesses? As a further step, students can interview users of infrastructure about their experiences of it.
Back in the classroom, discuss the parties involved in creating infrastructure. Do people use infrastructure differently in their everyday lives than was imagined by its designers? Do certain groups have more or less access to infrastructure? How does infrastructure mediate experiences of the city, suburb, or rural community where the campus is located?
Jessica Lockrem is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. Beginning full-time fieldwork in January 2013, her dissertation explores the experiential and structural dimensions of multiple modes of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam according to both users of transportation and the planners and managers of transportation.
Adonia Lugo is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation examines human infrastructure for bicycling in central Los Angeles, where she co-founded CicLAvia. Examining social equity issues in urban sustainability, Adonia connects anthropological research with urban planning and grassroots activism. She blogs about her research as Urban Adonia and currently lives in Seattle.
De Boeck, Filip, and Marie-Françoise Plissart
2004 Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City. Ghent-Amsterdam: Ludion.
Dourish, Paul, and Genevieve Bell
2007 "The Infrastructure of Experience and the Experience of Infrastructure: Meaning and Structure in Everyday Encounters with Space." Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 34: 414–430.
1977 Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin
2001 Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. New York: Routledge.
2008 Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
2009 City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. New York: Routledge.
Star, Susan Leigh
1999 "The Ethnography of Infrastructure." American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377–391.