Infrastructure: Commentary from Nikhil Anand, Johnathan Bach, Julia Elyachar, and Daniel Mains

Jessica Lockrem and Adonia Lugo: Do you see an “anthropology of infrastructure” as a fruitful new area of inquiry?

Nikhil Anand: Yes, I have been very excited by the proliferation of interest in the anthropology of infrastructure!  As materialized articulations of imagination, ideology and social life, infrastructures- here I’m thinking particularly of electricity networks, roads, water supply systems, oil pipelines, ports and highways- provide an extremely generative site to investigate questions that have long been of interest to anthropologists such as the production and maintenance of political authority and the ways in which people imagine and ascribe meaning in their worlds. I do think we need to pay closer attention to how infrastructures are made to work as political technologies of rule.  After all, it is through the extension and regulation of physical and social infrastructures that biopolitics often works.  Infrastructures are also compelling sites to study aspiration, in both senses of the word. They are material networks that allow us to live, to dream and to desire. They also draw resources across distances great and small- proliferating both circulations and inequalities as they make things move.

Jonathan Bach: Yes. The key words in this question seem to be “new” and “fruitful.” Insofar as infrastructure is a manifestation of human interaction with the material world, it is a form of studying material culture, and hence draws on a long tradition. Yet it is particularly well suited to turning an anthropological lens on modernity (particularly the anthropology of the “present” and the “contemporary”) and especially for connecting anthropology to existing fields of inquiry such as organizational sociology or science and technology studies (STS). Thus if infrastructure is emerging as a “new area of inquiry” it is partly due to a steady shift of ethnographic emphasis onto human/non-human interaction and attendant interdisciplinary imbrications. It is also due to a general shift in the visibility of “infrastructure,” as contemporary cultures around the world confront dilemmas and anxieties of urbanization, the globalization of production and consumption, and technologically mediated forms of sociality, governance, and control. This lends an urgency to the study of the exponential complexity and vulnerability of the structures upon which livelihoods, security and identities increasingly rest.

Julia Elyachar: Social analysis of infrastructure is not new, even in anthropology, but something like a new “area of inquiry” definitely seems to be taking shape. It makes sense for both institutional and intellectual reasons to bring together all of the research in STS, anthropology, and other fields.

Daniel Mains: Definitely, as I explain in more detail in my responses to the questions below, investigations of infrastructure have an excellent fit with anthropological theories and research methods. Long-term, qualitative, ethnographic research methods help us understand the complex and variable ways that people interact with infrastructure. 

How did you first become interested in the infrastructures you analyze in this article, and will your future work continue to examine infrastructures?

Nikhil Anand: Infrastructure appeared in a couple of ways when I was conducting fieldwork. When I initiated this research project on Mumbai’s water supply network, I was interested in getting past normative distinctions between the public and private sector to explore how Mumbai’s municipal water system was made to work through the everyday practices of city engineers and other social actors. I had a sense that "the public system" involved several "exceptional" social relations and accommodations that were left out in debates about privatization. While this was indeed the case, I was surprised by the ways in which the materiality of the water system also mattered. Administrators and policy officials planning a transition to a privatized distribution system were constantly challenged in their efforts not only by the politics but also by the materiality of the city’s water system. In fact, as Susan Leigh Star has argued, the material technologies of the system are invested with a politics that is difficult to change from "above" once it has been installed. Further, that much of the system existed under the surface of the city also troubled engineers in their efforts to govern the system. They had a difficult time repairing leaks, cutting illegal connections and upgrading the network, in part because their systems of representation- their maps, pressure monitors, etc. were not up to the task.

Much like in the United States, infrastructure is also something that matters in Mumbai’s public sphere- its news articles and urban debates. Federal, state and municipal governments have identified infrastructure to be a critical area of state intervention, and have been busy unrolling ambitious plans to construct highways, piped water networks and electricity plants in an effort to make Indian cities (and the nation) "world class." These new projects imagine and seek to produce new kinds of modern, liberal, "developed" urban and national bodies. Infrastructure projects were also of tremendous interest to urban residents, particularly those living at the margins. On one hand, settlers and other marginal populations are frequently displaced by large road and rail projects. On the other, they make important claims for infrastructure, to access reliable water and electricity services. After the decline of class and rights based politics in the city, settlers evaluate and re-elect political leaders based on their ability to provide urban infrastructure- water, hospitals, schools. Therefore elections in the city are full of promises that pipes, roads and other infrastructure services (such as gutters and trash collection), will ‘come’ to the city’s settlements.  And they quite often do- built figuratively and literally on top of the partially realized promises of the previous election cycle.

Having been so stimulated thinking about infrastructure, I hope to continue doing so! My next project is looking at the infrastructures of sewage. By delving deep (ugh) into the life of city sewers, I am exploring the work of disinterest and disgust in social life.

Jonathan Bach: Before looking at the urban villages for this article specifically, I was interested in the (infra)structures of globalization, especially how states sought to create spaces in which citizenship is renegotiated, governance practices are reconfigured, and governable bodies are delineated and institutionalized. I had been looking at Special Economic Zones as exceptional spaces and this brought me to Shenzhen, China. Once there, I was struck by the villages as themselves a nested form of exception, and began to wonder about their function within the creation of this new city born out of, and into, globalization. I learned how to read the city through the generous friendship of the observant and deeply knowledgeable Mary Ann O’Donnell, an anthropologist who lives in Shenzhen. Yes, my ongoing work continues to concern infrastructures, broadly understood (though this leads back to the question of what counts as infrastructure). In Shenzhen I have recently been looking at spaces designed specifically to enhance the city’s bid to become a “creative city” as part of a larger national effort to foster “creative and cultural industries.” In a separate project I am looking at what might be called the “memory infrastructure" (in contrast to the more common imagery of "memory landscape") in Berlin, Germany, as it incorporates the socialist, Cold War, fascist, and imperial past into its fast-changing cityscape.

Julia Elyachar: This article revisits debates from the 1920s in Central Europe and from Egypt in the 1950s and 60s about banks and financial institutions. Should banks be an infrastructure to support productive economic activity? Or is finance a means to generate profits for bank shareholders? The notion that finance should be an infrastructure, or a "Public Thing," as Daniel Defoe put it in the 18th century (Mastnak and Elyachar, nd) continues to be at the center of politics around the world today.

Looking back, I realize that I have been working on financial infrastructures for a long time. I recently wrote about my first job out of college, at the NY Federal Reserve Bank, where I worked on the potential breakdown of the US financial infrastructure in the wake of the Latin American debt crisis, and on the rise of new financial infrastructures such as smart cards and electronic banking. As a graduate student, I wrote my MA on the Public Debt Administration of the Ottoman Empire and its role in creating new economic infrasructures in territories of the Empire. That said, I didn’t begin the ethnographic research in this article with infrastructure in mind. Rather, I turned to the concept much later, as a solution to ethnographic dilemmas.

Since the publication of my book Markets of Dispossession (Elyachar 2005), I have been interested in thinking past the critique of neoliberalism in anthropology. I did not want to assume that attributing economic value to social practices was de facto exploitation or dispossession. I had a few unfinished papers on this topic but no satisfying theoretical framework. Paul Kockelman suggested I think about my material in terms of “social infrastructures of communicative channels” (Elyachar 2010, 2011). This is when I started thinking more seriously again about infrastructure. I only read Star (1999) later, and it was fascinating to realize how much she had theorized infrastructure as a form of tacit knowledge—which is the explicit topic of this article.

Daniel Mains: My interest in infrastructure grew out of my dissertation research. I studied urban youth and unemployment in Jimma, Ethiopia between 2003 and 2005. At that time a key source of employment, particularly for young men but also for young women, was the Gibe I project – the hydroelectric dam constructed near Jimma that I describe in the article. When I returned to Jimma in 2008 I learned that many of the young men I knew who had been unemployed for a number of years had found work at Gibe II or on road construction projects. So, I was initially primarily interested in the importance of infrastructural development for creating employment opportunities. It was not until I returned to Jimma again in 2009, and I observed the rolling blackouts and the implications of urban renewal in the city, that I really began to think about infrastructure in a more complicated way. 

In 2009 I was actually working on a collaborative project related to youth aspirations and mental health, but I found my conversations consistently turning to infrastructure, ideas about progress and the future, and the role of the Ethiopian state in promoting desirable economic development. If anything, talk about infrastructure has only increased. When I visited Jimma in June 2012 the terrible condition of urban roads seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Much of the road construction that I describe in my Blackouts and Progress article was not complete, and great deal of frustration and cynicism was being directed towards the local city government.

My research on infrastructure has really just begun, and there are a number of areas I would like to explore further.  One is historical, I am interested in the history of infrastructure in Ethiopia and examining continuity and changes in public reactions to large scale projects. I am also eager to conduct long-term ethnographic research concerning infrastructural development, particularly roads and transportation networks. Ideally, in addition to continuing my investigation of public perceptions of infrastructural development, long-term research would allow me to work with state officials, engineers and workers on infrastructure projects.

How can we begin to theorize infrastructure?

Nikhil Anand: I have found it helpful to think about infrastructure as a social-material assemblage; a process of making relations between bodies and things that is always in formation and always coming apart. Thinking about infrastructure as a process enables us to better theorize how our simultaneously social and natural worlds are constantly being made. For instance, in thinking through how Mumbai’s water infrastructure is constantly being created and claimed through everyday practice, I explored how the system managed the production of differentiated citizens, some of whom were required to constantly renew their material and political connections every few years.  Therefore by attending to the everyday life of infrastructure in this way, it is possible to theorize how infrastructure mediates both the formation and management of subjectified and restless bodies, and the particular figurations of natureculture they draw on to make people live.

I think it is important to remember that while infrastructures do matter, by no means do they encompass or saturate either how people live in the world or the meanings they make in it. That is to say while infrastructural assemblages are materialized formations of ideology, nature and rule, they are also precarious, and constantly subject to human ideation and intervention that trouble their designs.  Conversely, infrastructures are also more than human creations, and as such, their technonatures often trouble political projects. As the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the one at Fukushima suggest, infrastructures are unstable arrangements of people and things that easily and frequently escape social and political control.

Jonathan Bach: A commonly noted aspect of infrastructure is its “self-evident” quality when it functions as a taken-for-granted background (like water from faucets, gas in pumps, or reception for your cell phone) and its sudden visibility in times of crisis or when its unsanctioned use becomes politically noticeable (e.g. slum dwellers “stealing” electricity from the grid). One way to theorize infrastructure is to draw on the existing literature about everyday life and the “ordinary,” which can help us ask how infrastructure is appropriated and recombined by its users in order to produce specific practices of living. In doing so, we engage with theories about how “normality” is produced, sustained, and unraveled. Because infrastructures are network forms, it is also important to understand how networks function and the role humans play within networks, both in their interactions with others (human and non-human), and in the way network structures are infra-structures that shape human notions of meaning, value, and autonomy. This can lead to literatures on and beyond ANT and also innovation, design, and architecture.

Julia Elyachar: We don't need to begin! Or we could begin with some rereading: Volume II of Marx's Capital, Leontieff, and some development economics. We could turn to some of the anthropologists .....From a media studies background, Brian Larkin's work has been extremely important, and Helga Tawil-Souri should be read more widely. Abdou-Maliq Simone's work is hugely important.  At any event, I would not worry about theorizing infrastructure. At certain moments fuzzy concepts are the most helpful to capture a number of interlinked issues.

Daniel Mains: Analyses of infrastructure may have productive relationships with a number of different theoretical conversations. I am particularly interested in the intersection between infrastructure and anthropological theories concerning gifts and reciprocity. To some extent infrastructure mediates a reciprocal relationship between citizen and state. I am interested in how infrastructural development is interrelated with redistribution of resources. Who has the right to benefit from public resources and infrastructure? How do gender, ethnicity, and age shift these dynamics? Such questions are particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with the relationship between infrastructure and ideals concerning progress. Infrastructure not only involves an exchange of material goods, it often stimulates emotional responses based on how one relates to the future.

Do you have some suggestions of additional scholarship that could be of use to scholars and students wishing to make infrastructure an object of study?

Nikhil Anand: There is a wonderful and stimulating new literature in anthropology around infrastructure, including the articles that you have assembled in this issue. I am currently working on an article on the anthropology of infrastructure with three other wonderful colleagues who have informed my thinking on the subject- Hannah AppelJessica Barnes and Ashley Carse. In addition, I have found the work of Stephen CollierJulia Elyachar,Penelope HarveyCaroline Humphrey, Brian LarkinAntina von Schnitzler and AbdouMaliq Simone very generative.

Of course, there is now a very well developed tradition that explores infrastructure at the intersections of geography and science studies.  Geographers like Matthew GandyKaren Bakker, Colin McFarlane and Stephen Graham have drawn our attention to the ways in which urban infrastructures produce divided cities. I have enjoyed learning from the work of Andrew BarryBruce BraunSarah Whatmore and Jane Bennett, who have taken up a very helpful set of interventions from scholars in science studies like Isabelle Stengers, Susan Leigh Star and John Law to explore the relation between knowledge, science and materiality through critical social scientific research. 

Jonathan Bach: Herewith an eclectic hodgepodge: On the important question of the connection of infrastructure to neoliberalism and governmentality see the recent tour de force by Stephen Collier, Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Modernity, Biopolitics (Princeton UP: 2011). Antina von Schnitzler writes eloquently about how technological infrastructures and citizenship practices are problematically intermeshed in “Citizenship Prepaid: Water, Calculability and Techno-Politics in South Africa" (Journal of Southern African Studies 34:4, 2008). See also the work of ARC (Anthropological Research on the Contemporary). Picking up on the theme of everyday life, of note is a recent book in German by the philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann called The Universe of Things: Towards an Aesthetic of the Everyday (Das Universum der Dinge: Zur Ästhetik des Alltäglichen). In the realm of human/machine interaction an older but solid book is Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions (Cambridge UP: 1987). Urbanization is a key concern for studies of infrastructure, and here I recommend AbdouMaliq Simone’s For the City Yet to Come (Duke: 2004), which examines not the technologies themselves but rather investigates how new, undefined city infrastructures are being built with, from, and on the bodies of residents in four African cities. On new urban forms and culture see my recent essay on “Modernity and the Urban Imagination in Economic Zones” in Theory, Culture & Society (28:5, 2011).  Because infrastructure is intimately connected to ideas of innovation and organization, see a recent book by the economic sociologist David Stark, The Sense of Dissonance (Princeton UP: 2009) for an ethnographic exploration of how notions of value relate to organizational form.

Julia Elyachar:

Bear, Laura. 2007. Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dourish, P. and G. 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(3): 414-430.

Elyachar, Julia. 2012. “Next Practices: Infrastructure, Public Goods, and the State from the Bottom of the Pyramid,” Public Culture 24(1 66): 109-129.

Elyachar, Julia. 2011. “The Political Economy of Movement and Gesture in Cairo,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Incorporating Man) 17(1): 82-99.

Elyachar, Julia. 2010. “Phatic Labor, Infrastructure, and the Question of Empowerment in Cairo,” American Ethnologist 37(3): 452-464.

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise: How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20(2): 406-421.

Paul Kockelman. Forthcoming. Agent, Person, Subject, Self: A Theory of Ontology, Interaction, and Infrastructure. Oxford University Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.

Robbins, Bruce. 2007. “The Smell of Infrastructure: Notes toward an Archive.” Boundary 2 34(1): 25-33.

Schnitzler, Antina von. 2008. “Citizenship prepaid: Water, calculability, and technopolitics in South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies 34(4): 899–917.

Shafiee, Katayoun. 2012. “A Petro-Formula and its World: Calculating Profits, Labor and Production in the Assembling of Anglo-Iranian Oil.” Economy and Society.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture 16(3): 407-429.

Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The ethnography of infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377–391.

Tawil-Souri, Helga. Forthcoming. Digital Occupation: Infrastructures as Borders in Palestine/Israel.

Tawil-Souri, Helga. 2012. “Uneven Borders, Colored (Im)mobilities: ID Cards in Palestine/Israel.” Geopolitics.


Daniel Mains: I think many anthropologists are already reading work by historians and philosophers of science, but more engagement with this literature would certainly be useful. The journal Technology and Culture is based at the University of Oklahoma, where I teach, and it has a fantastic editorial staff who are very interested in ethnographic approaches to infrastructure.

Did your position as an ethnographer allow you to investigate multiple sides (design, engineering, use by different groups, regulation of access) of the infrastructures you present? Does the study of infrastructure allow for polyvocality in ethnography?

Nikhil Anand: Yes, like all good ethnographic research objects, the study of infrastructure almost requires a polyvocality. In retrospect, this was partly why I found the water system so interesting. I could learn about how the system worked by considering the political claims made by marginalized groups together with the designs and the work of the city’s municipal engineers, and the many other actors (like plumbers and social workers) who mediated relationships between the government and the governed. Diverse social groups had passionate, yet diverging ideas about both what the public system was, and what it should be. By describing the everyday way in which they demanded, managed and claimed water from city pipes, the study points to how the cacophonous, vibrant, dynamic and unequal city of Mumbai is made through its infrastructure projects. Hopefully this will make the book more enjoyable (and not more confusing) to read!

Jonathan Bach: Sure, an ethnographic approach to infrastructure allows for polyvocality because infrastructure exists in 3D, ethnographically speaking. For my article in this collection the story emerges only through multiple perspectives, e.g. the cat and mouse game played by the city and the villagers over land use, the different uses of the villages by original farmers' families, migrants, and white-collar workers, differential regulation of village policing and governance from the city, architectural attempts to rationalize or even preserve traces of the villages as they urbanize, etc. While urban planning writings understandably emphasize the challenges in transforming the villages into regulated urban space, an anthropological approach allows for apprehending the villages as co-constitutive of the very city that seeks to eliminate them, and tries to show how through this co-constitution the villages become an unplanned experiment with the market that parallels the sanctioned experiments of the city itself as a Special Economic Zone.

Julia Elyachar: Sure, one of the great things about infrastructures is that it allows you to look at both those who construct infrastructure and those who use it within a coherent whole.

Daniel Mains: The time I have invested in building relationships in Jimma, Ethiopia has been extremely valuable in investigating infrastructure from multiple perspectives. I have just returned from conducting short term research concerning roads and transportation networks in Ethiopia. On one of my last days in Jimma I got a call from a friend of mine offering to introduce me to the government administrator responsible for planning and constructing urban infrastructure. Within twenty minutes of the call I was conducting an interview concerning the cobblestone road project that I discuss in my article. Later that same day a friend I’ve known for more than ten years invited me to his house for lunch, coffee, and khat. He lives in a peripheral area of the city and has been selected by his community to represent them as they struggle to bring paved roads, electricity, and water to their neighborhood. We talked for hours about infrastructure, the state, private companies and corruption. Accessing such different perspectives on infrastructure would have been very difficult without the relationships that develop during the process of conducting long-term ethnography.