If I had to illustrate the anthropological approach to the study of infrastructures, and if I could paint like René Magritte, I would cover the canvas with a section of pipeline and write: “This is not a pipe”, or “this is not quite a pipe”, or “this is not only a pipe.”
The anthropology of infrastructures shows that in the Global South, the practices of creating, using, and repairing infrastructures can be significantly different from the practices and infrastructures of the Global North. An important article for this approach is Brian Larkin’s (2013) “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” where he compares and contrasts anthropological texts and approaches in which infrastructures are universalized (for instance with “The Ethnography of Infrastructure” by Susan Leigh Star). As opposed to Star’s text, an anthropological approach is nominalist and stands against colonial generalizations in infrastructure. Anthropologists focus on locality, not on western nations’ universal definitions of infrastructural ideals.
In the words of AbdouMaliq Simone, the cities of the Global South are ruined. The infrastructures there can be incomplete, self-made, or entirely missing, like the favela’s absent sewer system. Subsequently their composition and practical interactions are situated and have a local character. Aside from providing for life, infrastructures can fulfill different functions. In this sense, visibility (a key concept for researching infrastructures) comes into question. If in the West infrastructures are invisible until a failure occurs, then it is the other way around in (post)socialist countries. Here, infrastructures are often visible as an aesthetic project. Here, infrastructure means a road that goes nowhere, a factory that isn’t working, and cities that are empty. They are built, for example, to demonstrate the power and presence of the government. An anthropological approach to studying infrastructures is not confined to the Global South and might also be useful in uncovering local details and nuances in objects in the Global North.
We can illustrate the anthropological approach through three diverse studies that highlight the local characteristics of road infrastructures. The geographer Peter Thomas describes how invisible – or more precisely, non-existent – roads have a material effect on the city and its residents. Northwest Sydney is a rapidly developing region. Despite its growing population, however, it has not solved its transport problem. In 2010, before construction had begun, a comprehensive transport project was slated for completion in 2016. Moreover, the project itself was changed multiple times, modifying the types of transport, the routes included, and so on. Peter Thomas proposes the name imminent mobilities to refer to roads that exist only in plans, but that nevertheless have an effect on cities.
Despite the fact that the imminent mobilities of Sydney’s road infrastructure exist only on paper, they do affect the socio-material environment, forcing various actors to move: politicians set up and dissolve committees, the branches of power debate about this or that aspect of the infrastructure project, activists march in the streets, parks aren’t built or are moved to other areas because there is a road planned, and so on.
The Road to Capitalism
The anthropologist Dimitris Dalakoglou shows how, in socialist Albania, the entire country built roads. Soldiers, students, prisoners, youth, and union groups all participated in the massive road construction and renovation. From 1950 to 1990, the number of roads increased from 185km to 2850km. Moreover, these roads were only sparsely used. For one thing, the vast majority of the population was immobile, as internal migration was significantly restricted, while external migration was practically impossible. Further, Albanians did not own their own cars. Roads allowed the government to mobilize and engage the population. Collective road building was a means to construct a socialist society and communist identity. At the same time, the meaninglessness of this construction fragmented Albanian society, and in this sense worked against the government, engendering the people’s alienation.
The situation changed radically in post-socialist Albania. If there were only two thousand private cars in 1990, within three years that number had risen to 130,000. Furthermore, opening the borders let 800,000 people emigrate, out of a population of 2.5 million. In the post-socialist period, roads acquired a completely new meaning, and they changed the image of the city. For instance, in the border city of Gjirokaster, a socialist highway passed by the city’s edge. After the 90s, the city center was moved from the old town – not suitable for cars – to a new area, near the highway that led to the border with Greece, to a new life. However, as Dalakoglou notes, these roads did not manage to overcome the social alienation within Albania.
The Disenchantment of Infrustructures
Hannah Knox and Penny Harvey study the construction of highways in Peru. They focus on the disjointedness between “the allure of infrastructure” – what is promised and awaited for in roads and the local practices and events that arise during construction. Transcontinental highways promised Peruvians connectivity, the political freedom of movement, and economic growth. However, it turned out that the politics of engineers were unable to dominate nature, and fragile discussions with local natural and social populations impeded construction. At the same time, highways separate people, destroying traditional routes and connections. Local contractors, pilfering state funds, constructed different sections of road that varied hugely in quality, like a dotted line. Harvey and Knox bring to light the government’s unstable presence and authority by paying attention to the traces of old projects, for instance abandoned bridges and parts of roads that lead nowhere. All of this raises questions of durability and the future economic growth in regions of Peru with road infrastructures.
Beyond these cases, roads can build patron-client relations and they can be an effective mechanism for distributing state resources between certain groups and individuals in a corrupt system. Roads as infrastructural failure can also be the only sign of government presence in distant regions. We can determine precisely what roads are if we enter the field and research local infrastructures with the help of anthropology.
Dalakoglou D. (2012) ‘The Road from Capitalism to Capitalism’: Infrastructures of (Post)Socialism in Albania. Mobilities, 4: 571–586.
Harvey P., Knox H. The Enchantments of Infrastructure. Mobilities, 4: 521-536
Larkin B. (2013) The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42: 327-343.
Simone A. People as Infrastructure. Public Culture, 16(3): 407–429
Star S.L. (1999) The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioural Scientist, 43: 377-391.
Thomas P. (2014) Railways. The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities / ed. By P. Adey, D. Bissell, K. Hannam, P. Merriman and M. Sheller. London; New York: Routledge: 214-224.