Specifying infrastructures cont.

I was just revisiting the earlier post about the wikipedia page about infrastructures, and the sentiments expressed in the comments about the missing social science and STS references on that page, impressive and elaborate as it is. As far as this blog is concerned, the issue of specifying a common understanding of infrastructures has so far turned out to be, I think, one of its implicit continuous commitments, and one that perhaps merits re-addressing explicitly from time to time. So, very briefly, and slowly gearing up for the 4S meeting, some thoughts on where we are at this point.
On the one hand, there are lots of ressources and discourses about infrastructures drawing in participants that from all types of sources and disciplines. On the other hand, there is STS as a field in social science with some maturity, and with various kinds of theory able to bring infrastructures under the auspices of their concepts and terminologies. From time to time, STS scholars, like other social and political scientists, feel like intervening into public discourse by offering their own types of expertise about particular cases and problems of infrastructures. So far, we have not been satisfied that the conceptual work required for an appropriate understanding of infrastructures has already been done, and that we would merely need to extend the application of otherwise well-known concepts to the exploration of infrastructures. Infrastructures can clearly become “normal” cases of networks, assemblages, socio-technical orders etc., and there is nothing wrong with analyzing them as such. It may, however, also present a danger of locking analyses of infrastructures into foregone conclusions.
Here are a couple of possible lines for discussing specifications of the concept of infrastructures after taking another look at the wiki entry:
– Infrastructures as supporting something (“a society or enterprise”, “an enconomy” etc.). Clearly, the idea of an assemblage (network etc.) supporting something other than itself is worth noticing. General references to use or purpose are, of course, common when talking about all kinds of artefacts, but to speak of such heterogeneous sets of entities in terms of a general externally given purpose must be puzzling.
– References to a general public. Political issues and the state are very salient on the wiki page despite its focus on economics and engineering, and despite the fact that the definition of infrastructure is given in a way that takes great care to exclude political questions, e.g. speaking of “facilities necessary”, or “services essential” as if these qualifications were unproblematic.
– The differentation of hard vs. soft infrastructure – can we utilize this differentation at all? It rings like hard vs soft facts/science/knowledge, though the implied reference to deconstruction (or rather, the potential ease of it) may be more material, less epistemic in this case – if the connotation is not a straightforward military one. The hard vs soft differentiation clearly expresses a concern about stability and vulnerability but is this concern somewhat specific when worrying about infrastructure (rather than about truth)?
– Topographical references abound. Is infrastructure always about some association of artefacts and territories, or perhaps, more generally, about technology and place? Like the references to politics, the references to geography are ubiquitous in the wiki entry although they are not explicitly part of the definition at the top.
Would any of these aspects warrant a respecification of infrastructures in a way that would constitute them as a generic class of research objects? Would we even want to have such a class?

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Specifying infrastructures cont.

  1. There’s nothing wrong with exploring functions if it doesn’t imply an ahistorical perspective on actual data (which it need not imply). Every theory does functions broadly considered, I guess. Identifying a specific function of an artefact and identifying a distance type of use, for example, will often be analytically equivalent. Thinking of workarounds, latent dysfunction may also be something to explore.

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