A good case, and the role of compatibility in theory selection

All, as promised, I would reveal some early review document about Govind Gopakumar‘s new book on water infrastructure in India named Transforming Urban Water Supply in India.

First, the book’s case selection is quite smart. India has a historical legacy of democratic social involvement of the public (a promise perhaps, between state and society) during the post-independence period. This context emerges, however, beset by global opportunities for growth and supra-state pressures for change. Infrastructure, fittingly, is stuck in the middle, especially when it comes to developing it, expanding it, and restructuring it. The case selection, therefore, becomes a good case to estimate, per the insights gathered by geographers and others interested in the expansion of neoliberal globalizaiton, whether or not the changes taking place in Indian urban infrastructure follow the trend toward “pervasive depoliticalization of public life” (Gopakumar 2012:4). Or, put another way,

Do global efforts erase existing political underpinnings and re-inscribe a fundamentally new political basis, or does the existing social and political environment continue to influence infrastructures in the face of global pressures? (Gopakumar 2012:5).

The question fits quite nicely with what Jan and I were thinking about as the new infrastructuralism. Govind’s research hints in many places, perhaps intentionally or perhaps he’s just feeling his way toward this or another new idea, of a broader theoretical contribution than is presented in the book. In this way, Govind’s book is somewhat bigger than it appears, both theoretically, but also literally, as the book is only 124 pages long.

Second, and here is a little more critique and a little less review, the book draws on David Harvey’s work, the Marxist geographer, Feenberg’s insights about technologies being designed to promote the interests of the powerful/influential, and Winner’s old (but still good) insight that technology shapes political life/reality in a way akin to how legislation does. What is sort of odd is that Pinch and Bijker’s piece on the social construction of technology (SCOT) plays a pivotal role in the theoretical build-up, especially insights about “relevant groups.” Now, SCOT has often been criticized for being apolitical or for ignoring issues related to power and politics (mainly, who is powerful enough to be “relevant,” if we must use the term power). For Govind, SCOT is nice because it allows him to distance himself from explaining infrastructural development and revision as merely moves toward purely technological or economic efficiency. However, this become a bridge to Winner, and wasn’t it Winner who wrote, famously, about the third step in SCOT analysis, of “opening the black and finding it empty” …