Infrastructure, sunk costs and scale

In my first post, I said that I would take a look at issues of scale and the idea of infrastructure as “sunk cost” versus infrastructure as “base”. In this, my last post, I would like to explore how these issues might be related.  That is, on the one hand, how our conceptions of scale may to some extent predetermine our view of infrastructure as a “sunk cost”; and, on the other hand, what a view of infrastructure as “base” might imply for how we approach scale.

These are very much ideas in development, so please weigh in!

The concept of geographical scale generally focuses on delineations of territorial organization (e.g., local, national, global). Although seemingly durable, these are taken as constructed and thus transitory. This observation is meant to draw attention away from scale to the production of scale. Despite this critical approach to scale, certain seemingly self-imposed limits to analysis persist. As Marston (2000) points out, scale in geography overemphasizes processes of capitalist production while ‘ignoring social reproduction and consumption’.

The tendency then, when thinking of networked infrastructure, is to examine it at the scale at which investments and decisions about investments (or the lack thereof) are made. In most instances, this is the municipal scale. In a multi-scalar approach you would include higher scale actors that may regulate issues that influence investments, such as service quality. In the case of water, this would imply some level of senior government. When the focus is placed on these actors, to the neglect of consumers and households, it is easy to interpret infrastructure though the metaphor of the sunk cost. But what if a more relational perspective that would include “social reproduction and consumption” were applied?

In such a case, the metaphor of infrastructure as base, as opposed to sunk cost would (I argue) have more to offer. The concept of “base” comes from Stephen Gudeman’s work in economic anthropology.  Gudeman takes the concept of the base from rural subsistence farmers in Colombia. For the farmers and their families the base is “the wealth of the house” on which it can draw the necessary materials for work and subsistence and to generate some gain to expand the base. It is the safety net and the means of building and enhancing economic security and wealth over time. In a neoclassical model, the firm invests in infrastructure to create profit; in the household model, one invests in the base to build the base, which provides security and steady improvements in livelihoods. Whereas for the households that Gudeman studies, the base consist of land, tools, seed etc. If one were to apply the base concept to a community, its base should include various elements of public infrastructure.

What would it mean to understand infrastructure as base? And what does in mean for scale in relation to infrastructure? First, understanding infrastructure as base as opposed to a sunk cost, moves it from a firm model to a community model of analysis. Infrastructure in this sense is part of the community’s base, which is developed and sustained through collective community funds. On the other hand, this infrastructure enables individual households and users greater opportunity to build their own base at the household scale. This is because it is a fundamental element of what they need to engage in manifold forms of social and economic activity.

Second, in terms of scale, it would mean trying to work with Marston’s critique. Could scalar approaches in STS help to do this? In STS, scale is approached through the theory of Multi Level Transitions (MLT), which arranges scales around the development, deployment, uptake, and function of technology. The focus on deployment and uptake brings users into the analysis of how scale might be applied to infrastructure. But I wonder if the nested and hierarchical images that are inherent in scale can capture what would be a web of social relations in an extended base model for infrastructure. Should we scale across rather than up to understand how infrastructure might relate to dispersed users and not just those who build it ? This would seemingly bring us to a Latourian model, but with significant amounts of repetition in the network. Moreover, this repetition of households in the network is cumulative. That is, while they may relate to infrastructure individually, their collective relationship is significant and implies important influence on the municipal scale and its investments in the “base”.

A big thanks to Nicholas for introducing me to Installing (social) Order and for inviting me to participate. I’ve gotten a lot of food for thought from your comments and posts and look forward to continuing to follow the blog. Kathyn


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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 “Infrastructure, sunk costs and scale

  1. Hi Nicholas, Jan and Kathryn,This is my first post in Installing (social) order. Thank you Nicholas and Jan for inviting me to join the community. Thank you Kathryn for this post. It gives me lot to mull over especially since I have been thinking along similar lines about the contemporary process of ‘infrastructure’-ing Indian cities.I particularly like the idea of engaging with scale through a unit of infrastructure analysis. I agree that ‘sunk costs’, especially its resonance with economic rationality and path dependence, makes it is less palatable than a concept like base that seems to suggest the dense web of social relations and a subaltern agency that is so much in evidence in water supply infrastructure provision in the South both within the archipelago (Bakker 2008) and outside. However, I find it ironic that ‘base’ as a metaphor implies the presence of a scalar hierarchy that you are trying to problematize. It is interesting that you mention the MLT literature. One of the analytical constructs within this literature is socio-technical regimes. In MLT the regime occupies a meso level between the landscape and the niche. In the past I have used the notion of regimes to understand social, political and technical processes of change in urban water supply infrastructures and to compare these across cities. Jochen Monstadt’s integrative work on developing a political ecology of infrastructures has also identified infrastructure regimes as an arena for politics. I need to think some more about scale though…Govind


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