Locating the state? Kathryn Furlong

“Locating the state? Infrastructure, scale and the technologies of governing, a Colombian case.” Kathryn Furlong from Université de Montréal. Jan and I first learned about Kathryn’s work when discussing infrastructure, and in particular, the issue of scale, which was spurned by a discussion with Hendrik about flat infrastructure. Subsequently, we invited Kathryn to blog with us on installing order where we even saw a few precursors for the work she presented at 4S/EASST this year in a post from about a year ago.


So, this year we saw a great presentation about understanding the relationship between scale and infrastructure. In her old published work, Kathryn Furlong in Progress in Human Geography titled “Small technologies, big change: Rethinking infrastructure through STS and geography“, we also saw the underpinnings of an understanding about scale. In the conclusion of that paper, which could have gone on at much greater length, there is an important Latourian twist included about “inversions” of scale (even if “large” and “small” are ultimately unsatisfactory with regard to measuring scale):

“This paper signals the need to look beyond infrastructure as a single unit, static in its physical state and social and environmental effects. Breaking infrastructure down into assemblages of small technologies that matter enables one to see the possibility to employ small change to mediate large problems.”

One of the ways that she ‘makes good’ on her previous claims about getting away from seeing infrastructure as ‘a single unit’ is to get at the idea that technologies might be hybrid (per the picture below) or, using my lens in ANT, seeing more of the multiplicity in water was a gathering point for many visions of water … in Kathryn’s case, this is a slide about comparing city wanter and rainwater. For example, her data collection shows that citizens consider rain water ‘more clean’ or ‘higher quality’ as compared to city water piped in from afar, but this importantly depends on the location of the person and the water.


This all becomes even more interesting when applied to some of the central questions of state theory (e.g., what is a state? how do we make them? what can they do? can they do anything? etc.). Kathryn presents a commonplace distinction between the “North” and the “South”, but only for a moment, in order to get at the notion that in the Global South, the combination of government and infrastructure (which are otherwise imbricated in the Global North, comprising much of what is thought to represent ‘the state’) does not appear to operate in similar ways. Of particular importance, I think, is the idea that when a government attempts to impose a ‘unified infrastructure’ they will for sure end-up creating some sort of non-uniform thing variously composed of  especially in areas, and Kathryn contends, where infrastructure has not played a significant role in the previous years or decades (what she calls ‘omnipresent infrastructure’).


Kathryn’s original abstract:

In the North, many authors have noted the passage from government to governance; that is from centralized and hierarchical to more diffuse and inclusive forms of decision-making (Jessop 1998; Peters and Savoie 1995). Infrastructure networks have experienced similar shifts, from the exclusive “black box” to more malleable and participatory systems (Furlong 2011). Yet, in many contexts in the Global South, including Colombia, neither the government, nor infrastructure managed to cover the whole of the state territory. By examining such a case, this essay seeks to add relief to some broadly held conceptualizations about the state, infrastructure and governmentality. One of these is in relation to scale. Drawing on critiques of scale (e.g. Marston et al. 2005), the essay questions where to locate the state in relation to issues of infrastructure and governing. Where the state has clearly not been omnipresent, it is easier to see how the assumed hierarchy of state scale breaks down. This is exemplified through the case of regulatory attempts to create a uniform infrastructure sector, which have yielded perhaps as much change in regulation as they have in service delivery. Moreover, where infrastructure has not been omnipresent, rather than imposing a new “black box”, managers may have to compete with a variety of pre-existing technical and social practices resulting in new forms of hybrid infrastructures. As such, just as new technologies create shifts in governing (e.g. the internet), the introduction of absent technology can yield shifts in both governing and how the technology is traditionally conceived.

This entry was posted in Events, Guest Blogger, New Ideas, STS, Uncategorized by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

6 thoughts on “Locating the state? Kathryn Furlong

  1. Hey Everyone,Thanks for the conversation. The conference was held by the LATTS group at l’Ecole des Ponts ParisTech (http://latts.cnrs.fr/p_latts03b1.html?Id=2) and organized by Olivier Coutard and Jonathon Rutherford who have done great work on post-networked infrastructure etc. The conference was held in Autun, France and I think I will never eat that well again in my life. One example of how people there were rethinking the battle of the systems perspective was around cycling "versus" the car in a paper contributed by Elizabeth Shove. So, in many respects it seems obvious to say from a "battle of the systems" approach that the car one and biking died off as a preferred and dominant mode of transport. But, if you look a little closer, these two "systems" actually coexist in ways that differ across space and over time. As such, the battle of the systems becomes a unproductive way of understanding what’s going on. A better way to think of it would be shifting degrees and ways of coexistence and how they are fostered under which circumstances. This by default challenges notions of ultimate state control (or ultimate control of any party) in determining outcomes, because outcomes are necessarily hybrid and evolving.So then what makes makes micro changes – say bike lanes or safer baby carriers for bikes – part of such "system battles"? Well, maybe they are more part of shifting configurations of hybridity. If we accept say that motorized transportation is not about to die off, how is "the transport system" hybrid and shared, how does it change and shift? What role to micro changes have in these hybrid configurations? I think once we pass on the "winner take all" battle of the systems outlook, there is more space for different types and degrees of "transition" through micro changes and shifting hybridity.In this light, I think Govind’s paper sounds really interesting. Different actors have different interests and perspectives etc in producing outcomes. Motorists may not lobby for bike lanes, but the system in which they are considered dominant will shift. Have to read that paper!I hope this wasn’t too long winded!


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