Infrastructures of Social Change

We explore the infrastructural dynamics and the material dimensions of social relations and address the fluidity and elasticity of social life by incorporating material processes into our understanding of organisational or systemic form and social change.

Convenor: Prof Penny Harvey

We are living in a time when infrastructures are being held up as both the causes and the solution to problems of social dislocation, economic stagnation, and national security. Yet evaluations of the impact of infrastructural change often belie the ‘infrastructural’ interplay between technical, material and social relations through which change comes about.

Instead, evaluative methodologies frequently depend on the creation of a neat division between projects of intervention and the contexts which they set out to transform, with the effect that many of the social, political, economic and material transformations that infrastructural projects bring about are rendered undetectable, unrecognised, and unmanageable.

Researchers in this research theme are working to develop approaches that are capable of recovering the extended social transformations that infrastructures participate in bringing into being.

Previously organised under the heading 'Topologies of Social Change' our research analyses processes of social/infrastructural change by paying attention to the way in which change emerges through an interplay between technologies, materials and social imaginaries.

Building on research with a wide range of partners: from engineers, planners, and policymakers who are devising methods of bringing about and accounting for infrastructural change; to activists and artists who are reimagining society through alternative renderings of infrastructural relations, Theme 4 researchers are developing methodological and theoretical approaches that look to extend our understanding of infrastructural relations and their implications for engaging the socially transformative effects of projects of infrastructural change.

Key research questions

What do infrastructures enable? What kinds of changes do they bring about and how? What are the politics of infrastructural transformation? Who has the capacity/right to act ‘infrastructurally’?

What do infrastructures prevent? How do infrastructures militate against change? When are infrastructures conservative, intransigent, obstructive? Through what techniques can these obstructions be overcome?

How are infrastructures imagined? How are they made amenable to transformation? What is the role of representation in bringing infrastructures into being?

Are all contemporary relations infrastructural? What analytical possibilities lie in the development of an ‘infrastructural’ approach to social change? What are the alternatives to an ‘infrastructural’ approach? What is the (implicit) politics of analysing relations ‘infrastructurally’?

Our approaches

We have pursued these questions through three overlapping approaches:

1. Ethnographies of Infrastructures

Researchers in this theme have been involved in a range of ethnographic studies of infrastructures themselves.

These studies have explored how an attention to infrastructural forms – roads, airports, information and communications technologies, offers a privileged means of analysing processes of social transformation.

These projects focus in particular on how infrastructural projects bring together political and economic forces (in the multiple and overlapping agencies of state agencies, markets, citizens and consumers) in complex ways and often with unexpected effects. They open up our understanding of the social impact of infrastructural interventions to a more extended and distributed sense of social transformation.

2. Analyses of Social and Material Formations

Theoretically, theme researchers have been concerned with the role of form in understanding social relations. Some researchers involved in studying infrastructures of social change have not necessarily focused on obvious ‘infrastructural’ systems, but have rather worked on trying to understand the interplay between materiality and imagination in the making of social futures. To this end, researchers have been working with concepts such as the network, topology, affect and assemblage to analyse change as it is manifest in emergent relational arrangements. Research projects have included analyses of the role that objects and materials play in the transformation of the social imagination, and the ways in which sociality comes to form or shape material configurations. These projects provide a powerful theoretical understanding of the relationship between the cultural and the material world which is central to our broader project of understanding social change through an attention to the transformational effects of dynamic infrastructural forms.

3. Research on the practices of the Infrastructural

A final focus of research projects which have been carried out within the 'Infrastructures of Social Change' theme has been the way in which the practices and techniques necessary for the continued existence of infrastructural forms are reconfiguring social relations.

Research has been conducted for example, on the way in which practices of standardisation, engineering, gridding, contractual negotiation, resource allocation, and scientific investigation – practices which are central to the formation of contemporary infrastructures – participate in broader dynamics of social change.

By focusing on the specific enactment of these practices in particular settings of social or political transformation, these projects provide us with an understanding of the transformative or disruptive effects of the often invisible processes and practices that lie behind the development and implementation of contemporary infrastructures.