22-23 November 2018

Conference panel “Beyond Engineering – Anthropological Knowledge on Infrastructure”
Annual Meeting of the Swiss Anthropological Association, University of Zurich

Conference program

Participants: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Madlen Kobi (Academy of Architecture, Mendrisio)

Infrastructures such as roads, buildings, railways, heating systems or power lines are complex social-material-technological formations. Anthropological research into the meanings and workings of the built environment has demonstrated that materials, technologies and built structures are inherently social and dynamic. Moreover, though knowledge is often framed as something invisible—existing in discourses, ideas and cognition—the anthropology of infrastructure makes clear that it also is manifested in and thus has to be studied through materials such as concrete, steel, tarmac or sand and their use in the construction process. This is evident in anthropological studies that engage with the role of infrastructure as a built and building part of society. For example, houses can embody remittances entangled in migration histories or serve as real estate investment. Mobile phone-enabled connectivity expands networks of social relations. Mining of materials for infrastructure construction is embedded in the complex political ecology that stretches far beyond the actual construction site. Roads are platforms for projecting political agendas, expectations, fears, and claims to power. Ethnographic research on infrastructure meaningfully contributes to infrastructure studies by exploring infrastructure’s mundane social life and highlighting its inherent dynamism. Social anthropology thus balances out the focus on engineering, technological advancement and construction manifest in glossy images from opening ceremonies by contributing knowledge on the social life of infrastructure, the often neglected impact of time, the processes of social-material decay, and the complex work of maintenance.

Hence, anthropological knowledge contributes to understanding infrastructure beyond its normative function and rather as dynamically-evolvingsocial relations between materials, humans, discourses, knowledge, environment, the state, capital and more, relations that stretch across place and time.Social anthropologists have demonstrated an explicit interest in combining different scales of knowledge in their research, e.g. the scale of political decision-making, the scale of engineering knowledge, the knowledge of technologies and materials, the knowledge of the mundane lives of the workers, and the knowledge of power relations which manifest in infrastructure, among others. Anthropological research on infrastructure has thus also substantially, though often implicitly, contributed to destabilizing the notion of an anthropological ‘site’ or ‘field’, and has also sought to reflect it in its methodology.


Moritz F. Fürst and Ignaz Strebel, University of Lausanne
Why our cities don’t fall apart: Ethnographies of repair work

Dalila Ghodbane, Università della Svizzera Italiana
Heat and dust. The ethnography of a house in historic Cairo

Luisa Piart, University of Fribourg
Istanbul’s (post)-industrial infrastructures: An urban exploration

Seraina Hürlemann, University of Lausanne
More than transport: Contesting ethnic culture on the ancient tea horse road in Lashi Hai (Yunnan, China)

Matthäus Rest, Max Planck Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte, Jena
Do it for the culture. The infrastructures of milk preservation

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi, University of Zurich
Input presentation: The social life of infrastructure – existing and emerging debates