Events 2021

17 DECEMBER 2021

Disappearing Donkey. On the unexpected effects of the ‘New Silk Road’ infrastructure projects in Asia
Invited talk, online

Emilia Sułek

In an invited talk called “Disappearing Donkey. On the unexpected effects of the ‘New Silk Road’ infrastructure projects in Asia” Emilia presents the results of her latest research in Kyrgyzstan. What role does the donkey hide play in this, and what does all this say about the nature of Chinese economic endeavors in Central Asia?

The event was organized by ZAND: Zespół Antropologii Niezdyscyplinowanej, Polish Academy of Sciences, a young and innovative academic body that aims to create a space for interdisciplinary discussion between anthropology and other disciplines, including the sciences.

17 DECEMBER 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group 
Season 006 Episode 002

ROADWORK team and friends
The last infrastructure text in 2021 broached the issue of railways in Mongolia. We read a text by Maria-Katharina Lang and Baatarnaran Tsetsentsolmon “Connected or Traversed? Plans, Imaginaries, and the Actual State of Railway Projects in Mongolia” (Transfers (2020) 10(2/3): 195-211).

16 NOVEMBER 2021

Welcome and Unwelcome Connections: Travelling Post-Soviet Roads in Kyrgyzstan – Talk in the Social Sciences Department’s Colloquium, University of Fribourg

Zarina Urmanbetova

Drawing on ten months of fieldwork in central Kyrgyzstan, Zarina demonstrates in this talk how old and new roads become sites where regional identities can either be confirmed or contested. Further, she elaborates on how the inhabitants of the district of Toghuz-Toro take care of their own mobility and desired connections in a harsh terrain, in the absence of state-managed public transport, and in a situation that sees only rudimentary road maintenance. Last, Zarina discusses how technologies such as mobile Internet, and social media like Facebook, have engendered a profound transformation in the use of transport infrastructure, breathing new life into journeys along the old, dilapidated post-Soviet roads.

10-12 NOVEMBER 2021

Conference “Eurasia in Transition: Geopolitics, Connections and Challenges”
University of Zurich

Zarina Urmanbetova and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka’s paper “A Road, a Disappearing River and Fragile Connectivity in Sino-Inner Asian Borderlands” and Zarina’s paper “Connecting North and South: A Historical Overview of Road Infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan” are part of the panel “Infrastructure and Trade” chaired by Jeronim Perović.

20-23 OCTOBER 2021

Global Chinese Infrastructures – a writing workshop
Hotel Weiss Kreuz, Splügen, Switzerland
ROADWORK, China Made and Environing Infrastructure teams, and guests

This workshop was co-hosted by three research projects: the China Made project based at the University of Colorado Boulder, Environing Infrastructure based at the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich, and the ROADWORK project.

The aim of the workshop was to outline two factsheets. One of the factsheets focuses specifically on the BRI, its geo-political implications and discuss the power of its name, the discourse around it, and the work that this brand does globally. The second factsheet focuses more generally on China’s infrastructural activities in Asia in a longer-term perspective. Its aim is to discuss the effects of these activities on the legal, environmental, labour and sovereignty regimes, as well as on the local-scale environmental, cultural, socio-economic, and labour practices throughout Asia.

We plan is to publish these factsheets as widely as possible in various online collections, blogs, magazines, and websites. Further, they will be distributed to policy makers, NGOs and national development agencies.

It was wonderful to spend these three days together working, hiking and enjoying each other’s company after nearly two years of no face-to-face interactions!

6 OCTOBER 2021

Conference Paper  “Congested coasts and hospitable hinterlands: Dry ports in Germany and Kazakhstan,” Society for Social Studies Science (4S) Conference
Toronto and online
Verena La Mela

The annual conference of the “Society for Social Studies Science” (4S) is with more than 3200 registrants one of the largest of its kind. In 2021 the event took place virtually in Toronto and worldwide. It was themed “Good Relations: Practices and Methods in Unequal and Uncertain Worlds.” Verena contributed to the panel “Coastalization: Thinking global relations from the coast” with a presentation titled “Congested coasts and hospitable hinterlands: Dry ports in Germany and Kazakhstan.” In her talk she addressed inland transportation routes as attractive alternatives for congested sea ports during the Covid-19 pandemic. As hinterland extensions of coastal infrastructures they are meeting places of people, goods, technologies and forms of governmentality, which interact there in new and often unexpected ways. She analysed the Khorgos dry port on the Sino-Kazakh border and Nuremberg intermodal container terminal as centres of social and economic gravity which produce a multiplicity of human and non-human relationships.


Conference Paper “An empty road: Visual impressions and temporal aspects of implementing the BRI in south-eastern Kazakhstan,” Conference ‘Emptiness: Ways of Seeing’
University of Oxford, online

Verena La Mela

The conference “Emptiness: Ways of Seeing” was part of the ERC funded research project “Emptiness”, based at the University of Oxford and took place virtually from 29. September until 1. October 2021. Verena contributed with a talk titled “An empty road: Visual impressions and temporal aspects of implementing the BRI in south-eastern Kazakhstan.”

Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic field research, she addressed emptiness on a central road of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan through the lens of the anthropology of infrastructure. She drew on the concept of suspension (Akhil Gupta) in order to analyze the time between the construction/start of a project and its completion and to better comprehend the temporality of what is experienced or framed as emptiness. She argued that in the context of the BRI, a relational understanding of emptiness needs to be employed. This can help us compare the plans and promises of governments and other institutional bodies involved in the project constructions as well as media coverage and the ways how infrastructure is used and made sense of on the ground.


RDWK Team Colloquium VI: Talk “Grounding global China in northern Laos: The making of the infrastructure frontier,” Jessica Di Carlo, University of British Columbia

In today´s colloquium talk titled “Grounding global China in northern Laos: The making of the infrastructure frontier” Jessica presented an overview of her doctoral research to the Roadwork Asia team. Drawing on seventeen months of fieldwork, her dissertation develops an ethnography of global China through three interrelated projects that have become emblematic of the Belt and Road Initiative—the Laos-China Railway, Laos-China Economic Corridor, and Boten Special Economic Zone. She proposes the concept of the infrastructure frontier as a more nuanced way to think about China’s global expansion, and elaborates both Chinese and Lao experiences of infrastructure frontier making. Jessica demonstrates that the infrastructure frontier is made through the discursive repetition of the need to unblock Laos; undervaluation of land; spectacle and performance to attract capital; more-than-economic logics of Chinese capital; and both Lao and Chinese state-support. In sum, she argues that the frontier is made and remade by capital and the state through infrastructure, as space is simultaneously enclosed in order to open it to certain types of “development,” capital, or exploitation.


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 006 Episode 001
ROADWORK team and friends
The topic of today’s reading group was waste infrastructures. We read Caroline Knowle’s text “Untangling translocal urban textures of trash: plastics and plasticity in Addis Ababa” (Social Anthropology (2017) 25(3): 288-300) and Gregson et al’s text “Following things of rubbish value: End-of-life ships, ‘chock-chocky’ furniture and the Bangladeshi middle class consumer” (Geoforum (2010) 41: 846-854).


ROADWORK team gives two seminars at the University of Fribourg

In the fall semester 2021 the ROADWORK team teaches collectively two seminars. Our aim is to share our research findings as well as the knowledge on research methods and ethics with the BA and MA students of Social Sciences at the University of Fribourg.

Emilia and Verena give a combined BA/MA Seminar “Schwarzgeld & Schattenwirtschaft: Anthropologischer Blick ins ökonomische Grenzland des Staates,” and Agnieszka and Zarina give an MA Seminar “Methods and ethics of anthropological research.”


BRI: Concrete effects of an elusive strategy
Brown Bag Lunch, Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasia Division

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Zarina Urmanbetova

Agnieszka and Zarina were invited to give the annual lecture at the Eurasia Division of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This annual event, which brings together Swiss diplomats and academics working on and in Eurasia was a great opportunity for the ROADWORK team to share our research findings and to discuss Switzerland’s engagement in Central Asia.

We’d like to thank the team of Ambassador Anna Ifkovits Horner for their hospitality and the participants for stimulating questions!


Die neue Seidenstrasse – Auswirkungen der neuen Infrastrukturprojekte im chinesischen Zentralasien
Public lecture at Kafi Blickfabrik, Zurich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka was invited by the Ethnological Association of Zurich to give a talk in the public lecture series “Kafi Blickfabrik.”

In her talk, Agnieszka discussed how the lives of people living along the newly asphalted roads change when local roads become part of transnational transportation routes and pointed to the many exclusions that new infrastructures generate, despite their promise of universal connectivity.

26 AUGUST 2021

RDWK team colloquium V: Talk “Geopolitics of Infrastructure in a Frontier Space,” Hassan H. Karrar, Lahore University of Management Sciences


In this colloquium our colleague Hasan Karrar joined from Pakistan in order to give a talk about “Geopolitics of Infrastructure in a Frontier Space.”

In his talk he argued that infrastructure plays an agential role in securitization of everyday life in the Karakoram high mountains of north Pakistan. Long cycles of military rule, juxtaposed against a territorial dispute with India, and alignment with Chinese interests—Pakistan borders both countries in the Karakoram—has resulted in the military becoming custodians of state modernization through technocratic expertise, and recently, protectors of capital circulating under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment regime.

16 JULY 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 005 Episode 005
ROADWORK team and friends
In our last infrastructure reading group session before the summer break we discussed Miriam Driessen’s article “Laughing about Corruption in Ethiopian-Chinese Encounters” (American Anthropologist (2019) 121: 911-22) and Rosalie Stolz’s article “Making Aspirations Concrete? ‘Good Houses’ and Mockery in Upland Laos” (Ethnos (2019): 1-18).

24 JUNE 2021

RDWK team colloquium IV

This time we had the pleasure to listen to the amazing Galen Murton. In his presentation “The Power of Blank Spaces in Building a New Nepal,” Galen explored the concept of ‘useful fuzziness’ (Narins and Agnew 2019) as a starting point of a critical cartography of the BRI. He asked why the BRI development throughout the Tibet-Himalaya region remains conspicuously blank on most maps, and what work (Wood 2010) is accomplished by such cartographic silences (Harley 2001).

In contrast to this, the BRI is very much present in Nepal – discursively, materially, and cartographically. Chinese development programs are widely anticipated, embraced, and promoted as grand and spectacular things throughout Nepal, and BRI imaginaries operate across a range of socio-spatial landscapes. Following this friction of representation, Galen showed the manifold ways in which infrastructures articulate politics and, vice-versa, how politics articulate infrastructures.

15 JUNE 2021, 9am-12pm

Factsheet on mega-infrastructure projects for the Swiss Academy of Sciences – Kick-off meeting
Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, online
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka represented the ROADWORK project in the kick-off meeting organized by Tobias Haller and Samuel Weissman from the Institute of Social Anthropology (University of Bern) to discuss the contents of a planned factsheet on social, health-related, economic, and geopolitical outcomes of mega-infrastructure projects globally.

The factsheet for the Swiss Academy of Sciences’ Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE) will be based on the first-hand knowledge on mega projects gathered at four Swiss research institutions: the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Bern, the Social Anthropology Unit (Université de Fribourg) represented by the ROADWORK project, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (TPH) in Basel, and the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern, which will take the lead in composing the factsheet.

4 JUNE 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 005 Episode 004
ROADWORK team and friends
In this reading group we read Ashley Carse and David Kneas’ article “Unbuilt and Unfinished. The Temporalities of Infrastructure” (Environment and Society: Advances in Research 10 (2019): 9-28) and Kathryn Furlong’s “Geographies of infrastructure II: Concrete, cloud and layered (in)visibilities” (Progress in Human Geography (2021) 45: 190-8).

1 JUNE 2021

All the way from Kazakhstan to Germany: Field research during the COVID-19 pandemic

Verena La Mela
Verena was invited to give a talk at the monthly Department’s Colloquium. In her talk “All the way from Kazakhstan to Germany: Field research during the COVID-19 pandemic” she presented her ongoing ethnographic research on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Central to the BRI are large-scale infrastructure projects which aim at facilitating the flow of goods between China, Central Asia and Europe. By focusing on two logistical hubs, one at the Sino-Kazakh border and one in south-eastern Germany, she asks why frictions nevertheless occur and shows how they are dealt with on the ground.

27 MAY 2021

RDWK Team Colloquium III
In her talk “The Social Logics of Logistics” Verena La Mela presented her ongoing research on logistics in the context of the BRI. She showed that the performance of supply chains are an orchestrated process, carried by a web of personal and institutional networks, as well as the negotiations between them. In her presentation Verena rendered visible the arduous labour of the logisticians to create the image of the seamless supply chains.

19 MAY 2021

“Die raue Seite der Seidenstrasse” – Rotary Club Wynen- und Suhrental, Switzerland
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In this second lecture for regional Rotary Clubs in Switzerland Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi continues her discussion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the repercussions that the Initiative has in China’s border regions and in Central Asia.

7 MAY 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 005 Episode 003

ROADWORK team and friends
In this session we delved into logistics and read Hege Høyer Leivestad`s article “Who cares about the cargo? Container economies in a European transshipment port” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 89 (2021): 52–63, and “The work-intensive fiction of frictionless trade in the Angolan port of Lobito” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 89 (2021): 64–78 by Jon Schubert.

24 APRIL 2021

The first round of mentoring in team, Kriens

Zarina Urmanbetova, Verena La Mela, Emilia Sułek and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

The core team of the ROADWORK project met on this beautiful Saturday at Emilia’s home in Kriens for a relaxed day of mentoring in team. The aim of this meet-up was to review our CVs and publication lists, locate the so called ‘gaps’, present our plans for the future, and draft strategies for implementing these plans. As the competition on the academic job market is huge, this mentoring session was meant as the time in which we can pause, discuss our “dream jobs,” and think of ways in which we can strengthen our profiles to apply for positions in both academia and outside of it, for example in science communication, international organizations or in the development sector.

15 APRIL 2021

RDWK team colloquium II

The second talk of our RDWK online team meeting was given by the new member of our research group – Björn Reichhardt.

His talk was titled “Uncertainty, Security and Spatial Production: An Ethnography of Borders and Liminality in Rural Mongolia”.

In his insightful presentation Björn drew on dissertational research in rural Mongolia where he investigates how border making practices have an impact on the perception of environments and security in the context of post-socialist uncertainty. By drawing on the example of Khatgal, a touristic village in northern Mongolia that has undergone various infrastructural changes during the past decades, the presentation pointed to both the historical and material conditions from which particular borders have emerged as well as the socio-spatial agency exercised by borders, roads, and the liminal spaces they create.

9 APRIL 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 005 Episode 002

ROADWORK team and friends

Our inter-disciplinary Infrastructure Reading Group is growing: Welcome to all new members!

Did you ever think about infrastructure above the clouds or the relation between termites and infrastructure? In this session we had the pleasure to read Tina Harris´ engaging text about aviation in Nepal “Air Pressure: Temporal Hierarchies in

Nepali Aviation” Cultural Anthropology 36.1 (2021): 83–109, and Maan Barua`s text “Infrastructure and non-human life: A wider ontology” Progress in Human Geography 20 (10) (2021): 1–23.

31 MARCH 2021, 7-9 pm

“New Roads, Old Stories: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Travel in the Age of the BRI” – Public lecture at the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Since 2013, when the Open Up the West program made way for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), many dirt roads in western China have received new tarmac covers, and plenty of new expressways and airports have been built. The infrastructure to potentially go anywhere is in place, but for many actual journeys remain no less stuttering and confusing than they were in the 1990s. This talk will reflect on how the bureaucratic terrain of western China continues to affect the ways in which human beings can travel, and more generally “be,” in this region of Asia. It will also discuss the opacity of the promise that the new infrastructures give, and finally ponder the question of how anthropological knowledge can contribute to understanding infrastructural mega-initiatives like the BRI.

25 MARCH 2021

RDWK team colloquium I


The ROADWORK team members are based in different continents reaching from the US over Europe and Asia to Australia. It has been more than a year since the pandemic prevented us from gathering in person. Thus, in March 2021 we launched the RDWK online team colloquium.

Eric Schlüssel was our first speaker. His kick-off talk had the title “Exploring the Capillaries of Commerce in Turn-of-the-Century Xinjiang.” This is a brief summary of Eric’s fascinating talk: Historians and social scientists alike often characterize the vast Uyghur homeland as a site of extraction by great states, or as an entrepot between them. However, when we turn our eyes to the capillaries of commerce, the ways in which ordinary farmers, merchants, and others within the region moved and marketed goods, we can identify circuits of economic activity that were intimately tied to large landholding institutions such as pious endowments. This presentation explores a case study of how transregional merchants collaborated with the state to remake the region’s roadways at the turn of the twentieth century, resulting in major changes in ecology and infrastructure

5 MARCH 2021

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 005 Episode 001

ROADWORK team and friends

This infrastructure reading group`s session takes us into enlightened spaces of North America and Western Europe and then to Egypt`s complex irrigation infrastructure.

We read “The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark” Urban Studies Journal Limited52.3 (2015): 422-438 by Tim Edensor, and “States of maintenance: Power, politics, and Egypt’s irrigation infrastructure” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35.1 (2017): 146–164 by Jessica Barnes.

22 FEBRUARY 2021, 1-1.45 pm

“Die raue Seite der Seidenstrasse” – Lunch Talk at the Rotary Club Luzern, Switzerland
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

2013 hat Chinas Präsident Xi Jinping die sogenannte „Neue Seidenstrasse“-Initiative lanciert. Die Initiative sieht den Bau immenser Infrastrukturnetzwerke vor, mit dem Ziel, den euroasiatischen Kontinent in einen dicht vernetzten Raum zu verwandeln.

Prof. Joniak-Lüthi untersucht die soziale Komplexität der neugebauten Infrastruktur. Ihr Fokus liegt auf den Strassen, die Nordwest China mit Zentralasien und dann weiter mit Europa langfristig verbinden sollen. In diesem Vortrag beleuchtet Prof. Joniak-Lüthi verschiedene Aspekte ihrer Forschung und diskutiert die langfristigen sozialen, wirtschaftlichen, politischen und ökologischen Folgen der neuen Strassen und Bahnlinien.


Workshop: “The Social and Cultural Meaning of Money in Central Asia

Verena La Mela

Gulzat Botoeva and Oybek Madiyev from the London Central Asia Research Network ( organized an online workshop to consider the social aspects of money. Various scholars presented their research and explored the social meanings of money at different sites across Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Xinjiang. One of the panels focused on gendered aspects of money and another on its moral narratives and interpretations. The findings of the workshop will be published in a special issue.       

Verena contributed a presentation about how money creates social relationships among Uyghur women in the Sino–Kazakh borderlands. Booming infrastructure development around Khorgos, one of the main BRI hubs, and the business opportunities this has created, have enabled local women to earn substantial amounts of cash. Many women use these funds to invest in the social gathering called chai, tea, through which they establish further sustainable social and economic relationships.

27 JANUARY 2021, 2-4 pm

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 004

We start our first reading group meeting in 2021 with the following two texts:

Magnus Marsden and Madeleine Reeves “Marginal Hubs: On conviviality beyond the urban in Asia: Introduction”, Modern Asian Studies 53, 3 (2019) pp. 755–775, and Jonathan Silver “DISRUPTED INFRASTRUCTURES: An Urban Political Ecology of Interrupted Electricity in Accra”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, (2016): 984-1003.  

We warmly welcome you to join the reading group. Please contact

22 JANUARY 2021

Policy brief writing workshop for social anthropologists
Organized by Zarina Urmanbetova and Emilia Sułek
As social anthropologists, we aim to generate empirically rich data for our studies. But we also want to learn how to disseminate our knowledge to a broader public besides academia. In order to facilitate this, we came up with the idea that one approach would be to develop our skills in writing non-academic research-based papers and thus enhance our knowledge flow into the public policy community, targeting the likes of decisionmakers and policymakers. So, Roadwork members used the opportunity provided by the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich through the Junior Researcher Grants program and organized a workshop entitled “Policy brief writing for social anthropologists” for the junior researchers of the Department, which was held on 22 January. The event was hybrid in person and online: Agnieszka, Emilia and Zarina were able to convene in one of the Department’s seminar rooms, while adhering of course to the necessary social distancing and sanitizing rules, and other participants joined in the sessions via Zoom. Workshop speakers were Anu Lannen, editor of policy briefs for the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern, and Marta Jagusztyn, MERL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning) specialist. The workshop was very informative and full of useful insights about the policy world. We are excited now to apply these learnings we obtained at the workshop.