28 APRIL 2022

Invited Talk “The Rough Side of Silk: Connectivity and (Dis)Repair on Central Asia’s New Roads”, Weltmuseum, Vienna

Emilia Sułek

Emilia Sułek gives a talk during a symposium accompanying the exhibition Dust & Silk in Weltmuseum, Vienna.

Can BRI roads live up to to the high expectations placed in them? Do they bring peace, development and prosperity for all? While the media coverage related to the BRI-project focuses on construction-related expenditure, kilometres of roads (built or only planned) and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, in her talk in Vienna Emilia Sulek showed some phenomena that are only visible after the camera lights go out: the more down-to-earth side of these new roads and their mundane effects on the ground.

The exhibition Dust & Silk was organized in cooperation with the research project Dispersed and Connected, Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

25 APRIL 2022

Yartsa Gumbu: A case of an economic agency on China’s political periphery

Emilia Sułek

Discussion (with invited guests) on the book by Emilia Sułek Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet: When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area (Amsterdam University Press)

The 21st century has seen a number of booms in pharmaceutical products, with their roots in so-called traditional medicine, but processed for the capitalist market. One of such products is yartsa gumbu or caterpillar fungus. Like Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s work on matsutake, Sulek’s monograph tells more than the story of a medicinal fungus in demand on the Chinese market. It also (or perhaps above all) tells the story of the relationship between the state and the citizen, especially the Chinese state and the Tibetan citizen in a region often treated as politically marginal and lacking economic vigour.

Emilia thanks Agnieszka Halemba and the Polish Academy of Sciences for the invitation.

22 APRIL 2022

Guest lecture “The rough side of the New Silk Road,” Chair of Chinese Culture and Society, University of St. Gallen

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In her lecture, Agnieszka discussed the expansion of infrastructure networks in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, and focused on the politics of infrastructure decay and maintenance in this geopolitically crucial region, which has been the target of violent state repressions since 2016.

1 APRIL 2022

Talk “Fragile Connectivity: Maintaining Roads and Relations in China’s Northwest” at the Department of Anthropology, SEATRiP program, University of California in Riverside

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gave a talk at the University of California in Riverside, hosted by The Southeast Asian Studies program. It was the first face-to-face event on the UCR campus in two years due to the pandemic. The local complied with all local regulations to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Agnieszka’s lecture inspired an exciting discussion with faculty and students from different countries and departments, including undergraduate and graduate students.

The audience were very interested in the topic of maintaining infrastructures in the context of relations with the environment and various social and human factors. There were also several engaging questions about migration and the relocation of particular groups because of environmental and other factors from the territory Agnieszka spoke about in her presentation. 

We are grateful for the warm welcome we received on campus and for the opportunity to share our research with colleagues and students at the University of California, Riverside.

22-25 MARCH 2022

Input in the roundtable “The Social Lives of Asian Infrastructure: A Roundtable on Methodology,” The Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Honolulu, Hawai’i

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka participated in the roundtable “The Social Lives of Asian Infrastructure: A Roundtable on Methodology” with an input on team fieldwork and ethnographic mapping. It was a great pleasure to confer the panel on site and have the opportunity to listen to the interventions bother panelists: Prof. Christina Schwenkel (University of California, Riverside), Prof. Rashmi Sadana (George Mason University) and Prof. Julie Y. Chu (University of Chicago).

14 MARCH 2022

Anthro-Geo-Colloquium I at the University of Fribourg

Emilia Sułek

During the first Anthro-Geo-Colloquium organized by social anthropologists and human geographers from the University of Fribourg Emilia talks about road infrastructure, donkey hide trade, and pharmaceutical industry in China. 

8 MARCH 2022

Talks “Maintaining relations: Life with and without roads in Northwest China” and “The Afterlife of the Coloured Steel Hut: Infrastructure construction and provisional rurality in Inner Mongolia,”MIASU Research Seminar, Unit of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Thomas White

After two years of waiting and hoping that on-site events will be possible again, Agnieszka and Thomas gave their talks in the MIASU Research Seminar. Agnieszka’s talk “Maintaining relations: Life with and without roads in Northwest China” focused on the complex politics of infrastructure maintenance in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In his talk “The Afterlife of the Coloured Steel Hut: Infrastructure construction and provisional rurality in Inner Mongolia,” Thomas explored the second life of abandoned road construction materials as they enter the lives of Mongolian pastoralists.

5 MARCH 2022

Visiting Scholar in the Program of Southeast Asian Studies, in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, University of California in Riverside
Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina is spending the spring quarter as a visiting scholar at the University of California in Riverside, in the Southeast Asian Studies Program, in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. While at UCR, she will be working on her dissertation chapters under the mentorship of Prof. Dr Christina Schwenkel.

Zarina is attending the graduate course on Professionalism in Anthropology by Prof. Schwenkel and participating in the launch of the infrastructure reading group at UCR’s Department of Anthropology. We hope that Zarina will have a fruitful stay at UCR.

28 FEBRUARY 2022

RDWK Team Colloquium VIII: Collective brainstorming
The second RDWK team colloquium in 2022 was of an experimental format: We had a collective brainstorming session in order to explore the notion of “centrality” within Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI) projects. We questioned the dominant geo-political narrative of BRI “connectivity” and explored how “being central” is experienced and phrased by actors enlivening spaces represented as transit zones.

22 FEBRUARY 2022

Intervention  “Khorgos – the Making of an Equal Twin on the Sino-Kazakh border,” Book launch of Twin Cities across Five Continents: Interactions and Tension on Urban Borders
Global Studies Institute, Geneva


Verena La Mela

The Global Studies Institute in Geneva hosted the book launch of the second volume Twin Cities across Five Continents, edited by Ekaterina Mikhailova and John Garrard. There, Verena presented her Twin Cities book chapter “Khorgos – the Making of an Equal Twin on the Sino-Kazakh border.” Aligned with the book’s theoretical orientation, in her chapter she presents Khorgos as a case study of a twin city with a dominant (Chinese) and a subordinate (Kazakh) part. Despite visible inequality in terms of infrastructure development, Verena argues that we need to pay attention to and recognize Kazakhstan’s efforts to promote its own narrative of the trans-boundary cooperation and the related infrastructure construction.

17 FEBRUARY 2022

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 007 Episode 001

ROADWORK team and friends
The new infrastructure reading group year continued with texts by Sheila Jasanoff “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity” (in Dreamscapes of Modernity. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (2015) edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim) and by Austin Zeiderman “Concrete Peace: Building Security through Infrastructure in Colombia” (Anthropological Quarterly (2020) 93(3): 497-528).


Call for papers for ROADSIDES Collection No. 008 on “Infrastructure and the Animal”

Emilia Sułek and Tom White

Emilia and Tom announce the call for papers for ROADSIDES Collection No. 008 (Fall 2022) called “Infrastructure and the Animal”. In this special issue the editors ask what thinking with animals and infrastructure can reveal about the expectations and failures of modernity.

More info under the link:

The contributors will be invited to Fribourg to present their papers at a workshop under the same title.

31 JANUARY 2022

Conversation about Natalia Bloch’s book “Encounters across Difference. Tourism and Overcoming Subalternity in India”

Emilia Sułek

Emilia has the pleasure of being a discussant in a conversation about Natalia Bloch’s book “Encounters across Difference. Tourism and Overcoming Subalternity in India” (Rowman and Littlefield 2021). She talks about tourism infrastructure, informal economy, agency and the Tibetan diaspora in India. The meeting was organised by the Asian Studies Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

27 JANUARY 2022

RDWK Team Colloquium VII: Talk “Choke Points: How things move in Chinese borderlands and what happens when they don’t,” Judd Kinzley, University of Wisconsin
University of Fribourg, online
Roadwork team
Our ROADWORK team colloquium reconvened in January 2022. The starting talk was delivered by our colleague Judd Kinzley who focused on the power of international markets in Chinese border regions. Using the examples of petroleum in Xinjiang and hog bristles in Sichuan, his talk revealed how local actors in these regions have created and exploited “chokepoints” in the flow of these goods for their own benefit. The phenomenon is part of a larger story about capital flows, production, transport infrastructure, and the agency of local agents.

19 JANUARY 2022

“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 006 Episode 003

ROADWORK team and friends
Our first infrastructure reading group in 2022 kicked-off in a hybrid mode at one of our group member´s place in Zurich and online. We heralded the year with texts by Hannah Knox “Traversing the infrastructures of digital life” (Digital Anthropology (2021), edited by Haidy Geismar and Hannah Knox) and Akhil Gupta’s “Infrastructure as Decay and the Decay of Infrastructure” (in Decay (2021), edited by Ghassan Hage).

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.

14 DECEMBER 2020

Eccellenza Panel – promoting women in science
Organized by the Office for Gender Equality and Diversity, University of Zurich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

As one of the few women scholars at the University of Zurich to have been awarded the professorial grant in the last years, Agnieszka was invited to participate as a speaker in this panel that aimed at encouraging women to apply for the high-profile Eccelenza fellowships.

It was such a pleasure to speak in front of more than fifty women scholars planning to apply for the fellowship at the University of Zurich in the coming years. Good luck to everyone!


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 003

Israeli checkpoints and Astana`s magnificent buildings, these were the topics of our previous reading group session. We had the pleasure to read Helga Tawil-Souri`s text “Qalandia Checkpoint as Space and Nonplace”, Space and Culture 14.1 (2011): 4-26, and Mateusz Laszczkowski`s “‘Demo version of a city’: buildings, affects, and the state in Astana”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 22, (2015): 148-165.

With pandemic travel restrictions still applying we continue our meetings on zoom.


Ethnic Disconnectivities: Mundane life of transport infrastructure in northwest China
Lunch Colloquium, Department of Social Sciences, University of Fribourg

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Two weeks after her farewell lecture in Zurich, Agnieszka had the pleasure of giving her first talk in her new Department at the University of Fribourg.

Thank you, Sylvain and Louis, for the invitation and for your effort to establish this new lecture series!

17 NOVEMBER 2020

Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China
Lecture in the Social Anthropology Colloquium, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gave her farewell lecture in the Department’s Colloquium. Many thanks to the audience for fantastic questions, and Daniela and Esther for coordinating the event!

In February 2021 the ROADWORK team is going to move to the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Fribourg.

26 NOVEMBER 2020

Roads that Unite and Divide
Conference held at the Kalmyk Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Thomas White

On 26 November Agnieszka and Thomas participated in an online conference hosted by the Kalmyk Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Agnieskza gave a paper entitled Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China, while Thomas’ paper was entitled Roads, herders, and the state in Inner Mongolia.

Conference program


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 002

In this edition of the reading group we are again discussing two articles:

Julie Chu’s “When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in China,” American Ethnologist 41.2 (2014): 351–67
Brenda Chalfin’s “‘Wastelandia’: Infrastructure and the Commonwealth of Waste in Urban Ghana,” Ethnos 82.4 (2017): 648–71.

We’ll convene for the next reading group on 4 December, 10am, on Zoom. Send an email to if you’d like to join the conversation.

30 OCTOBER 2020

Interview for the UZH Magazin

Emilia Sułek and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Emilia and Agnieszka met with Mr. Ganz, a journalist writing for the quarterly UZH Magazin (Journal of the University of Zurich), for an interview on the ROADWORK project.

The team’s aim is to circulate our knowledge as widely as possible and also reach non-academic audiences. The always beautifully curated UZH Magazin (published in 20,000 copies!) is the next step in this direction.

28 – 30 OCTOBER 2020

The 2nd International conference Esimde-Dreams of Mankurt
A presentation of interdisciplinary journal Nemononmif

Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina Urmanbetova edited the second issue of the journal Nemonomif and presented it at the second international conference Esimde – Dreams of Mankurt. The presentation was carried out over the internet, while the conference took place in Bishkek on 28–30 October.

Nemonomif is an interdisciplinary journal with a decolonial slant that covers diverse approaches to exploring the past of the Eurasian region. The conceptual framework for the second issue is a metaphor: Dreams of Mankurt. The authors and thinkers who have contributed to the journal built their essays around this metaphor. The journal also includes exciting interviews, one of which is with prominent decolonizing author Madina Tlostanova. Soon the online version of Nemonomif will be available at:

22 OCTOBER 2020

Mining and the BRI in Mongolia

Emilia Sułek

Emilia moderated the webcast “Mining in Mongolia: How Long Can It Boom? Winners and Losers, Conflicts and Solutions.”

The mining boom in Mongolia, its economic importance, environmental and social effects as well as the role of the Belt and Road Initiative in this phenomenon were the main topics dicussed. Emilia’s guests were Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo (Gobi Framework) and Beibei Gu (Zoï Environment Network), the latter of whom presented two recently launched reports: “Greening the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor” and “Greening the Belt and Road Projects in Central Asia.”

The webcast was hosted by Asia Society Switzerland.

21 OCTOBER 2020

Infrastrukturalne powiązania: codzienne życie wzdłuż dróg na pograniczu Chin i Azji Środkowej
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

For the first time in more than fifteen years I gave an academic talk in my mother tongue. It was quite an experience – thank god for DeepL! Without this tool it would have taken me days to translate my thoughts into Polish.

The lecture inaugurated the new academic year and the founding of the Institute – a merry occasion that I was very happy to be a part of. A big thank you to Tomasz Wicherkiewicz for orchestrating the event. It was a lovely experience to return to my alma mater and see my teachers and colleagues again after such a long time.

1 OCTOBER 2020

Greening the BRI

Geneva International Environment House 

Emilia Sułek

Emilia Joined the official launch of Zoï Environment Network’s new synthesis report “Greening the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.”


Beginning of field research

Verena La Mela

COVID-19 changed all plans. Kazakhstan is still off limits and so Verena started her research in Germany. Unexpectedly, she found herself doing anthropology at home. Her first destination was the port of Nuremberg, where once a week a train arrives from China. The train carries containers around 9000 kilometers along what logisticians colloquially refer to as the “Iron New Silk Road”. The line crosses several borders and undergoes gauge conversion twice. In Nuremberg, the containers are loaded onto trucks before departing for their final destinations and the train is sent back to China with different containers and a new load.      

Verena expected to witness this mighty freight arriving with a great ballyhoo, only to find that in its last meters the train is pulled into station by a perfectly ordinary diesel locomotive. No Chinese flags, no red banners, no blaring music. The “China-train” is just a normal train after all. What is it then that makes trains from China to Europe so special for the logistical actors involved and why is rail an attractive transport option in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative? Verena explores these questions in her, well… the schedule of research is somewhat different from what she had originally planned.


“Infrastructure and Life” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 004 Episode 001

In today’s reading group we are discussing two articles: Asta Vonderau’s “Scaling the Cloud: Making State and Infrastructure in Sweden” (Ethnos, 2019) and Christina Schwenkel’s “Spectacular Infrastructure and its Breakdown in Socialist Vietnam” (American Ethnologist, 2015).


Multimedia stories


Over the past few months, we have continued our collaboration with the creative collective Gonzo Design from St. Petersburg, developing storyboards for two multimedia stories that we will produce within the team as yet another non-academic output.

The purpose of this project is to learn to tell our stories and convey our knowledge through means other than just text, to help reach new audiences: journalists, artists, school children and more.

4-6 SEPTEMBER 2020

Meeting of the editors of the open acccess journal Roadsides
Dorfgastein, Austria

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka and the other editors of Roadsides convened for a few days at the house of our own Matthäus Rest in Dorfgastein to discuss what the ethics of being open access mean to us and what an ethical review process might look like, as well as to plan the future of Roadsides and brainstorm solutions to the challenges that arise in running the journal.

For many of us who participated in person, it was the first non-virtual academic meeting in months; we truly enjoyed the unmediated conversations and the creative energy, which no Zoom or Teams could ever convey!


Call for contributions to an online contemporary art exhibition Asphalt – Lines and Lives


In early September we published a call for contributions to the online art exhibition Asphalt – Lines and Lives, which is going to be one of the main non-academic outputs of the ROADWORK project.

The call is addressed to artists from selected Asian countries who feel inspired to contribute to this interdisciplinary online art project focused on roads and their social, cultural, political and economic impacts.

The curatorial team – Gosia Biczyk, Aida Sulova, Ulan Djaparov and Philipp Reichmuth – invites you to check out the blog that will accompany the making of the exhibition over the coming months:

22 AUGUST 2020

A night at a construction site in the Bergünerstein Tunnel
Bergün, Switzerland
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Jonas Gort

Jonas – an MA student at the Department of Social Anthropology in Zurich, whose research focuses on how engineering knowledge is generated and transmitted – and Agnieszka participated in this event organized by the Rhaetian Railway (RhB) in the mountainous Canton of Grison. During the four-hour tour and highly informative conversation afterwards with the head of the project and the chief engineer, we learnt a great deal about the new standard method (Normalbauweise) developed by RhB to renovate tunnels more than 160 years old which are still in use.

It was great to hear how innovation happens at the construction site and to begin to understand the challenges of maintaining rail tunnels in this unstable mountain environment.


New team member

Verena La Mela

As of 1 August, a fifth researcher has joined our core team in Zurich! We cordially welcome our dear colleague, Verena La Mela, and look forward to collaborating over the next two years. Verena’s project will focus on the question of logistics at a few key junctions along the railway line now connecting China and Europe. We hope that she will also be able to return to Kazakhstan next year, where she plans to continue her research on new and old roads in the regions bordering China.

MAY 2020

“Visualizing Memory in Bishkek” – a multimedia story publication

Zarina Urmanbetova

Zarina Urmanbetova participated in May 2018, in the pilot workshop of the project “Visualizing Memory in Bishkek.” Participants of the workshop had the opportunity to attend lectures on urban memory and various visualization approaches. Furthermore, they collected visual and archival materials on historical sites in the city of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and shared own reflections on the sense of those places. Follow this link to enjoy the multimedia story “Visualizing Memory,” which presents the results of this pilot workshop.

“Visualizing Memory” is an ongoing project that seeks to explore the multi-facetted and multi-layered landscape of urban memory in the post-socialist space. The project is conducted by the NIDID.


ROADWORK team meetings on WHEREBY

As we are all stuck in our homes, and three of us had to give up the plan of conducting fieldwork in Central Asia this spring-summer, we decided to focus our energy on developing two multimedia stories that will make our research accessible to non-academic (and also academic) audiences. One of the multimedia stories will make use of images, sounds, texts and videos to explain what anthropological fieldwork is about. The second story will focus more explicitly on infrastructure and Central Asia.

We are looking forward to developing the storyboards and collaborating with the amazing artist collective Gonzo Design from St.Petersburg ( on this project!

24 APRIL 2020

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003 Episode 003

Our reading group is growing – a warm welcome to the new members!

On 24 April we met on Zoom to discuss the concept of assemblage in its two emanations: as developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in One Thousand Plateaus (1987, University of Minnesota Press), and by Manuel DeLanda in Assemblage Theory (2016, Edinburgh University Press). After this exceptional reading group – with only male authors – we’ll be back to our usual gender-balanced mode of reading in May with Kim Fortun’s and Bruno Latour’s takes on the concept of assemblage.

The next meeting will take place on 19 May on Zoom. If you’d like to join, please email

27 MARCH 2020

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003 Episode 002

On 27 March we met for the first time virtually to discuss two engaging articles: Hannah Appel’s “Offshore work: Oil, modularity, and the how of capitalism in Equatorial Guinea” (American Ethnologist 2012) and Gastón Gordillo’s “The Metropolis: The Infrastructure of the Anthropocene” (in K. Hetherington (ed.). Infrastructures, Environment and Life in the Anthropocene, Duke University Press, 2019).

The next meeting on 24 April will also take place via video conference. We’ll advertise it on the website shortly. If you’d like to join our group, please email

6 MARCH 2020

PhD Day at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich

Verena La Mela, Emilia Sułek, Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In the good old days, when social gatherings were still possible (even though already maintaining a significant social distance), we participated in the PhD Day organized by the fantastic Esther Leemann, the PhD coordinator at the Department. The aim of the PhD Day was to encourage the graduate students to discuss their research with both their peers and senior scholars at the Department and gather – hopefully useful – feedback. While Verena presented a draft of one her dissertation chapters, Byambaa (from our partner project GOBI FRAMEWORK), Emilia and Agnieszka offered their feedback on Verena’s and other presented drafts.

2 MARCH 2020

Book Launch Apéro at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

Emilia Sułek

Emilia organized, together with Clémence Jullien, a Book Launch Apero to present and discuss the newest publications of social anthropologists from the University of Zürich. All four newly published books dealt with contemporary developments in Asia, with a focus on infrastructure, human agency, and state-citizens’ relations.

The presented books are:

Emilia Sułek, Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet. When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Clémence Jullien, Du bidonville à l’hôpital. Nouveaux enjeux de la maternité au Rajasthan. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme

Wahyu Kuncoro, Burmese-Muslim Social Networks in the Borderland: A Case Study of Islam Bamroong Muslim Community in Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand. Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai University Press

Georg Winterberger and Esther Tenberg (eds.), Current Myanmar Studies: Aung San Suu Kyi, Muslims in Arakan, and Economic Insecurity. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

28 FEBRUARY 2020, 10-11.30 am

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 003, Episode 001
Effinger, Caffeebar and Coworking Space, Effingerstrasse 10, Bern

We convene for the next meeting of our reading group “The Natures of Infrastructure”. This time we are reading Nasser Abourahme’s “Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2014, and Antina von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa”, Cultural Anthropology 28 (4), 2013.

Reading group cordially invites colleagues to join us. If you are interested, please email

20 FEBRUARY 2020, 6.15 pm

Vortrag “Infrastruktur an der Grenze zwischen China und Zentralasien”
Geographie-Gebäude, Klingelbergstr. 27, Hörsaal 5. Stock, Basel

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka will give a public lecture titled «Infrastruktur an der Grenze zwischen China und Zentralasien» in the series «Chinas «Neue» Seidenstrasse». The lecture is hosted by the Geographisch-Ethnographische Gesellschaft Basel.

The link to the lecture series:

12 FEBRUARY 2020

“Tibets Geschäft mit Millionen-Dollar-Raupen”
Neubad Lecture, Luzern

Emilia Sułek

In a popular lecture series Emilia talked about her research on the economic boom in China as well as the impact of SARS and today Coronavirus on the natural medicines market. SARS epidemic promoted caterpillar fungus as a medical celebrity. What wonder drug will become a market hit after the current Coronavisrus outbreak?

12 FEBRUARY 2020

Das Geschäft mit dem “Wunderpilz”
Radio 3FACH, Luzern

Emilia Sułek

Emilia was invited to talk about the caterpillar fungus boom and its impact on the ethnic minority populations in China, their economy, infrastructural development, rising criminality, and the position of women:


“Caterpillar Fungus. Gold Rush in the Tibetan Mountains”
Talk at the Library, Asia Society Switzerland

Emilia Sułek

On 4 February Emilia was a guest of the Talk at the Library, a members-only event at the Zürich headquarters of Asia Society Switzerland.

Emilia spoke about the recent economic boom on the Tibetan plateau and its similarities to the 19th century gold rush in America. How does a Tibetan pastoral society – who lived almost entirely without any money for centuries – react to the new wealth? What investments are they making? What infrastructures are they developing? What other social effects does this phenomenon have?

After the Talk Emilia signed her new book, Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Tibet. When Economic Boom Hits Rural Area (Amsterdam University Press).

31 JANUARY 2020

“Matter out of place? Livestock, road infrastructure, and the political ecology of a Chinese borderland”
eue Kulturgeographie conference at the University of Bonn

Thomas White

On 31 January Tom gave a paper on the “More-than-human geographies of infrastructure” panel at the Neue Kulturgeographie conference at the University of Bonn, together with colleagues from the UK and Germany. Tom has developed some of his arguments into a short essay on the theme of road ecology, which will appear online soon. 

24 JANUARY 2020, 10 am-12 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 002 Episode 006
Café Oscar, Zurich Central Station

On 24 January we convened in Zurich for the sixth episode of the reading group “The Natures of Infrastructure.” For this meeting we read AbdouMaliq Simone’s “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” (Public Culture 16(3): 407–429, 2004) and Penny Harvey’s classic “Cementing Relations: The Materiality of Roads and Public Spaces in Provincial Peru” (Social Analysis 54 (2):28-46, 2010).

The next meeting in February will be advertised on the website shortly. If you’d like to join, please email

12 JANUARY 2020

«unterwegs mit…»

Emilia Sułek

«UND» Das Generationstandem Thun invited Emilia for a talk closing a series of meetings with travelling women. Emilia spoke about her research with Tibetan pastoralists and the tremendous transformation of traditional lifestyle and economy observed in western China.

12-13 DECEMBER 2019

RoadWorkShop 3.0: The cultural, political and financial life of China-built infrastructures across Asia
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

Roadwork team and guests

Address: Andreasstrasse 15, 8050 Zurich (
Room no.: AND 5.03 (5th floor)

The aim of this workshop hosted by the ROADWORK team at the University of Zurich is to collectively reflect on the ways in which the Chinese investment capital, labour, ideologies and geopolitical interests materialize in infrastructures currently built in Asia. Based on selected case studies, we will discuss how the Chinese investment transforms local life-worlds, which relationships it generates and which ones severs. As each infrastructure project inscribes itself onto a specific historical, discursive and ecological terrain it necessarily becomes entangled in a complex meshwork of relationships, which inadvertently transform Infrastructure’s nominal promise and produce a plethora of often unforeseeable but nonetheless critical effects. During the workshop, we will reflect on those processes in which infrastructures assume multiple meanings as they are imagined, longed for, constructed, contested, cared after, and as they decay and fall into disrepair.

The intention of the first day of RoadWorkShop 3.0 is to create a focussed time-space for the ROADWORK team and invited guests to discuss their research, reflect on it collectively and identify the themes for further collaboration. The second day of the workshop is to be entirely devoted to learning how to “tell” multimedia stories with the fantastic Gonzo Design team from St. Petersburg.

Program RoadWorkShop 3.0

10 DECEMBER 2019, 4.15-5.45 pm

“From infrastructural gap to infrastructural participation”

We cordially invite you to a talk by Prof. Dimitris Dalakoglou (Vrije University Amsterdam).

Venue: Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich, AND 4.06

22 NOVEMBER 2019


Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi & Emilia Sułek

Emilia and Agnieszka from the ROADWORK team had the pleasure of hosting Ariell Ahearn, Troy Sternberg and Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo from the GOBI FRAMEWORK project for only one but great evening in Zurich. We hope to see you all again at the Desert Conference in April!

5th Oxford Interdisciplinary Desert Conference

12 NOVEMBER 2019, 6.15-7.30 pm

 “‘Seidenstrasse’ – Chinas Infrastrukturprojekte in Zentralasien”
Geographische Gesellschaft Bern, Geographisches Institut, Hallerstrasse 12, 3012 Bern, Grosser Hörsaal 001 im Parterre

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gives a public lecture “‘Seidenstrasse’ – Chinas Infrastrukturprojekte in Zentralasien” for the Geographische Gesellschaft Bern (Geographical Society Berne).

1 NOVEMBER 2019, 9.30-11 am

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 002 Episode 005
Effinger, Caffeebar and Coworking Space, Effingerstrasse 10 Bern

-On 1 November we convene in Bern for the inaugural meeting of the reading group “The natures of infrastructure” in the fall semester 2019. For this first meeting we read Andrea Ballestero’s “The Underground as Infrastructure? Water, Figure/Ground Reversals, and Dissolution in Sardinal” (in Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene, edited by Kregg Hetherington, 17-44. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019) and Theodore Schatzki’s “Materiality and Social Life” (Nature and Culture 5 (2010):123-149).

The next meeting takes place on 6 December 2019 at 11 am in Zurich. If you’d like to join, please e-mail:

28 OCTOBER 2019, 6.15-7.45 pm

“Chinas Infrastrukturprojekte in Zentralasien – Kann der Gigantismus der ‘Neuen Seidenstrasse’ nachhaltig sein?”
Ostschweizerische Geographische Gesellschaft, Universität St. Gallen HSG, 01-013 (Hauptgebäude)

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi 

Agnieszka is invited to give a lecture – “Chinas Infrastrukturprojekte in Zentralasien – Kann der Gigantismus der ‘Neuen Seidenstrasse’ nachhaltig sein?” – for the members and guests of the Ostschweizerische Geographische Gesellschaft (Geographical Society, East Swiss Section) in St Gallen.

22 OCTOBER 2019

Lecture “The Ends of Infrastructure: Urban Life among Modernity’s Ruins in Vietnam”
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

Christina Schwenkel (University of California, Riverside)

18-19 OCTOBER 2019

“Fragile Connectivity: China’s Infrastructure-Related Activity in Eurasia and the Disciplining of the Environment”
Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gives a talk “Fragile Connectivity: China’s Infrastructure-Related Activity in Eurasia and the Disciplining of the Environment” at the conference Languages, Cultures and Goods along the Silk Road hosted by Goethe University Frankfurt.

23-26 SEPTEMBER 2019

ROADWORK team trip in central Kyrgyzstan


After the workshop in Bishkek, the ROADWORK team including Zarina, Emilia, Thomas and Agnieszka spent a few days travelling together in central Kyrgyzstan. During the trip, we had the time to discuss our research so-far, plan the future (for example, the multi-media exhibition that we plan to launch in 2021), and brainstorm other important questions, such as how to improve our carbon footprint.

This was the first trip in a series of joint field trips planned to visit each other’s field sites. The aim of those trips is to generate an unhurried, creative space for exchange and collaboration in team, and for developing new research ideas and future projects. It definitely worked out this time! Thank you, Zarina, for hosting us in your field site!


RoadWorkShop 2.0:  Roads and detours: Travelling through Central Asia’s pasts, presents and futures
Ololohaus co-working space, Bishkek

ROADWORK team and guests 

The ROADWORK team, invited guests and collaborators gathered in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for this one-day workshop to discuss the progress in our research and ways to improve knowledge transfer at home in Switzerland and in Central Asia, and to brainstorm innovative publishing formats. After this, the team travels to Zarina’s fieldwork site in the Naryn region to acquire a better understanding of her research and meet local collaborators.

Program RoadWorkShop 2.0


Workshop “Academic Freedom, Academic Integrity and Open Access in the Social Sciences”, LSE, London

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka participates in the highly inspiring workshop “Academic Freedom, Academic Integrity and Open Access in the Social Sciences” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. During the workshop, OA journal editors, representatives of OA platforms and academic presses, and academic librarians discuss the need to reform the existing ecology of academic publishing and the ways in which OA can contribute to it. A preliminary draft of an OA manifesto and a plan to create a mutual support network of OA journals are the main outcomes of the workshop. Many thanks to Andrea Pia from Anthropology LSE for organizing it and facilitating the discussions.


Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Zarina Urmanbetova

Agnieszka joined Zarina for one month to conduct fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan. We travelled along many bumpy roads on this fieldwork trip but also, occasionally, had a chance to enjoy the new asphalt of the roads built by the Chinese companies in eastern and central Kyrgyzstan over the past years. On one of the highest mountain passes on our way (3000 m), between Naryn and Kazarman, we were caught in a snow blizzard, and this in early September!

In our favourite town of Naryn we had the pleasure of meeting Prof. S. Naamatov, the President of the Naryn State University ( and gave a talk for the students of Pedagogy and History, in which we introduced our project and discussed anthropological research more generally. We are thankful for the extraordinary hospitality of the NSU faculty members, chong rahmat!


New team member

Emilia Róża Sułek

As of 1 August, a fourth researcher has joined our core team in Zurich. We warmly welcome Emilia Róża Sułek on board and look forward to collaborating over the next three years! Emilia will focus on roads built through the Tibetan areas of Qinghai Province in China, but she will also look into somewhat ‘forgotten’ border roads such as the one linking Karakol in Kyrgyzstan with Shonzhy and further away Khorgos in Kazakhstan. As everything in China and along its borders now seems to be about construction and expansion, Emilia’s research will provide a vital counterpoint by focusing on places overlooked by the current investment boom.

JULY 2019

Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan

Zarina Urmanbetova

In July, Zarina embarked on her long-term fieldwork in the mountainous region of Kazarman in central Kyrgyzstan. She will consider how roads matter in the lives of rural communities there. While she plans to spend some time in both Kazarman and Naryn to ‘watch’ the roads from the roadside and discuss their mundane life with the inhabitants of those towns, she will also travel extensively to acquire a bodily understanding of what it means to move around in such landscapes while depending on those few roads that exist in this part of Kyrgyzstan.

JUNE 2019

Fieldwork trip to Kyrgyzstan

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Zarina Urmanbetova

In early June 2019, Agnieszka and Zarina spent an excellent few days in Bishkek pre-organizing the September team workshop there and meeting various exciting people, such as artists from the collectives Laboratoria C and 705, and activists from NGO Urban Initiatives who, among others, lobby for the development of bicycle routes in the constantly congested city of Bishkek. We also visited a small but charming exhibition “Музей разгребает архивы”by Oksana Kapishnikova, Lilit Dabagyan and Alima Tokmergenova in the backroom of the Bishkek’s Art Museum. Displaying the archived correspondence between different museum offices and individuals employed there, Lilit gave witty insights into the everyday life of museum staff in the socialist period. One evening, rather unexpectedly, the windows of our apartment facing onto Manas Avenue allowed us a chance to watch the nightly motorcade of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders, whose gathering coincided with our stay in Bishkek. While Mr Xi definitely had the largest and fanciest escort, we both agreed that Mr Putin’s car was much more stylish. This was quite a show and the city of Bishkek got properly dressed up for the occasion.

Having found a great venue for our workshop and having completed the list of participants, we left Bishkek and moved to the region of Issyk-kul to learn more about the collections of the Karakol City Archive. This was a very promising visit and we hope to return in September to study documents relating to the connections between this area and the region of Xinjiang in China after the 1917 Revolution. Next on the programme, Agnieszka wanted to check out the cross-border road between the Issyk-kul region and Khorgos, a connection that – as we heard – is becoming increasingly important and has often been mentioned as the most direct and promising route linking this region of Kyrgyzstan to the duty-free bazaars on the Chinese border. Against our expectations (or rather Agnieszka’s expectations), the asphalt ended long before the road even began winding its way up into the high-mountain pastures populated by thousands of grazing horses. On this most direct and highly anticipated international connection, definitely not much was happening. We spotted no more than ten cars in course of the whole day, most of them belonging to herding families. Still, as the photograph below makes clear, the village of Karkyra at the border and the adjacent region are ready to engage with the promising futures waiting around the corner.


Silk Road Summer School, Almaty-Zharkent-Khorgos, Kazakhstan

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka gave two lectures – one of them in the town of Zharkent and one in the Khorgos Special Economic Zone – for the participants of the Silk Road Summer School organized by the History Department of the University of Zurich. The lectures, “The New Silk Road and the Fluid Landscapes of Sino-Inner Asian Borderlands” and “Khorgos Special Economic Zone: A Sino-Kazakh Experiment in Neoliberal Economy”, were a part of a series that focused on Central Asia as – historically and today again – a pivotal region at the Eurasian crossroads linking East and South Asia with the Mediterranean.

During the trip to Kazakhstan, participants were able to visit the International Centre for Boundary Cooperation and the Dry Port at Khorgos – both integral elements of the Special Economic Zone at the Sino-Kazakh border. It was a pleasure to learn from our highly competent guides at both locations, but it was also really interesting to see how participants of the summer school struggled to make sense of the contrast between the grand images of the New Silk Road with which they arrived in the region, and the much less spectacular reality on the ground: the sweaty struggle of the shuttle traders with their cargo at the border, the newly built but deserted highways, and people living in and on the ruins of earlier centrally orchestrated development campaigns. It was great to discuss our research with the students of the summer school, who all contributed different perspectives on China’s current expansion informed by their work in business, law, medicine, journalism, art curatorship and more. A heartfelt thank you to Peter Finke for managing the group of nearly fifty individuals in his relaxed and good humoured way.

23 MAY 2019, 3-5 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 Episode 004
Progr, Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Waisenhausplatz 30, Bern

On 23 May 2019 we will met again in one of the ateliers in the Progr Gymnasium Bern for the fourth meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. For this meeting we are going to read the Introduction, Chapter 1 (Zone) and Chapter 6 (Extrastatecraft) from Keller Easterling’s book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014).

If you’d like to join, please email us at and

13 MAY 2019, 3–4.30 pm

Hildegard Diemberger: “A Transhimalyan Route in Time: Connectivities, Cultural Heritage and Change along the Kyirong-Rasuwa Corridor”
Ethnographic Museum, Pelikanstrasse 40, Zurich

We warmly invite you to a talk by Hildegard Diemberger (University of Cambridge).

Synopsis: Sometimes considered a branch of the Silkroads, the Kyirong-Rasuwa corridor is one of the historically most significant transhimalayan routes. Trade, religious connections, diplomacy, military operations and kinship relations shaped its history in time. Recently re-opened in form of a tarmac road it has become the main link between Lhasa in Tibet and Kathmandu in Nepal with a far-reaching impact on the surrounding areas. Building on twenty-five years of ethnographic and historical research, this presentation looks at ancient sites and recent transformations along this ancient route as it turned to a modern international road.

2 MAY 2019

Book launch of Repair Work Ethnographies: Revisiting Breakdown, Relocating Materiality edited by Ignaz Strebel, Alain Bovet and Philippe Sormani
University of Lausanne

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Agnieszka was invited to give an intervention on the newly published volume Repair Work Ethnographies(2019, Palgrave Macmillan) edited by Ignaz Strebel, Alain Bovet and Philippe Sormani. The book is a collection of ten praxiological studies of repair work on such different objects as mobile phones in Uganda, vintage trains in Belgium, public bicycles in Paris and fragile old books in the Austrian National Library. It is a fascinating read!

17 APRIL 2019, 3-5 pm

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 Episode 003
Progr, Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Waisenhausplatz 30, Bern

On 17 April we met in one of the ateliers in the Progr Zentrum für Kulturproduktion, Bern for the third meeting of our interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies.

During the meeting we discussed Chapter 2 (“Fixed Flows: Undersea Cables as Media Infratsructure” by Nicole Starosielski) and Chapter 4 (“Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern) from the book Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures edited by Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

11-14 APRIL 2019

Highland Asia Workshop
Bad Gastein, Austria

Zarina Urmanbetova and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

Zarina, with the paper “The Alternative South-North Road in Kyrgyzstan,” and Agnieszka, with the paper “Following pathways, producing knowledge” participated in the workshop concluding the main phase of the highly-successful ERC project Highland Asia ( based at LMU Munich. These were three great days, thank you Martin, Aditi, Marlen, Matthäus and Alessandro for organizing this productive event!

Program Workshop Bad Gastein

20 MARCH 2019, 10-12 am

“The Natures of Infrastructure” – Interdisciplinary Reading Group
Season 001 episode 002

On 20 March we re-convened in Bern, half-way between Zurich and Lausanne, for the second meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. The aim of the monthly group is to establish a regular meeting platform for social sciences and humanities scholars conducting research on infrastructure at various Swiss universities. Join us!

During the meeting we discussed Chapter 3 («Surveing the future perfect» by Kregg Hetheringon) and Chapter 6 («River basin: The development of the scientific concept…» by Atsuro Morita) from the book Infrastructures and Social Complexity edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Routledge 2017).

18 MARCH 2019

Screening of the Rough Cut of the Film «Murghab» by Martin Saxer and Marlen Elders
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

On 18 March 2019 we hosted two film makers, Martin Saxer and Marlen Elders from LMU Munich. Martin and Marlen showed the rough cut of their beautiful film “Murghab” and discussed the making of the film with Department’s students and guests.

The film was officially selected for Dok.fest Munich. Congratulations Martin, Marlen and Daler!

Film synopsis: A generation ago, Murghab was well taken care of. As the highest town of the former Soviet Union at 3600 metres above sea level and close to the sensitive borders with Afghanistan and China, the town enjoyed ample provisions from Moscow brought in via the Pamir Highway. It featured electricity around the clock, an airport with regular flights, a movie theatre, and a hospital with central heating. Since then, Murghab and its people have weathered several storms and many of the Soviet hallmarks are crumbling away. Yet, life goes on and, with wit and improvisational skills, the ruins of Socialism afford a plethora of new but precarious ways to make do.

The film provides a window into contemporary life in Murghab. It offers glimpses into people’s daily routines, inviting the audience on a journey to the Pamirs. It follows a group of men harvesting shrubs on the windswept high-altitude plateau, a nurse keeping regional health statistics, a passionate teacher inspiring a sense of history and purpose in her class, and a welder building stoves from the scraps of Soviet modernity. A winter film of hardship, work and hope.

Website “Murghab”

26-28 FEBRUARY 2019

RoadWorkShop 1.0
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

The nearly-complete ROADWORK team convened in Zurich for the first time to discuss our research so far and plan the coming  years. Thanks everyone for coming and joining us via Skype. RoadWorkShop 2.0 is planned for early December 2019.

Program RoadWorkShop 1.0

26 FEBRUARY 2019, 4.15-6 pm

Richard Irvine:  “Deep time is where we live: on the intersection of geological and biographical temporality”
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich

We warmly invite you to a talk by Richard Irvine (University of St Andrews) on “Deep time is where we live: on the intersection of geological and biographical temporality”.

Venue: Department of Social Anthropology, Andreasstrasse 15, Zurich, room AND 4.06 (4thfloor)

Abstract: What is the span of a human life in relation to deep time – that is, in relation to the timespan of the geological processes which shape and reshape the terrain under our feet? In this talk, I argue that the life cycle is never readable on its own; it exists in relationship with other biographies. Human stories of life, of production and reproduction, are not only situated within wider genealogies which expand the life history in time through kinship, but on an active, constitutive relationship with the resources upon which we depend, whose formation stretches over time-spans which appear to dwarf that of a human life and yet are necessarily present – either recognised or unrecognised – in our own economic and social activity.

I will explore this argument through material from recent fieldwork in Orkney, an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The action of the sea is constantly reshaping and reducing the islands here, eroding the glacial till and the underlying sedimentary rock. A continuous gnawing, but with moments of drama that thrust deep time into the full glare of consciousness. From this vantage point, I will attempt trace out a biography within the materials of the coastline: sandstone, uranium, and concrete.


Around the table, from the left: Moritz Fürst (Uni Lausanne), Lena Kaufmann (Uni Zurich), Zarina Urmanbetova (Uni Zurich), Maud Chalmandrier (Uni Lausanne), Ignaz Strebel (Uni Lausanne), Alice Hertzog (ETH Zurich) and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi (Uni Zurich)

20 FEBRUARY 2019

Inaugural meeting of the reading group “The natures of infrastructure”

Today we convened in Bern, half-way between Zurich and Lausanne, for the inaugural meeting of the interdisciplinary reading group “The natures of infrastructure” devoted to discussing the recent publications in the field of infrastructure studies. The aim of the monthly group is to establish a meeting platform for social sciences and humanities scholars conducting research on infrastructure at various Swiss universities. For the first meeting we read two chapters from the book Infrastructures and Social Complexity edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Routledge 2017).

The next meeting takes place on 20 March 2019 in Bern. If you’d like to join, please email us: and

16 FEBRUARY 2019

Spuren im Sand – Tracks in the sand

Verena La Mela and Fabian Geiger are going tell the stories and show breathtaking photograps from their 7-month roadtrip in a camper van in 2014 on which they embarked after graduating from the university. In total, Verena and Fabian travelled 29500 kilometers through eighteen countries starting in Germany, via south-eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, Pakistan and India. The trip was one important reason why Verena decided to do a PhD with the focus on Central Asia and how she got interested in the anthropology of roads! The blog from this trip can be viewed here.

23 JANUARY 2019

Lecture „Fragile connectivity: The New Silk Road and the fluid landscapes of Sino-Inner Asian borderlands”
Lecture series Borders and Border Spaces, Geographisch-Ethnographische Gesellschaft Zürich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

In 2013, President Xi Jinping formulated China’s vision of Eurasian connectivity: The Silk Road Economic Belt. The strategy envisages the construction of infrastructure networks that will engulf the Eurasian continent and form an interconnected space of exchange. Since the plan was announced, the Economic Belt has attracted much academic and media attention on the infrastructure being constructed and its future potentialities. At the same time, questions about the sustainability of this infrastructure in a dynamic Sino-Inner Asian borderland with a highly «fluid» terrain and socio-political geography has been virtually absent from the debate.

The inevitable decay, maintenance and social ambiguity surrounding transport infrastructure lack the appeal associated with new construction projects; yet discussing them is crucial in the context of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It is important to bring this mega-project back down «to the ground» and into more mundane terms. By zooming in on a single «desert road» in northwest China designated as a crucial conduit in the westward arc of the Economic Belt, this article draws attention to the social complexity and ecological vulnerability of transport infrastructure in the Sino-Inner Asian borderlands. At one scale, this infrastructure is part of China’s vision of globalisation, at another scale, however, it is firmly embedded in local contexts. By pushing the political, ecological and material complexity of roads in northwest China to the centre of our inquiry, the article offers a radically new perspective on the current construction boom and its sustainability.


17-19 JANUARY 2019

Mapping Asia Workshop
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

At this amazingly productive workshop organized by Galen Murton, currently a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at LMU Munich Agnieszka gave an intervention on “How to draw ethnographic maps?” and discussed the challenges of drawing “thick” maps of roads that would go beyond their usual cartographic representations as smooth lines. How to cartographically represent the social un-smoothness of roads and the ways in which exclusions, precariousness and uncertainty remain inherent elements of mobility along roads?  It was really instructive  to discuss these questions with human geographers, social anthropologists and GIS specialists who convened in Munich for this interdisciplinary workshop. Thank you so much, Galen, for facilitating this event! 

15 DECEMBER 2018

Roundtable “Chinese politics today: Ambivalent Ambitions”
Symposium China behind the Media, University of Oslo

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi 

In Western media China increasingly comes across as an ever more authoritarian state. At the same time, the country is taking the responsibility to help address climate change and global poverty. We hear that China is a global economic miracle, as well as a potential threat to democracy. In this publicly open seminar, some of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese society, politics and environment discuss what China looks like behind the media images.

Organized in three panels, scholars will debate short- and long-term developments in the political system, which global ambitions the Communist Party is cultivating, the human rights situation in Xinjiang, feminist activism, and how the government and the public are responding to environmental degradation and climate change.

The seminar is organized by the research project “Airborne”at the University of Oslo (UiO).

22-23 NOVEMBER 2018

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

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

Conference program

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

10-12 OCTOBER 2018

Roundtable “Where are we? (in Central Asian Anthropology)”
Conference “Ideas and Practices: Exploring Social and Economic Transformation in Central Asia”, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi 

Conference program

Infrastructures of change
Since 2000, when China launched its Open up the West campaign, and at an even greater pace since 2013 when the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) was initiated, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has been subjected to rapid social-material transformations. Huge amounts of funding have since been invested in road and railway construction. This significantly changed the spatial organization of the region and had all sorts of social, cultural, and economic effects which further complicated the already tense political situation in the region. While the focus of Chinese and international media is on the spectacular opening ceremonies of new roads, in my talk I instead explore what happens after the construction teams pack up, ceremonies end and the newly built infrastructures begin their complex social existence. I propose to theorize roads as complex social-material structures which concurrently exist on a number of spatial and temporal scales. In Xinjiang, the new roads inscribe themselves onto a highly charged political terrain and overstrained ecosystems. This complicates their social effects and deserves a nuanced analysis to understand their ambiguous ramifications.

13-15 AUGUST 2018

Conference panel “Fragile Infrastructures, Secure Nation: On the Making of Ruins in Highland Borderlands”
6th Meeting of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, Bishkek

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Alessandro Rippa (LMU Munich)

In the highlands of Asia, construction of roads, railways and airports in previously inaccessible and peripheral territories represent a major element of nation building. The Pamir Highway, for instance, was fundamental to Soviet governance in Central Asia. A similar argument can be made for the roads and railway connecting eastern China and the Tibet Autonomous Region. In Kashmir, roads and airports were for the most part the results of strategic considerations, and the role of the army in their construction, use and maintenance remains crucial. Today the strategic motivations for infrastructure construction are increasingly downplayed by the discourse of transnational connectivity in trade and development which transportation infrastructures, reportedly, automatically generate. Often brought under the umbrella of so-called “economic corridors” such massive infrastructures are, we are told by the proponents of such projects, means for commercial and cultural exchanges, not devices of securitisation.

On the ground, such promises meet a harsh reality, in which infrastructures are conspicuous for their fragility and on-going disintegration. We argue that this intrinsic fragility of infrastructures, as well as the central role of maintenance should be more explicitly addressed, both empirically and conceptually. In this panel, we discuss the implications of such fragility in border regions, where infrastructures have for decades served as the main means of nation-building for border communities.

Conceptually, we contend that infrastructures should be analysed from within their social, material and political environments and entanglements. Construction is from the beginning accompanied by a parallel process of ruination, and maintenance often becomes the main way of engagement for the lowland state. Infrastructural fragility, it could be argued, both reflects the contentiousness of any nation-making process, while also providing the state with an opportunity to secure its presence across contested borderland spaces. A challenge, as well as an opportunity.

Papers in this panel explored this contentious nexus, and discussed the following themes:
– the ontological fragility of infrastructures and how it affects the maintenance of state materiality in the highlands of Asia;
– ethnography-based case studies of the politics of maintenance;
– what happens when different layers of ruins, often the result of different state interventions, co-exist in a particular space;
– how promises of peace, modernity and wealth are inscribed onto infrastructures and navigated vis-à-vis mundane experiences of disruption and decay.


Till Mostowlansky, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
The Longest Construction: Building and Shattering the Borderlands of the Pamir-Karakoram

Mia Bennett, The University of Hong Kong
Between Permafrost and a Hard Place: Loss and Livelihoods Amidst Post-Soviet Infrastructural Decline

Mustafa Khan, SOAS, University of London
China Coal Roads in Pakistan and the Contradictions of Modernity

Björn Reichhardt, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Boon and Bane: Fencing off Livelihoods in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger Districts

Discussant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

After a series of fantastic conference panels during the day (“Borderland Commodities: In and out of the Legal Shadows”; “Liquid Undercurrents: Infrastructure and the Border Lives of Fuel, Water, and Cash”; “Resurgent Frontiers: Mobility, Regulation and Infrastructure in South Asian Borderlands”; “Hyperbuilding Highland Asia: Ethnographic Engagements with Emerging Infrastructural (Geo)Politics”; “Cross-Border Social Interactions and Tensions in Central Asia”; “Ocean Grabbing and Ocean Re-claiming in Asian Maritime Borderlands” and “Local Responses to Infrastructural Degradation”)our colleagues from anthropology and geography departments across Europe, the US and Asia convened in the evening at the house of our Kyrgyz host Bakytbek for a seriousnetworking event.

Dear Bakytbek and family, we are very grateful for your hospitality, thank you so much for facilitating our gathering.


Research Trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Verena La Mela, Zarina Urmanbetova and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

The research trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in August marked the official beginning of the ROADWORK project. The aim of this three-week road-trip was to get in touch with potential research partners and to visit the field-sites in southeast Kazakhstan and southern Kyrgyzstan where Zarina and Verena will conduct their research in the coming years.

Read more…