The Anthropology of the Built Environment: What Can Environmental Anthropology Learn from Infrastructure Studies (and Vice Versa)?

Watering hole in Lesotho highlands. Photo by Colin Hoag.

*A commentary on Part I of our Engagement thematic series, The Nature of Infrastructure.

By Ashley Carse, Vanderbilt University §

I am honored to have an opportunity to comment on this captivating series of blog posts on The Nature of Infrastructure. Though brief, each piece brings us into an infrastructural world. We learn about coastal restoration in Louisiana, rusting trains in Argentina, waste management in New Delhi, wheat storage silos across India, an oil road in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and responses to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the northeast United States.  If we reduce each of these worlds to a word—water, transportation, garbage, agriculture, energy—this is familiar terrain for the environmental anthropologist. But, in their attention to the entanglement of infrastructures, ecologies, and social practices, these pieces point to the emergence of something fresh: the anthropology of the built environment. This work promises to deepen our understanding of the spatial, temporal, and lived dimensions of environmental problems, to focus our attention on how controversies emerge around infrastructures, and to elucidate how communities can organize along infrastructures (that is, translocally) to make associated problems more tractable and to craft responses.

Since this is the blog of the Anthropology and Environment Society, I’d like to begin with a few words about infrastructure and environmental anthropology. In their introduction, the blog’s editors ask: What does the infrastructure concept have to offer environmental anthropology? The answer depends on how one conceptualizes infrastructure. The subfield has a long-running interest in how technology mediates relationships between culture and environment. This is particularly true of the Marxian lineage that runs through Julian Steward’s cultural ecology (1955), the infrastructural determinism of Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism (1966), Eric Wolf’s (1972) call for a political ecology, and Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield’s (1987) multi-scale regional political ecology. Insomuch as political ecology analytically extended cultural ecology by accounting for extra-local institutions and markets, it was also responding to transformations associated with infrastructure.

Beginning in the 1950s, the civil engineering term “infrastructure” was adopted by bureaucrats in two new programs of spatial integration: supranational military coordination (NATO’s Common Infrastructure Programme) and international development (Carse 2016). Post-war infrastructure was more than technology. As a concept, the word’s expanding use in subsequent decades tracked the rise of a form of calculative reason that emphasized the establishment of global transportation, communication, and logistics networks organized around managerial and technical standards (Barry 2006; Easterling 2014). These long networks facilitated what some call the great acceleration (Hibbard et al. 2006): a sharp increase in population, economic activity, and resource use associated with infrastructure. For anthropologist Julian Steward, connective infrastructures highlighted the limits of community-based research. In a foundational 1955 essay, he wrote:

Although the concept of environmental adaptation underlies all cultural ecology, the procedures must take into account the complexity and level of the culture. It makes a great deal of difference whether a community consists of hunters and gatherers who subsist independently by their own efforts or whether it is an outpost of a wealthy nation, which exploits local mineral wealth and is sustained by railroads, ships, or airplanes. In advanced societies, the nature of the culture core will be determined by a complex technology and by productive arrangements which themselves have a long cultural history. (1955, 39)

But, if anthropologists’ concerns about complex technology and connectivity via “railroads, ships, or airplanes” have deep roots, the recent interest in infrastructure is different.

The posts in this series are emblematic of a growing interest in infrastructure across anthropology (Larkin 2013), geography (Furlong 2014), media studies (Parks and Starosielski 2015), and architecture (Easterling 2014). As much a sensibility as a topic, the new infrastructure studies focuses our attention on the material networks that facilitate contemporary social and economic organization, as well as associated social relations, practices, expectations, and forms of knowledge production. Such an approach can help scholars understand the role infrastructures play in producing environmental problems and reinforcing unsustainable behaviors. For example, the intransigent, fossil fuel-intensive US automobile transportation system is an outcome of the design of the internal combustion engine, the demands and aspirations of drivers, and, crucially, the political-economic relations and built infrastructure organized around the car (Wells 2014).


Tracking Infrastructures: Space, Time, and Environmental Controversies

The posts in this series use infrastructure to analyze (built) environmental problems and controversies that cross spatial and temporal scales. In so doing, the authors tack back and forth between situated technical artifacts and long infrastructural networks. An isolated oil exploration road in an Ecuadorian national park emerges as the site of a national and even transnational debate between environmental activists and the petro-state about visibility of and environmental accountability for extensive oil extraction infrastructure (Taber). Civil society groups in the United States conduct water quality testing at dispersed sites to establish a knowledge infrastructure that can contest an extensive fossil fuel extraction network (Jalbert). Both authors are interested in how to analyze environmental problems that emerge around infrastructures and how to establish knowledge that corresponds. Collectives of activists and citizen scientists work to make the environmental consequences of infrastructures more visible and subject to informed debate and democratic process.

By defining the research space in terms of infrastructure, the posts suggest a new response to an old concern in environmental anthropology: how to demarcate and make sense of the field. From cultural ecology (Netting 1990) to political ecology (Neumann 2008), boundaries have long been a conceptual and methodological problem for anthropologists and geographers of the environment. Rather than positing a system with a demarcated inside and outside or assuming a hierarchically organized set of nested scales (e.g., person < household < village < region < state < world), tracking infrastructure can help the researcher locate a problem-specific group of sites. “Is a railroad local or global?” Bruno Latour asks. His reply: “Neither. It is local at all points since you always find sleepers and railroad workers, and you have stations and automatic ticket machines scattered along the way. Yet it is global, since it takes you from Madrid to Berlin or from Brest to Vladivostok. However, it is not universal enough to be able to take you just anywhere” (1993, 117)

It has become a commonplace that infrastructures are not things, but bundles of relationships. Whether in collaboration, deliberation, or conflict, individuals and communities come together around them and interact in ways that have lived implications. This idea, popularized by science and technology scholar Leigh Star (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Star 1999), also posits that infrastructures are always being made and falling apart. In addition to the usual suspects associated with technology (designers, engineers, scientists, planners, administrators, and users), the posts in this series are representative of a broader effort to expand the number and variety of communities relevant to infrastructure studies. Fishermen (Barra), railway enthusiasts (McCallum), environmental activists (Taber), water monitoring groups (Jalbert), garbage collectors (Luthra), and ghosts of famines past (Khorakiwala) all shape conversations about how systems should be built and managed. Because infrastructures are charged with meaning and require regular maintenance and investment, they can become critical sites of deliberation about what—and, by extension, whose—social, economic, and environmental projects will be supported.

In the wake of controversies like those around the Keystone XL Pipeline, it will not surprise anybody that infrastructures can become symbolic vehicles for larger debates about the distribution of environmental burdens and benefits. These posts show us how one group’s infrastructure can become another’s environmental problem. This includes long-running environmental concerns like pollution (Jalbert) and conservation (Taber), but also built environmental issues like aging infrastructure (McCallum), food supply (Khorakiwala), the management of sediment (Barra), and sanitation. In New Delhi, for example, the dhalao—a garbage storage structure—is a key node in the informal waste economy, but health professionals consider it an unhygienic disease environment (Luthra). Such environmental controversies cross spatial scales, but they can also have important temporal dimensions.

For McCallum and Khorakiwala, like the others, artifacts (train cars, silos) are entry points to extensive networks (railroads, food supply). These infrastructures index the developmentalist state at different moments: a postwar India looking forward and a 21st-century Argentina looking back. McCallum uses ethnography to reveal the everyday experiences of decay, arguing that “infrastructures can be read as a kind of archive.” For attentive railroad workers, enthusiasts, and commuter-activists, “metals have memory”; they bear traces of the past. Khorakiwala is also concerned with historical time, but her silos also draw our attention to how infrastructures articulate with the cyclical time of seasons and the punctuated time of random events.  For example, in describing the history of famine in India as a key motivation for assembling the silo system, she calls the silo “a calculable infrastructure deployed against the incalculability of weather and hoarding, absorbing surpluses and augmenting shortages.” Her post on silos recalls Bill Cronon’s chapter on grain elevators and commodity futures in Nature’s Metropolis (1991) and expands this regional infrastructure story to a global scale. Cronon used the grain elevator as an artifact to help explain the coproduction of Chicago and the landscapes of the upper Midwest. Khorakiwala links India’s national silo system to the new post-war international development order that dumped surplus US grain overseas. Yet another temporality—the future—is relevant in Barra’s research on the politics of coastal restoration in Louisiana. She shows how public debates between the state and seafood industry around cutting sediment diversion outlets into exiting river levees to rebuild a disappearing coastline turn on claims rooted in regional environmental histories and the projected beneficiaries of competing environmental futures—particularly what one resident calls “theoretical land”. As I read these fascinating studies of water, transportation, garbage, agriculture, energy—all familiar topics in environmental anthropology—I tried to reflect on the subfield.


What Can Infrastructure Studies Learn from Environmental Anthropology?

Given the venue, it is worth noting that—at least in these six posts—theoretical and empirical scholarship on infrastructure (broadly defined) is used to analyze environmental problems, but not vice versa. I was surprised by the lack of environmental anthropology and political ecology references. This is not a critique, but an observation that may speak to the directionality of interdisciplinary and, in this case, intradisciplinary borrowing. Michael Dove (2001; 2006) observes that some fields tend to be conceptual donors and others—like environmental anthropology—tend to borrow ideas from ascendant fields like systems theory, ecology, or poststructuralism. It’s not bad to be a borrower. Environmental anthropology has thrived while remaining relatively close to the ground as high-flying theoretical trends pass overhead. But I see this as a case where a reversal of the donor-borrower relationship could be useful, given the current interest in the built environment. If the infrastructures that circulate food, waste, water, and energy have become the means through which swaths of humanity shape and interact with the non-human environment, shouldn’t environmental anthropology tools and methods be useful for studying them?

The posts in the Nature of Infrastructure series show us that the material and semiotic capacities of infrastructures are important, but equally significant is how they meld with local landscapes. As a point of departure, let’s return to Latour’s claim that a train is “local at all points”. This infrastructure seems to stand apart from its surroundings.  Latour writes “[technical networks] are composed of particular places, aligned by a series of branchings that cross other places and require other branchings in order to spread. Between the lines of the network there is, strictly speaking, nothing at all: no train, no telephone, no intake pipe, no television set. Technological networks, as the name indicates, are nets thrown over spaces. They are connected lines, not surfaces” (1993, 117-118). By contrast, Chandra Mukerji writes that France’s Canal du Midi became “a brute fact in the countryside … something to work with and work around like a mountain” (2009, 226). She suggests that people know infrastructures not as networks that cross places, but as interwoven with them. As I have written (Carse 2014), many rural people living near the Panama Canal don’t characterize it as a technical system or a key node of a global network, but as part of a changing landscape—rivers that become lakes, roads built and abandoned, buildings constructed and in ruin, forests that become fields, and fields grown up thick with weeds.

If infrastructure studies provides environmental anthropology with productive ways to conceptualize the knotted spatial and temporal dimensions of environmental problems, then what environmental anthropology might offer students of infrastructure in return is a deep, fine-grained knowledge of cultural landscapes. We are not alone, of course. For decades, geographers, sociologists, and historians have also been studying human ecologies and explaining how peoples across space and time conceptualize, manage, and respond to environments. If the boundary between first nature (unconstructed) and second nature (artificial) (Cronon 1991; Smith 1984) is blurred to the point that it has lost its heuristic utility, we might draw upon this large reservoir of environmental knowledge to better understand infrastructure and to advance the anthropology of the built environment.

Works Cited
Barry, Andrew. 2006. “Technological Zones.” European Journal of Social Theory 9 (2): 239–53.
Blaikie, Piers, and Harold Brookfield. 1987. “Defining and Debating the Problem.” In Land Degradation and Society, 1–26. London: Metheun.
Carse, Ashley. 2014. Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
———. 2016. “Keyword: Infrastructure.” In Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Routledge Companion, edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita. London.
Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Dove, Michael R. 2001. “Interdisciplinary Borrowing in Environmental Anthropology and the Critique of Modern Science.” In New Directions in Anthropology and Environment: Intersections, edited by Carole L Crumley, 90–110. Walnut Creek: Altamira.
———. 2006. “Equilibrium Theory and Interdisciplinary Borrowing: A Comparison of Old and New Ecological Anthropologies.” In Reimagining Political Ecology, edited by Aletta Biersack and James B Greenberg, 43–69. Durham: Duke University Press.
Easterling, Keller. 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London and New York: Verso.
Furlong, Kathryn. 2014. “STS beyond the ‘modern Infrastructure Ideal’: Extending Theory by Engaging with Infrastructure Challenges in the South.” Technology in Society 38 (August). Elsevier Ltd: 139–47. doi:10.1016/j.techsoc.2014.04.001.
Harris, Marvin. 1966. “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle.” Current Anthropology 7 (1): 51–66.
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Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (1): 327–43.
Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Mukerji, Chandra. 2009. Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal Du Midi. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Netting, Robert McC. 1990. “Links and Boundaries: Reconsidering the Alpine Village as Ecosystem.” In The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology, edited by Emilio F Moran. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. 2015. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, Neil. 1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Oxford and Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3): 377–91.
Star, Susan Leigh, and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces.” Information Systems Research 7 (1): 111–34.
Steward, Julian H. 1955. “The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology.” In Theory of Culture Change: Methodology of Multilinear Evolution, edited by Julian H Steward, 30–42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wells, Christopher W. 2014. Car Country: An Environmental History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Wolf, Eric. 1972. “Ownership and Political Ecology.” Anthropological Quarterly 45 (3): 201–5.

Ashley Carse is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development in Peabody College. He received his PhD in Anthropology from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011. Before coming to Vanderbilt, he was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Anthropology at Whittier College. Carse’s teaching and research are interdisciplinary, bridging anthropology, development studies, geography, environmental history, and science and technology studies. He uses qualitative and historical methods to study environmental management, international development, global transportation networks, and the social dimensions of infrastructure. The Fulbright Program, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, and Wenner-Gren Foundation have supported his research. In addition to long-term field research in Panama, he has worked in Ecuador and North Carolina. The MIT Press published his book Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal in 2014. Carse has also published in American Anthropologist, Harvard Design Magazine, Social Studies of Science, and edited volumes. In 2013, his article, “Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed” was awarded the Joel Tarr Prize for the best article on environment and technology in history. Finally, he has served as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation, as well as a number of academic journals.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.