What a socio-cultural perspective on infrastructure repair adds to a socio-technical perspective

–The terminology of one perspective is rebarbative to the other, so not much hope of “interdisciplinary synthesis” here!

The socio-cultural perspective on infrastructures finds all that talk about “managing risk and uncertainty” to stink of socio-technical solutionism and imaginaries of control and progress; those with the socio-technical perspective find “solutionism and imaginaries” to be about as imaginary as you get when a magnitude 9 earthquake rips through what had been by way of comparison working infrastructures.

That said, there are diamonds to be found for those who can put up with the terminologies. Here I focus on what a socio-cultural perspective has to say about infrastructure repair that a socio-technical perspective might wish to pursue further. The example in Part I is longer than that of Part II, and I end with a postscript on caveats.


Since my work is from the socio-technical perspective, it’s only fair that I not try to summarize positions but quote from their work directly:

For all of their impressive heaviness, infrastructures are, at the end of the day, often remarkably light and fragile creatures—one or two missed inspections, suspect data points, or broken connectors from disaster. That spectacular failure is not continually engulfing the systems around us is a function of repair: the ongoing work by which “order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished” . . . .

It reminds us of the extent to which infrastructures are earned and re-earned on an ongoing, often daily, basis. It also reminds us (modernist obsessions notwithstanding) that staying power, and not just change, demands explanation. Even if we ignore this fact and the work that it indexes when we talk about infrastructure, the work nonetheless goes on. Where it does not, the ineluctable pull of decay and decline sets in and infrastructures enter the long or short spiral into entropy that—if untended—is their natural fate.

Jackson S (2015) Repair. Theorizing the contemporary: The infrastructure toolbox. Cultural
Anthropology website. Available at: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/repair (accessed 24 September 2015)

The nod to “sociotechnical systems” is welcome as is the recognition that these systems have to be managed–a great part of which is repair and maintenance–in order to operate. Added to routine and non-routine maintenance and repair are the just-in-time or just-for-now workarounds (software and hardware) that are necessitated by inevitable technology, design and regulatory glitches–inevitable because comprehensiveness is impossible to achieve in complex large-scale systems.

Sociotechnical research on infrastructures calls into question any assumption that macro-designs control every important micro-operation, an assumption also very much questioned in this socio-cultural perspective, e.g., “approaching infrastructure from the standpoint of repair highlights actors, sites, and moments that have been absented or silenced by stories of design and origination, whether critical or heroic.”

Also,, the socio-technical perspective I’m familiar with focuses on the systems operating longer than some expect. A famous theory of large-scale tightly coupled, complexly interactive hazardous technologies–Normal Accidents Theory–predicts far more major accidents and failures than have occurred in critical infrastructures, to date.

Not only is this better-than-expected operation because of repair and maintenance but also because real-time system operators seek to preclude must-never-happen events like loss of nuclear containment, cryptosporidium contamination of urban water supplies, or jumbo jets dropping like flies from the sky. That these events do from time to time happen only increases the widespread affective dread that they must not happen again.

From the socio-technical perspective, the end of infrastructure operations isn’t decay, decline or entropy as much as catastrophic system failure and immediate disaster response, including seeking to restore, as quickly as possible even if temporarily, water, electricity and telecoms to survivors. In this view, any “new normal” could be endless “recovery,” or attempts to do so. Systemwide failures are often attributed to a range of socio-technical factors, from “operator error” to uncontrollable shocks like the earthquakes just mentioned (or hurricanes and tornadoes, among others).

What to my knowledge has not been pursued in the socio-technical literature is the following from a socio-cultural focus on repair:

Attending to repair can also change how we approach questions of value and valuation as it pertains to the infrastructures around us. Repair reminds us that the loop between infrastructure, value, and meaning is never fully closed at points of design, but represents an ongoing and sometimes fragile accomplishment. While artifacts surely have politics (or can), those politics are rarely frozen at the moment of design, instead unfolding across the lifespan of the infrastructure in question: completed, tweaked, and sometimes transformed through repair. Thus, if there are values in design there are also values in repair—and good ethical and political reasons to attend not only to the birth of infrastructures, but also to their care and feeding over time.

That the values expressed through repair (we would say, expressed as the practices of actual repair) need to be understood as thoroughly as the practices of actual design reflects, I believe, a major research gap in the socio-technical literature with which I am familiar.


Explicit consideration of an infrastructure’s life brings together the changes to an infrastructure’s material form over time and the (often unequal) embodied labor that is embedded in these transformations. Life phases identified in the literature include destruction, decay, ruination, repair, maintenance, and rebuild (Anand et al., 2018; Humphrey, 2005; Simone, 2004). While these terms are often used to capture infrastructure not “in order” or “working to standard”, collapsing these phases, or ignoring their particularities, means missing how materiality in these various phases is connected to infrastructural labor, and how fluidity and transitions between decay and repair mobilize particular affective responses and actants.

Far from a linear trajectory, the relationship between infrastructure and socio-ecological relations involves ongoing negotiations between institutions and individuals through phases of decay, maintenance, and repair. Indeed, Barnes (2017) finds that maintenance is not an “inherent good”, but rather a “field of socio-material contestation” (148). She observes that maintenance of irrigation works occurs at multiple levels: on an individual level farmers are responsible for maintaining irrigation ditches, although blockages (and lack of maintenance) may actually be advantageous depending on where along the system one farms; on an interpersonal level between farmers as they negotiate communal relationships; and between farmers and state irrigation engineers, as the latter choose how and when to “assert control” over the infrastructure through annual maintenance. Socio-ecological relations, thus formed over and through infrastructure, are not always constant or consistent.

Ramakrishnan K, K O’Reilly, and J Budds (2021) The temporal fragility of infrastructure: Theorizing decay, maintenance, and repair. EPE: Nature and Space Vol. 4(3) 674–695

Repair and maintenance of plant and equipment are often treated as part of normal infrastructure operations, e.g., under the heading, “routine outages.” So the caution about conflating the phases and missing their particularities is very well taken, in my view.

So too the point about the wider dependencies that form with respect to infrastructure users and nonusers. A “road transportation catastrophe” due to a massive earthquake isn’t just about that infrastructure. Large socio-technical systems, like roads, have evolved over time, one feature of which has been their evolution of worker schedules (x weeks on, n days off) and remuneration packages that made pre-disaster commutes worth it.

A socio-technical perspective must ask: Are these arrangements still worth it? How are the latent and manifest vulnerabilities posed by new arrangements, post-disaster, more compatible? Answers would require careful attention to vulnerabilities arising out of designing new infrastructures as well as arising out of infrastructures as they actually have been repaired, restored, recovered and maintained before and after previous disruptions and disasters.

Finally, I cannot over-stress the importance of this notion of infrastructures fragility, contrary to any sturdy-monolith imaginary one might have to the contrary. One can only hope, for example, that wind energy infrastructure being imposed by Morocco-Siemens on Western Sahara is so fragile as to require endlessly massive and costly repairs and maintenance by them–but I confess that is my management take from a socio-technical perspective.


Two ending caveats. I write from a socio-technical perspective and know there is no one single dominant socio-technical view on infrastructures. What I read from the socio-cultural side tells me the important differences in views also hold there. To be clear, in no way do I claim I have read in their field as thoroughly as I have mine.

Second, while appearing to be the opposite of each other, both perspectives do actively focus on equity concerns and the social construction of their respective infrastructure realities. Less sanguine, each seems to be premised on the assumption that no one really addressed these concerns the right way until it did.

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