Review Essay: On Roadways and Other Infrastructures

Rebecca Warne Peters, SUNY Oswego

Reviewed in this essay:

The Promise of Infrastructure, edited by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

The Road: An Ethnography of (Im)Mobility, Space, and Cross-Border Infrastructures in the Balkans, by Dimitris Dalakoglou (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).

The Nature of the Path: Reading a West African Road, by Marcus Filippello (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Anthropological attention to material infrastructure, though always present in the discipline’s focus on everyday life, has grown more explicit in recent years thanks to a growing crop of scholars analyzing how systems that provide water, power, shelter, sanitation, transportation, and communications are interwoven into contemporary human experience (Anand 2017; Coleman 2017; Nucho 2016; von Schnitzler 2016). Now more than ever, anthropologists are asking direct questions about the construction and form of large material infrastructures, what they do (or don’t do) in people’s lives, what alternatives could or should exist, and what an analytical attention to infrastructure adds to anthropological understanding. As I was beginning a new research project on transportation infrastructure and autonomy in Barotseland (western Zambia) in 2019, I found it constructive to read Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel’s edited collection of essays, The Promise of Infrastructure, alongside two recent books on specific roadways: Dimitris Dalakoglou’s rich text on the twenty-nine kilometer Kakavijë-Gjirokastër road connecting Greece to Albania, and historian Marcus Filippello’s engrossing account of the forty-five kilometer Pobé-Kétu road in southern Benin.

Anand, Gupta, and Appel’s collection uses the idea of promise to refer to the theoretical gains to be made by focusing on infrastructure, as well as their empirical finding that people generally regard infrastructure as promising, or having potential to be useful and helpful. Indeed, the people portrayed in the different chapters mostly express desire for more infrastructure—more and better roads, more (and more reliable) electricity, more and faster information and communication, more and cleaner water. The editors write that material infrastructures “have long promised modernity, development, progress, and freedom to people all over the world” (p. 3) and that investigating both the successes and failures of those promises is fruitful for anthropology. Juxtaposing this collection with Dalakoglou’s and Filippello’s books, however, provides a critical counterpoint to Anand, Gupta, and Appel’s overwhelming emphasis on potential and promise. Dalakoglou and Filippello each offer an empirical example of an infrastructure—a road—that is regarded suspiciously and in fact presents a clear danger to a community. For these authors, a focus on roadways must also account for military design and use, “penetration” into otherwise secluded and thereby protected spaces, and roadways’  associations with resource and labor extraction—the darker, more threatening aspects of infrastructure.

Both Filippello and Dalakoglou ask, as does Penny Harvey in the only road-focused chapter in The Promise of Infrastructure, what a road “does” for the people living nearby and for the disciplines of history and anthropology. Filippello’s study reveals that a history of resistance to a road can be an effective way to demonstrate a people’s collective identity and its ties to their geographical place. For Dalakoglou, the road is also such a conceptual device but additionally has a materially agentive role, as a mechanism for extracting resources and even a people from their place. Harvey’s analysis of Peruvian roadways and people’s deep desire for more roadworks balances out these cautionary cases with a more familiar account of infrastructure as promise, though such promise remains unfulfilled. I will return to the “promise” of infrastructure after considering the more textured full-length accounts of single roads given by Filippello and Dalakoglou.

The Road Shows Who We Are

In Filippello’s engaging history of the Ọhọri people of southeastern Benin’s Lama Valley, he presents the Pobé-Kétu road as “an ideal localized sub-Saharan Africa text, as well as a material and metaphorical space” (p. 137) whose importance for understanding local histories he discovered almost in spite of himself. He had, he writes, begun his research with a life history approach. He asked his interviewees about their childhoods and “what they remembered from their parents’ and grandparents’ stories” (p. 8), with the aim of documenting local experiences and explanations of the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, African independence and post-independence. He found respondents unable, or maybe unwilling, to share those memories. They were interested, however, in discussing the Pobé-Kétu road as metonym and material exemplar of their history. In his conversations with local leaders and everyday residents, the road became a “marker of time” and “a narrative device”. Filippello recognized it as carrying powerful emic meanings for the Ọhọri. Their rhetorical deployment of the idea of the road and their stories about it, particularly of resisting its construction during the colonial era, demonstrated how they understood themselves and expressed their identity, particularly their political independence. Embracing the road as both tangible historical element and meaningful symbol of local self-understanding, Filippello writes the history of the Ọhọri region with the road, as it were, running through it.

As a historian, Filippello draws roughly equally from French, Dahomean, and Beninese archives and his own in-person interviews with local kings, elders, and other community members. He is laudably clear about his methods and particularly that he required the company of research assistants to conduct interviews. This was not due to any inadequacy of linguistic competence but because he was an outsider to the Ọhọri: he had to be accompanied by someone with demonstrable family connections in these local communities in order for the research to be successfully carried out, itself a data point on Ọhọri insularity and boundary-consciousness. Filippello is an engaging writer and incorporates his own perceptions and experiences throughout the short book, making it quite lively. He moves the reader clearly through the chronology of the Lama Valley while tacking back and forth from local historical accounts—as collected in interviews—to incidents and debates documented in governmental archives. It is a small disappointment that Filippello presents Ọhọri histories and self-presentations only as collated across many interviews; if there are any patterns as to who emphasized which incidents or which elements of their shared history—between men and women, among age groups, between kings and ordinary community members, or the like—this is not made evident to readers.

An introductory chapter sketches the place and the history of the Ọhọri people before Filippello identifies his methodological and theoretical commitments. This chapter also includes a charming and vivid description of the short stretch of road that is the focus of the book’s narrative structure. The main chapters are then arranged chronologically, with the earliest presenting stories from Filippello’s interviews about the community’s founders: how they came to the Lama Valley seeking refuge from the Atlantic slave trade, what they found when they arrived, how others followed over time, and how their sense of themselves as Ọhọri shifted and changed as these communities grew. Filippello respectfully presents the magical realism used in many of these stories and argues that Ọhọri origin stories about a talking snake, or a magical forest that repels non-initiates, make sense and carry weight in these communities because Ọhọri self-identity is intimately tied to the natural environment. Filippello also relates how, starting in the late nineteenth century with first Dahomean and then French powers pressing in, the Ọhọri became motivated to guard pathways, monitor traffic into and out of the valley, and even begin stockpiling weapons including sabers and rifles purchased from neighboring Nigeria. The following chapters then discuss episodes during the period of French colonialism, when “the taking up of arms by Ọhọri farmers was a frequent response to road-building projects” (p. 55), as were sabotage, theft, and intimidation. Filippello shows that these acts contributed to larger and more systematic revolt. From there, Filippello moves on to the context of post-colonial independence with first Dahomean and now Beninese governments.

The final chapter reviews the significant and recent change in Ọhọri attitudes toward the Pobé-Kétu Road as they have now come to welcome its construction and recognize its promise for increased commerce and exportation of agricultural products. Filippello seems at a bit of a loss to explain this attitudinal shift and notes that it may have something to do with modern construction equipment, intimating that the Ọhọri seem much more open to cohabitating with a paved road if they are not being asked to provide the physical labor to build it. He then moves swiftly to document the rapid degradation of the new roadway, explaining that any hopes raised by it have been largely unmet. Almost as quickly as it was built, the road was ruined by heavy rains and traffic. Filippello does not document any reaction to this turn of events from the local community, beyond disappointment. Considering his arguments and descriptions of both Ọhọri dependence on the natural environment and respect for its supernatural powers, one wonders if there aren’t still stories being told of magical barriers and natural beings actively protecting the community by weathering the road.

The Road Separates Us

Where Filippello describes contemporary Ọhọri history as one of fierce independence and seclusion, Dalakoglou presents Albania’s history as a case study of frustrated desire for greater interconnection and circulation. Despite being a part of Greece for most of its recorded history, Albania in modern times was politically and economically cleaved off and held apart from Europe. The roadway from Kakavijë, at the border with Greece, to Gjirokastër serves both as a tantalizing reminder of how close Europe is and simultaneously demarcates Albania as definitely not European. In contrast to the Ọhọri, Albanians’ central question of identity is not about keeping themselves safe from unwelcome intrusion, but rather is to ask how they became outsiders, which becomes particularly urgent as they seek genuine inclusion in European affairs and economic possibilities.

Because Albanians’ central concern is to be part of Europe, the road to Greece seems at first to be full of exactly the kind of promise with which Anand et al.’s contributors are concerned: that very positive promise of modernity, development, connection, and uplifting possibility. Dalakoglou, however, returns again and again to the road as something dangerous to Albania’s economic and political prospects. This is the road that despite promising connection and integration only enables Albanian laborers to leave for jobs in Greece, where both their labor and their subsequent wages are quite welcome but they—as whole persons—are not. A double jeopardy is thus revealed in this version of connection and circulation: the wages Albanians earn in Greece end up largely returning there after having been used to purchase consumer goods that are no longer produced in Albania since its economic collapse and the flight of its workforce. Dalakoglou drives home the cruel irony of this extra insult to Albanian aspiration: by leaving for work to support their families at home, migrant laborers accomplish only the evisceration of their own economy. The road is revealed to be, ultimately, an extractive force vitiating the city of Gjirokastër and the nation, thus leaving behind partial families, vacant homes, unmanned industries, and only echoes of earnings and inclusion.

Dalakoglou asserts that this pattern of spatial extraction—of bodies, goods, and opportunities being drawn out of Albania by this road—is itself an echo of earlier patterns of extraction that were differently facilitated by the same roadway. In the communist era, for instance, local people were “volunteered” to contribute heavy manual labor toward the construction of the road on which none of them would ever drive. Almost no one in Albania owned private vehicles until the 1990s and very few people during the communist period had access to state vehicles. Even public transit was in short supply and there was simply little circulation in this era. The construction of the road, Dalakoglou argues, was another episode of evacuation-by-roadway in Albanian history as time and labor were taken to build the road with no tangible return to these local conscripts. The roadway is today no longer maintained by locals, but remains an extractive force in their lives.

Dalakoglou opens his book with a brief tour through various sightings of roads and roadworks in the anthropological literature—from Boas and Evans-Pritchard up through Caroline Humphrey. He notes that, traditionally, anthropologists may have avoided places with roads in their search for pristine people to study. From this sketch of a history of the anthropology of roads he moves into a history of roadworks themselves, highlighting their material evolution and strategic political and military import, and to a chapter on Albania and its own relative absence in the anthropological literature. The book thereafter follows a roughly chronological order, proceeding from the Albanian experience of World War II and socialism to a chapter contrasting pre-socialist, socialist, and postsocialist geographies of the city of Gjirokastër. Chapter 5, “Fear of the Road and the Accident of Postsocialism,” follows the increasing, and perhaps increasingly negative, social importance of the road and of road travel after socialism, exploring how the road figures into local narratives of automobile crashes and other contemporary dangers.

The book closes with strong and memorable chapters on the changing interactions of local people with the road, its construction, maintenance, use, and their interactions with the intimately connected infrastructure of the private household. Dalakoglou cleverly tells this story of changing relations to a road alongside the story of changing relations to material goods more broadly: prior to socialism there was want, but also the possibility of getting access to goods through social relationships. Then, during socialism, there was only want and no possibility of acquiring necessary items even for special occasions or in times of genuine need such as during illness or funerals. Now, after socialism, people are finding what they need only elsewhere by working abroad, or having family members work abroad, to fund the purchase of imported items. Chapter 7 emphasizes again that the contemporary life of the Kakavijë-Gjirokastër road is as an extraction mechanism from Albania to Greece and beyond to Europe generally.

Among the many reasons for recommending the book is its extensive photographic documentation. More than 30 pictures enrich the text including archival images depicting cold-war era work campaigns and haunting contemporary images of perpetually-under-construction homes, road construction sites, and street life. The reader comes away from the book with new and rather melancholy images of Albanian life, work, and transit both past and present. The darker tone is quite purposeful as it underpins the central argument that the Kakavijë-Gjirokastër highway is a menacing danger to Albania and—despite its promise—plays a key role in frustrating Albanians’ desires for geographic and social mobility.

Roads and Other Infrastructures Are Clearly Good to Think With

The Anand et al. volume, as noted, offers a roads-specific chapter plus eight others on a variety of infrastructures including power plants, municipal water systems, oil wells and pipelines, computer databases, and more. The volume is not a comprehensive survey of the anthropology of infrastructure, but presents the work of a few representatives of the recent trend and a few senior scholars commenting on it to demonstrate how very productive an attention to infrastructure can be. The introduction lays out the contributors’ shared inspirations from urban studies, critical development studies, and science and technology studies. The collection covers much ground in its nine chapters and does more than merely “gesture to all the work still to be done” (p. 7) on the topic; it also propels readers to ask new questions about infrastructure and equips them well for the task.

After the introduction, the volume is organized into three thematically interconnected sections. The largest is on “time,” with contributions considering energy infrastructures (Appel, Schwenkel), roads (Harvey), and large public works such as airports (Gupta). Somewhat surprisingly, the section on “politics” is smallest with Anand’s and Antina von Schnitzler’s essays on how political struggles for recognition play out through municipal water and sanitation services. Following through on the collection’s title, its final section presents some of its most senior scholars (Bowker, Boyer, Larkin) under the theme of promise. Throughout, little attention is given to what an earlier collection termed “active infrastructural violence” (Rodgers and O’Neill 2012, 407), as when roads are built for invasion and extraction, or walls are built to segregate and alienate. There is ample attention, however, to the “passive infrastructural violence” that results from “differential provisioning,” infrastructural lack, exclusion, degradation, ruin, and other unfulfilled promises of infrastructure.

There is perhaps no meaningful difference between the results of passive infrastructural violence caused by failure or neglect versus those purposefully caused by and through infrastructure. But, a full accounting of the “fragile and often violent relations between people, things, and the institutions that govern or provision them” (p. 3) would surely include investigation into the distinct motives and causes for which different infrastructures are constructed in the first place. Likewise, the relations between people, things, and others’ institutions of government or provisioning should also be attended to (Ferguson 2012). For example, other recent works examine the social and ecological impacts of having a foreign military base in your hometown (Gillem 2007; Vine 2015) or of living in a site from which international corporations extract mineral resources (Golub 2014; Leonard 2016; Rajak 2011). The infrastructural violence of these cases, both active and passive, arises from a very different arrangement of place, people, things, and institutions than can be apprehended from an analysis focusing on domestic governance and the state-society relationship. Indeed, broader work done by Hannah Appel, Christina Schwenkel, and other contributors to the current volume brings the questions of international interconnection and responsibility to the fore, particularly for developing countries that are so often sites of global extraction or proxy warfare. These questions seem to have been set aside in the current volume to allow for greater focus on the relationship between infrastructures and publics, and on the positive possibilities promised (or taken to be promised) through material infrastructure.

Antina von Schnitzler’s contribution comes perhaps the closest to covering the darker side of promise. She recounts a chilling tale of the differential provisioning of infrastructure in Apartheid-era South Africa reinforcing black residents’ sense of being lesser while maximizing government’s capacity to surveil and extract labor. These descriptions of the purposeful deployment of infrastructure for violent ends forms only the historical background to current struggles for von Schnitzler, however, as her true focus falls on the contemporary post-Apartheid experience of continuing infrastructural lack and the creative means by which citizens now claim rights through manipulation and sabotage of infrastructure. Boyer also skirts close to the question of purposeful violence through infrastructure in his distillation of Marxian arguments about the extraction of labor by and for capital as a kind of energy extraction—“a sapping and storage of the regenerative potential of being” (p. 228). In describing energy production processes as like the rendering of animal flesh to make glue, he suggests that infrastructure is often violent even in its construction and presence and not only through its routine failure or decay.

The collection offers a good overview of current approaches to the anthropological study of infrastructure, and the diverse methods and sources that can be drawn upon to understand people’s relations with infrastructures. Schwenkel’s chapter is particularly arresting. She examines the affective attachments that retired power plant workers in Vietnam have to their former worksites and she uses retirees’ poetry as a primary ethnographic resource. Geoffrey Bowker offers a compelling and convincing reflection on the arrangement of information databases as reproductive of social and cultural dynamics, positing a different future for them and for humanity. As regards my focus on roadways, the editors point to road infrastructure as specifically useful for understanding state-society relationships. They write, “…while roads are desired by political subjects, they are not always used in the ways that state planners intend. Before long, their designs are repurposed, altered, and populated by the heterogeneous dreams, desires, and practices that confound the goals and intentions of their designers” (p. 11). Harvey’s poetic chapter argues that roads are themselves social events: interventions in a particular historical trajectory and therefore inherently capable of being repurposed or altered. Drawing on fieldwork originally conducted in collaboration with Hannah Knox, Harvey makes a compelling case for road infrastructure as a thing that mediates time and specifically the relationship between the present and its many possible futures. Roads offer “an ongoing unfolding of potentiality” (p. 98). She also spends a few pages laying out the potentiality of infrastructure for anthropology so clearly and succinctly it could be a substitute for the volume’s introduction (p. 83-5).

Multiple Futures for the Anthropology of Infrastructure

Part of the promise of infrastructure for the contributors to this volume is that it provides a place to act in relation to some of humanity’s most pressing problems, such as climate change and economic inequality. Any solutions to these grand challenges will certainly have to include infrastructural adaptations, but pairing the collection with Filippello’s and Dalakoglou’s books to note the darker side of infrastructure’s promise also suggests that any use of infrastructure to solve human problems could also be treacherous. The Kakavijë-Gjirokastër roadway offers cheap labor to Greek businesses, after all; but it does so by threatening Albania. Benin’s Pobé-Kétu road offers opportunities for Ọhọri who desire greater access to markets for their crops; but it may also render them more vulnerable to outside regimes seeking to enhance their own resource base and sphere of influence. These concerns may seem local or minor as compared to the violence accomplished through the proliferating security infrastructure at national borders and elsewhere (Feldman 2012). However, as infrastructure is both theoretically and empirically “multivalent,” as Appel, Anand, and Gupta say in their introduction to the edited volume (p. 7), their work provides invaluable resources for those anthropologists pursuing both its positive and negative aspects. As Harvey so aptly writes in her contribution, infrastructure is “an exemplary relational form… allow[ing] for a dynamic and open sense of scale that does not assume a singular perspective” (p. 83). Together, the ongoing tasks of documenting the multiple futures of infrastructure, and taking stock of various perspectives on it, promise to remain among anthropology’s most productive engagements as people everywhere chart their future paths.


Anand, Nikhil. 2017. Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Coleman, Leo. 2017. A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Feldman, Gregory. 2012. The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union. Stanford: Stanford University press.

Ferguson, James. 2012. “Structures of Responsibility.” Ethnography 13 (4): 558–62.

Gillem, Mark L. 2007. America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Golub, Alex. 2014. Leviathans at the Gold Mine: Creating Indigenous and Corporate Actors in Papua New Guinea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Leonard, Lori. 2016. Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Nucho, Joanne Randa. 2016. Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rajak, Dinah. 2011. In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rodgers, Dennis, and Bruce O’Neill. 2012. “Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Ethnography 13 (4): 401–12.

Schnitzler, Antina von. 2016. Democracy’s Infrastructure: Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Vine, David. 2015. Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. New York: Metropolitan Books.