Researchers in the field of STS convincingly state that studying infrastructures also means to deal with questions of social order (see, for example, the very active blog Installing (Social) Order. Building on this, I propose to replace, or at least supplement, the classical concept of the (supra-)structure with that of infra-structuring. As with other ‘discoveries’ this one was rather coincidental and serendipitous: In April 2016 I became part of the newly founded Collaborative Research Center (SFB) Media of Cooperation. For the researchers gathered there, the concept of infrastructure is one of the central concepts employed to investigate how cooperation between various actors is made possible. In this context I soon began wondering whether the concept of infrastructure could not replace the classical sociological notion of structure and reconcile practice theory with phenomena usually considered to be macrosociological problems. This blog entry is a tentative attempt to discuss this idea.

Practice theory offers intriguing reformulations of traditional concepts in social theory. One important reformulation concerns the problem of social order. Social order is not seen as the outcome of an overarching normative superstructure but as a practical accomplishment. Yet, some argue that this limits practice theory to the analysis of idiosyncratic local practices and rather isolated situations. Against this critique many authors argue that we have to follow the links between practices and their material elements leading us to other sites. Social order is thus also brought about by concrete transsituative connections. Consequently, when we observe situated practices and all their (material) elements we are already one step beyond the local situation. The central question to ask here is: How can we remain ‘ontologically flat’ (Schatzki 2016) when talking about these transsituative connections? Or coming from the other end of the problem: How can research make statements about entities traditionally identified as macro phenomena without resorting to a metaphysical realm of a societal supra-structure?

Traditionally, structures have been located in the ideal realm of shared norms and values (e.g. Parsons). Practice theories have challenged this idea because of its epistemological and ontological vagueness. It is, for example, unclear how this structure affects our actions (Garfinkel 1967) or how we can observe its workings. Structure is then a black box with which sociologists explain order without being able to show how it actually comes about. In a leap of faith they jump from observed situation to a metaphysical realm of ideas. Consequently, this classical notion of structure can be described as a supra-structure that is somewhere unattainable above us and forever out of sight.

What are the consequences for practice theorists interested in transsituative order? Instead of looking up towards metaphysical heaven we should look beneath and amidst us. Material arrangements surround us and prefigure what and how we do things. Instead of talking about supra-structures we should thus talk about infra-structures and how they work and come about (infra-structuring). This involves two shifts. The first shift entails moving from metaphysical supra-structures to concrete infra-structures. This means to follow a sentiment shared by several contributors to this blog (e.g. Hilmar Schäfer and Frank Hillebrandt): looking for the heterogeneous elements making up a practice. Social order is not to be found in a world of ideas but in concrete doings and sayings, routines and habits, and also in material arrangements that connect a given situation to other situations. Social order can thus be described as a transsituative accomplishment. It is constantly brought about and revised by activities at various interrelated sites. And these connections are established by material entities: bodies, texts, things, materials etc. They have a social history and future reaching beyond the given situation. They are made and configured before we encounter them; they are – in some way – remade and reconfigured in a given situation; and they leave a site changed, often bearing marks of situated practices – some of them intentional (e.g. texts as documents of a situation), some of them unintentional (e.g. wear and tear on bodies and objects alike). While social order is to some extent perpetuated by this transsituative quality of this material infrastructure, there is still plenty of room for the “instability of practice” (Schäfer 2013). Both phenomenology (Harman 2010) and pragmatism (Joas 1997) point out that material entities offer resistance to our attempts of using them and breakdowns are a common occurrence. Working on/with material entities is not entirely determined by their design or intended use.

The concept of infra-structure that I have in mind is thus both broader and more relational than its common usage. As Carse (2016) points out the term infrastructure originated in 19th century French and was solely used in the realm of engineering. When the term was introduced into the English language in the early 20th century, it simply referred to the work required before railroad tracks could be built (e.g. a roadbed of substrate material). In the course of the 20th century the term was widely adapted to other areas and soon received its common meaning of an underlying built system– there are, for example, transport, communication, energy, political and economic infrastructures. While I think that the concept’s scope should be expanded to include all material arrangements, the common notion of infrastructure offers some clues on how to rethink the concept of structure in the social sciences. Infra-structures are concrete (and not abstract/ideal), they are beneath our feet, in our walls, they surround us and entangle our daily lives, they are even up in the sky or in earth’s orbit (but not in metaphysical heaven), and they are often overlooked (but not unattainable), even though they shape practice (see Star 1999).

Their ubiquity and importance does not, however, entail falling back to technological determinism. Infra-structures are understood as relational arrangements in which all elements receive their meaning because of their concrete position in practice. Consequently, we have to look for the performative dimension of infra-structures: the infra-structuring that brings them about (in the field of CSCW the concept of “infrastructuring” is used to refer to the intentional reworking of an IT infrastructure [Pipek/Wulf 2009], here I would like to use it more broadly encompassing all kinds of performative work surrounding different infra-structures). Infra-structures need to be worked on and to be enacted in particular instances in order to have an effect. This involves a counterintuitive shift in our thinking. Because infra-structures are ubiquitous and mundane, their contribution to practice seems not only trivial but also fixed and given. Roads, power lines, and other infrastructures are seemingly simply there once they are installed. This holds also true for infra-structures in the broader sense: technological artefacts, buildings, furniture, texts, bodily habits and routines etc. An ecological perspective on infrastructure (Star/Ruhleder 1996) aims to overcome this static view and reminds us of the constant work that is necessary to maintain and uphold infra-structures, but also to repurpose and simply use it. This work and the struggles involved are especially visible during the initial construction of infra-structures, for example, when large-scale road project take shape (Harvey/Knox 2015). But this work does not stop after infra-structures are installed. Even such a seemingly simple and rather fixed infra-structure as the signage system of the Parisian Metro needs maintenance crews constantly working on signs and thus reworking the system (Denis/Pontille 2010). Or think of the rather invisible work of removing dust from museum objects so that they can be presented as seemingly static and enduring representation of a particular culture (Beltrame 2016). In an on-going project Jörg Potthast and I investigate how transport infrastructures are normalised through routine practice – both on the side of transport companies and on the side of passengers. Even in the case of disruptions and breakdowns routines are in place to remedy and ultimately normalise these events. Infra-structures are thus actively relegated to the thematic background and turned into something beneath (infra) our awareness. This makes them powerful and inconspicuous at the same time. Yet, a lot of work is required to uphold this status quo of our infra-structure. Without this work things would not transpire the way they do. Even when we simply ‘use’ infra-structures it is this taken-for-granted and routine use that lets them do their work. In order to enjoy the benefits of modern transport infrastructures, for example, we need to engage in activities that delegate activity to other entities. When we board means of transport such as an airplane we actively have to engage in activities that – to some extent – immobilize our bodies in our seats (Larissa Schindler on this blog).

What does this shift from supra-structure to infra-structuring entail methodologically? Often ethnography is seen as a natural ally of practice theory. Observing what is actually done in a given situation with all its things, bodies, signs, texts etc. promises a methodological rigour allowing us to remain flat. In a naïve reading this could result in a naturalistic utopia where one hopes to gain access to the world how it really is. Fortunately, most researchers abstain from such a naturalism and are aware of the performative dimension of their methods (Kalthoff 2013; Law 2004). And, of course, this also led to notions of multi-sited ethnographies (Marcus 1995) where we leave situations and follow the actors (human and non-human) around (see again Larissa Schindler and Hilmar Schäfer on this blog).

While I agree with this sentiment of a rather mobile ethnography (and still adhere to it myself; see Röhl 2015), I am wondering whether we need to become even more plural in our methods. Multi-sited ethnographies are a rather time-consuming endeavour when taken seriously and still offer only a glimpse of the myriads of connections that are relevant in a given situation. I would thus like to (tentatively) discuss how we could extend the methodological scope of practice theory allowing us to deal with transsituative phenomena. This also means rethinking the exclusiveness of the methodological alliance of practice theory and ethnography and looking for other ways of tracing practices. What I have in mind is a re-evaluation of the aversion to quantitative methods that many in practice theory have (for a mixed-methods approach see Alison L. Browne on this blog). The problem of quantitative methods in the social sciences is not that they deal with numbers or large numbers. Instead, what is problematic is that they usually assume two discontinuous levels of analysis: a macro and a micro level (Latour et al. 2012). Consequently, they require a ‘mathematical leap’ (Venturini/Latour 2010) and do not follow a flat ontology.

There are, however, good examples for quantitative methods done ‘right’, i.e. compatible to practice theory and its notion of remaining ontologically flat. Two examples for such an understanding of quantitative methods come to my mind. (1) At the DEMAND centre Elizabeth Shove and her colleagues use aggregated quantitative data of energy demand to show how practices are synchronized across dispersed households and how patterned practices constitute energy demand (see e.g. Walker 2014). (2) Tommaso Venturini and his colleagues at the Sciences Po MÉDIALAB developed a form of network analysis that allows for the analysis of large-scale data that refrains from probabilistic reasoning and resorts to the topological identification of proximity and density – there is thus no ‘mathematical leap’ involved. In a project on French legislation processes different levels of analysis are preserved, so that one can “zoom in” and “out” (Nicolini 2014), i.e. look at individual cases in all of their detail, or assume a perspective in which the patterned connections between cases can be discerned.

Used this way quantitative methods can give us something akin to an ‘overview’ that Theodore Schatzki has in mind in his contribution to this blog: a synoptic understanding of the patterned connections between practices and their elements dispersed across different sites. They do not offer us ready-made answer telling us what to think, but instead require ‘trained judgement’ (Daston/Galison 2007). We need to engage with the image rendered by the algorithms of network analysis (or with aggregated data of energy demand) and ask how this is connected to actual instances of practice. The image or data offers no answer in itself, but requires interpretation by researchers who are also familiar with the details ‘on the ground’. To sum this up: quantitative methods could in some cases enrich our understanding of practice as another analytic tool to think with – in particular, if one is interested in transsituative phenomena beyond isolated situations.

The shift from supra-structure to infra(-)structures and infra(-)structuring does not provide a straight forward answer to the classical sociological question of social order per se. Instead, it opens up a new heuristic for finding interesting answers to that question while still adhering to core assumptions of practice theory. To use some of the terms introduced by Theodore Schatzki (quoting Stefan Hirschauer) on this blog: We replace a ‘grandiose grand theory’ (supra-structure) with a more ‘modest grand theory’ (infra-structuring). This involves conceptual but also methodological challenges which I briefly and tentatively outlined in this blog entry. Maybe we can finally have the cake (remain ‘ontologically flat’) and eat it after all (talk about transsituative phenomena)?

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Susann Wagenknecht for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this contribution.

Tobias Röhl

Postdoctoral Researcher, Collaborative Research Center “Media of Cooperation” – Project “Normal breakdowns – structure and change of transport infrastructures”




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