The road that never arrived: Community history, unfinished infrastructure, and the specter of disconnection.
Ashley Carse, Vanderbilt University.
Abstract: When I began conducting oral history interviews in Boquerón, a rural Panamanian community, I wasn’t interested in the modest gravel road that runs through town. But, in one interview after another, the road kept coming up. At first, I struggled to shift the discussion back to my main research topic: environmental management. It became clear over time that I should learn more about the road. However, when I asked community members questions about it, I could never get the story straight. In their responses, people described it as always unfinished—never arriving.
The road had a life of its own, advancing as changing networks of capitalists, entrepreneurs, and state officials channeled money and labor into the region and retreating as those flows ebbed. Like all infrastructures, Boquerón’s road never “arrived” once and for all, because investment in the road and its communities could diminish or dry up completely with a shift in political administrations or commodity prices. Indeed, roads are a matter of concern in Boquerón and many rural communities worldwide precisely because their existence can’t be taken for granted and so much is at stake. Scholars observe that rural people commonly describe poverty in terms of access to infrastructure, particularly roads. Although this corresponds with my ethnographic findings, it also underestimates the potential sophistication of analyses of infrastructural politics and uneven development from the side of the road. People in Boquerón talk about bad roads to characterize more than a general state of poverty. Because road conditions are sociopolitical relationships materialized, the road is an object through which community members analyze their changing relationships with—and access to—other groups across space and time.
Anthropologists have characterized social relationships to infrastructures as indexical. This is the idea that people use engineered artifacts as jumping off points for thinking about and responding to complex organizations (e.g., the state) and extensive socioeconomic processes. I extend this approach to the environment. Roads, like cables and pipes, are subject to abiotic phenomena (water, light, and temperature) and surrounded—even inhabited—by biotic communities (plants, animals, and bacteria). Because this ecology influences the design, maintenance, and obsolescence of those artifacts, the shifting boundary between infrastructure and environment becomes a useful site for understanding and debating phenomena that can be difficult to perceive locally, like state disinvestment. Ultimately, Boquerón’s road reminds us that the progress that infrastructure concretizes on the landscape can run in reverse. Today, some US communities are now doing something once unthinkable: unpaving their roads and replacing asphalt with gravel.
Ashley Carse is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. 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, 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, Environment and Planning A, Harvard Design Magazine, and Social Studies of Science. 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
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