Infrastructural politics: A conceptual mapping and critical review

15 May 2024, 10:29 a.m.
León Felipe Téllez Contreras

When reading the literature on infrastructure, people often come across the terms the politics of infrastructure, political infrastructure, infrastructure politics, techno-politics, and other similar concepts. They all address a central issue in urban studies and cognate disciplines: the complex relationship between infrastructure and politics. For instance, some of these terms, the politics of infrastructure, draw our attention to the underlying political practices that make infrastructure production possible. Others, such as political infrastructure, highlight the political agency of infrastructures themselves, that is, their roles in forming socio-political orders.

I began examining the use of these terms in the literature as part of a PhD project on the political practices of Mexico City’s market traders and their relationship with a 329-public-market network. I soon realised how widespread and diverse their use has become. Today, they undoubtedly are an essential staple in urban studies, where they help to explain the transformation of cities, urban life, urbanisation processes, and the urban condition. Because of this central role in urban theory and practice, I found it critical to interrogate these terms and their multiple meanings further.

Thus, Infrastructural politics: A conceptual mapping and critical review has two main objectives. First, it maps out the main strands and dimensions informing the meanings and uses of these terms. Analysing these terms' differences, similarities, overlaps, and integral complementarity, the article identifies two main strands in their conceptualisation: conventional and popular infrastructural politics. These strands emerge from rich and fruitful debates; however, clear and explicit definitions are only sometimes provided. Ultimately, the paper finds that using these diverse terms leads to an understanding of infrastructural politics as two separate, antagonistic domains. One is characterised by state, neoliberal, and neocolonial agendas of dominant political actors and the other by subalterns’ networks, bodily, and resistant practices. In the article, I examine these tendencies with reference to different instances of infrastructure production studied in the literature.

These tendencies in the literature lead to the article’s second objective: to propose an approach that can provide urban studies scholars with a broader conceptualisation of infrastructural politics. For this, I draw on political ethnographic approaches to politics concerned with the ordinary, contentious, interdependent, and multifaceted nature of political spaces, practices, and outcomes. The article thus proposes a definition of infrastructural politics as an arena, a point of convergence, where actors, practices, and processes identified with conventional and popular infrastructural politics co-exist, interact, overlap, and contest each other in creating multifaceted political outcomes and infrastructural landscapes.

This approach calls for nuanced conceptualisations of the relationship between infrastructures and politics. Conceptualisations that shed light on how repertoires of infrastructure production consolidate as hybrid products of hegemonic-subaltern interactions rather than as separate domains. This is critical for an urban studies discipline interested in the political nature of infrastructures and their central role in creating and preserving political-infrastructural orders. As the article shows, this critical understanding is already present in the infrastructure literature, and a cross-fertilising dialogue with political ethnography can further refine it.


Read the full open access article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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