The anthropology of infrastructure is the anthropology of neoliberalism. Discuss.


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Key to the question is to unpack these two concepts.



What is the anthropology of infrastructure

  • Leaving this for now as the textbook offers pretty comprehensive oversight.
  • The three key people to focus on will probably be Marx, Focualt and Collier.

What is the anthropology of neoliberalism

  • ‘Neoliberalism’ as a concept is inherently ambiguous. There is no simple definition. (but it is generally characterised by reducing the size of the welfare state and selling off public owned entities to private companies. The underlying belief is that the market is better than the state for allocating resources). This means it is inherently multifaceted within anthropology with no single approach.
    • No singular understanding of the concept (neoliberalism) means no singular approach among anthropologists
  • It can be understood, and thus approached, in the following ways:
  • Systemic neoliberalism:
  • Understood as a “as a structural force that affects people’s life-chances”
  • Understands neoliberalism as adopting a “punitive approach” to poverty (reducing access to benefit systems, increasing the requirements for qualification)
  • Sees the inherent characteristics of neoliberalism as the desire for all powerful control over society
  • Moving away from a social state towards not just a competition state, but one that is defined as “authoritarian and neoliberal” (Loic Wacquant)
  • Practical neoliberalism:
  • Draws from Foucault primarily
  • Biopolitical approach (this mirrors Collier’s approach (2011) to technology)
  • It is a technique of government rather that results in increased competition, greater individualisation etc.
  • Focus on the “way of doing” things then on say an ideological approach
  • “A growing number of authors are taking up this approach, which tends to understand neoliberalism in morally neutral terms, while highlighting the technologies of government it involves”
  • Cultural neoliberalism:
  • Understands neoliberalism as practices that result in the formation of a ‘neloiberal culture’
  • This understanding is looking at major institutions and how their shared values, neoliberal ones, creates this culture
  • The main thrust of this approach is to see how these cultural transformations are tied to “the development of material structures.” (This refers to the fact that banks for instances have created a system of dematerialisation of money. It isn’t gold, it isn’t even paper. It’s digitally stored currencies that don’t appear to have physical value. Quantitative easing (printing money) isn’t physical printing of cheques, its digitally created)
  • Key book on this: (this can be purchased on amazon too, or a cracked version of the ebook downloaded)



How can these two concepts be married:

  • From my understanding, you need to be diplomatic with your approach to infrastructure and what it entails.
  • I would outline the various approaches to neoliberalism and see how they can be compared with your broad definition of infrastructure.
  • You’d probably reach the conclusion that the practical approach, drawn from Foucalt, is the closest parallel to the anthropology of infrastructure.
  • I can’t see much connection between the other two approaches to neoliberalism and that of infrastructure.
  • In short, The anthropology of infrastructure is the anthropology of neoliberalism only in a strict understanding of the latter, that is in a practical understanding. Cultural and structural understandings are far too distinct to be equated to the anthropology of infrastructure as a whole.
  • It may be even an overstatement to say ‘A’ is ‘B’ but there are clear similarities between the anthropology of infrastructure and the anthropology of practical neoliberalism.


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