Environmental Infrastructures: Comparative Ethnographic Study on Nature, Technology and Environmental Change

Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research

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About the project

The Environmental Infrastructures project is a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A) project funded by the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS). The project aims at exploring complex interfaces between various fields of knowledge in proliferating international attempts to achieve the sustainable management of global environmental changes. As a team of anthropologists and STS scholars from both Asia and Europe, we explore how different knowledge practices—e.g. scientific, indigenous, civic and bureaucratic—intersect and entangle in the development of large-scale physical and informational infrastructures for the management of the global environment.

What are Environmental Infrastructures?

Environmental infrastructures refer to systems of coordinated technologies, standards and practices that are developed with the aim of ensuring environmental sustainability. The analytical notion of infrastructure was originally developed by scholars in science and technology studies in the 1990s in order to shed light on the roles of large technical systems, such as the Internet, sewer networks and classification systems, which encompass vastly different activities often scattered in geographically and temporally distant sites. Infrastructures connect a variety activities performed in different time and places, and for this reason they often involve tensions between elusive practices and rigid structures, incommensurable fields of knowledge and conflicting interests. These qualities have attracted attention from various fields of social sciences.
The encompassing scope of infrastructures means that they often play important roles in environmental sciences and management. Information infrastructures such as databases, monitoring networks and simulation models play significant roles in scientific endeavors to determine the ways and extent of environmental change. On the other hand, environmental policies often concern the management and modification of physical infrastructures such as dams, energy grids and urban planning. In both environmental science and management, infrastructures connect and coordinate the divergent practices and interests of diverse groups of people, including local farmers, engineers, scientists, bureaucrats, and NGOs.

The Aims and Approach of the Project

The objective of the Environmental Infrastructures project is to develop a comparative basis with which to analyze tensions between the different knowledge practices involved in the construction of environmental infrastructures. Our approach, based on anthropology and science and technology studies (STS), focuses on the ethnographic understanding of material, social and epistemic aspects of the practices of knowledge-making about, and the management of, the environment.
Members’ individual research projects, conducted in Denmark, Japan, Thailand, Ethiopia, France, Canada and India, are organized into the following clusters.

The following features are common to all these clusters: i) they require innovative combinations of new and old technologies, ii) they are carried out in the context of considerable uncertainty about outcomes, and iii) they involve complex relations between Northern and Southern, indigenous and bureaucratic partners, connecting local innovations with global circulations of people, objects and information.