ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Road biographies

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.12
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Tatiana Argounova-Low (University of Aberdeen) email
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This session draws attention to the life histories of roads and the social, cultural, economic and political complexities of human engagements and interactions with roads.

Long Abstract

As catalysts of trade, politics and economic development, roads are reflection of state histories, cultural exchange, relations between societies and of the lives of the people who live on and alongside them. From a vantage point that embraces the lives and biographies of those who live along, plan, build, maintain, walk or drive along roads, we intend to broaden the anthropological understanding and knowledge of roads. As cultural products roads, like people, have a tendency to accumulate histories. Like people, roads have life spans and life histories. In short, we propose to put the spotlight on biographies of roads. The concept of biography brings together temporal, economic, cultural and social aspects of the road. The biographical approach towards roads will help us combine a historical perspective and concurrently reveal the complexity of economic, political and social engagements between people and roads. We invite papers that draw attention to roads, old, new, or anticipated, and emphasise the complex engagements between roads and people.

Discussant: Arnar Arnason (University of Aberdeen), Andrew Dawson (University of Melbourne)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The long way home: on the road to Armenia

Author: Salim Aykut Ozturk (University College London (UCL))  email


This paper presents an ethnographically rich description of the journeys on migrants' buses between Istanbul and Armenia.

Long Abstract

Contemporary Istanbul is home to some 20,000 undocumented migrants from post-socialist Armenia. This paper initially aims to provide ethnographic data on the bus journeys that connect migrants ( in addition to shuttle-traders and ordinary tourists as well) between Istanbul and Armenia. Each bus journey between the two countries lasts around 40 hours in average, going through contested geographies of Eastern Turkey, and contemporary post-socialist Georgia. On each journey, it is possible to observe how Armenian passengers relate to the post-Genocide landscape of Turkey and the current political situation of Armenian citizens of Georgia. Each journey makes it possible to come with parallel analyses of not only current nation-state histories in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, but also Armenians' conceptualizations of Armenian past, history and the Armenian homeland. Similarly, each journey also provides important contexts to observe changing citizenship, immigration and border regimes in each nation-state setting, and in return the migrants' responses (i.e. tactics and strategies) against those nation state practices. Based on fieldwork between 2011 and 2013, the paper proposes to critically engage with the ways through which dichotomies such as here vs. there, home vs. away, now vs. then, Armenia vs. non-Armenia, and legal vs.illegal (in relation to smuggling goods and legal status of migrants in Turkey) could still be applicable to a context constantly on-the-move.

The bad road: an anthropological analysis of some hidden dynamics of motorway A28 (north-east Italy)

Author: Nadia Breda (Università degli studi di Firenze (Italy))  email


Some hidden dynamics of motorway A28 (Italy): the undervaluing of the landscape, the cannibalization and criminalization of the environmental messages, the farmers' pain for land's loss, the emotional involvement of anthropologist herself, who experienced the method of the perduzione.

Long Abstract

The paper is about the A28 motorway in the North-East of Italy, running between the regions of Veneto and Friuli. This short road, planning of which dates back to the mid 1980s, was finally accomplished in 2009.

The A28 was completed after a tough conflict. It was strongly contested by the Italian environmentalists because of its collocation on a line of springs ("risorgive") and its severe impact on an unusual wetland ("palù"). During my fieldwork I had access to the official motorway planning documentation, activities of the environmentalists, mass media coverage, various government's sources and to the environmental impact assessments, as well as the contacts with the local residents.

The anthropological analysis shows some hidden dynamics. On one side, the sponsors of the road denied and undervalued the natural surroundings, promoted the cannibalization and criminalisation of the environmental messages and the transformation of living environment into a cement jungle. The paper analyses how the motorway construction exposed the farmers' anxiety for the loss of the land, the emotional involvement of the environmentalists and the anthropologist. The environment has been affected as the result of the motorway construction of the motorway and the anthropological study remains a durable evidence of the process that had taken place.

Nation, tourism and the road along Norway's national tourist routes

Author: Roger Norum (University of Leeds)  email


Exploring a massive, 26-year national road building project in Norway, this paper questions how road biographies make explicit discrepancies between state and local ideas of the nation. I ask how 'national' roads constructed for international tourists are experienced by locals who live on/near them.

Long Abstract

Begun in 1994 as a trial venture offering motorists an alternative to main thoroughfares, Norway's National Tourist Routes project consists of restored and newly layed roads that run along its coast and fjords, enabling vistas of stunning scenery. Effectively, the project works by luring tourists to remote areas using outstanding contemporary architecture - rest areas, observation platforms and service facilities - as the bait. The project, which comprises 18 routes covering 2,036 kilometres of road at a cost of £350 million, has enabled the Norwegian state to use tourism to create sustainable rural communities in its aim to fight negative population growth and economic challenges. But just as ideas about landscape are deeply linked to notions of the nation and nationhood (Ween and Abram 2012), so are the roads that run through these landscapes - especially when they are bound up with discourses of the global tourism industry. This paper explores the extent to which the biographies of construction of these 'national' tourist routes make explicit discrepancies between state ideas of nationhood and various local notions of the nation where the roads are built. It asks, furthermore, how these roads are experienced by the locals themselves who live near/on them - given that some of them hinder the possibility of other industrial developments needed by the local economy? These implications are especially important given that other states (Scotland, for example) have been eyeing Norway's success in the project as a possible model for increasing the attraction of the countryside to tourists.

The problematized life of urban roads in Nairobi

Author: Tae-Eun Kim (Arizona State University)  email


This paper examines the history of roads and road experts in Nairobi to reveal the causes and states of chronic problems of the city's road space.

Long Abstract

Through biographical approaches to urban roads and experts in road development and planning, this paper examines why roads are continuously problematized in Nairobi even as local and international experts struggle to fix and save the degraded and congested urban channels. In a post-colonial city that does not have a history of integrated urban planning and experiences of inclusive public space, the effects of infrastructural operations on roads are yet controversial. Through biographical attention to how road space has been imagined, built, modified, and linked by diverse experts from colonial to post-colonial periods, this paper reveals root causes of choked Nairobi and fragmented engagements of managing roads. First, by tracing how Nairobi's roads have been planned and unplanned by colonial and post-colonial experts, the paper shows how urban roads are entangled with other kinds of urban problems, such as traffic jams and prevalent vandalism. Second, by focusing on changing and contested meanings of building roads driven by different periodic figures, this paper explains the contradictory dispositions of producing and reproducing road space.

"Camino a Baru": road-, place- and community-making in an island of Cartagena Bay, Colombia

Author: Cristina Basso (St Andrews University)  email


In the island of Baru, Colombia, the construction of a road kindled various expectations and conflicts. Negotiations for the road fostered the re-emergence of distinct memories and materialized often competing ideas of place, community and identity.

Long Abstract

Baru is a small island located within the Bay of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It has been inhabited for centuries by black farmers and fishermen. Its history and its territory have been shaped by processes, practices and understandings articulating extra-territoriality and transgression with re-territorialisation and strategic isolation. The island, once a marginal, "wild", dangerous territory, has been recently re-discovered by sectors of the state and of transnational capital.

The construction of a road, to be built over an older track which traversed the island, has kindled distinct memories, expectations, preoccupations and conflicts. Regional administrators, private investors, national institutions and the recently formed black communities' councils, manifested, through their discourses about the road, competing ideas of place, culture and "community". The road, "el camino a Baru", came to echo and embody historical and fantasized links and dis-connections between the island and its regional space.

For some villagers the road fuelled desire and imagination, conjuring an imagined island which promised opportunities for employment, consumption and entertainment.

Other villagers felt that a new road threatened the island with crime and "dis-order" and could turn it into a distinct, unpredictable, place while gradually pushing people out of a newly crafted touristic paradise. Some of these concerns were reflected in the circulation of rumours about traditional marsh-dwelling ghosts materializing on the road in construction and harassing Moto-taxi drivers and their clients, and about mysterious four- wheels- trucks, allegedly driven by people involved with drugs-trafficking, roaming the island to inspire terror on some of its inhabitants.

Crossroads: social transformation and crisis in an egalitarian society

Author: Cathryn Townsend (University College London)  email


Elders of a Baka community in Cameroon remember an egalitarian life spent in the forest hunting and gathering. Now an iron mine has opened, a road has arrived, and the old ways are changing. With its capacity to both empower and subject the Baka, the road is part of a deeper social crisis.

Long Abstract

Can the advent of a road precipitate a social crisis?

Elders of the sedentarized Baka community in Assoumindele, Cameroon, remember a life spent in the forest hunting and gathering. Now an iron mine has opened, a road has come to the village, and the old ways are changing. The demand sharing of goods, a central feature of the previously egalitarian lifestyle, is often replaced by reciprocal exchange or money transactions.

Since the road was made in 2008, there has been a burgeoning population and industry in this previously remote region. The state has a greater interest in governing it. An influx of small-scale entrepreneurs have simultaneously introduced the Baka to seductive products and provided new avenues for the Baka to earn money, for example by labouring to provide bushmeat, ivory, and gold. Increasingly forced into convening with state-sanctioned forces of globalisation and integrating into the capitalist economy, the rhetoric of development has been adopted and internalized by the Baka community. They have come to see their former lifestyle as inadequate. This is compounded by stereotyping of their former forest-oriented lifestyle as primitive and bestial by outsiders, leading to a degraded sense of ethnic identity on the part of the Baka.

Through the course of my fieldwork between 2011 and 2012, I witnessed gradual diversification of Baka attitudes towards the new road, from euphoria to disillusionment. The expressed ambivalence is symptomatic of a crisis in ethnic identity, amplified by the road's simultaneous capacity to empower and subject the Baka.

The urban chronotope

Author: Giovanni Spissu (University of St Augustine )  email


In this panel, my aim is to explore a particular chronotopic form of observation based on urban movement in which a traveling viewpoint on the city is taken.

Long Abstract

Bakthin considered the road one of the most important forms of a literary chronotope. He said that different types of temporality converged in them. In novels the road is where daily life takes shape and it is also the place of adventure where extraordinary things happen. It is the merging of these temporalities with spaces that gives it a multiple meaning. I argue that we can transfer a chronotopic analysis of the road from the world of literature to that of ethnographic research. We can observe how the space-time intersection prompts inhabitants to project their memory onto urban spaces. I also argue that we can consider the road as a place that generates chronotopes from which we can explore the city's space-time connections. For this project, I carried out field work with the help of a resident of Cape Town who helped me to become aware of the meanings attributed to urban spaces, placing them in relationship to her personal experience. This let me observe the city as an (urban) chronotope.

The road that took its time: Nepal's Kosi-Lhasa Highway along the Arun River

Author: Matthäus Rest (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)  email


The road that recently arrived at the village of Num in Nepal’s Arun valley was 20 years late. I will trace its biography and how people in the area have been coping with the uncertainty connected to a road that has been as elusive as the promise of development that its announcement had implicated.

Long Abstract

In order to access the construction site of the Arun-3 hydropower dam in Northeast Nepal, the World Bank announced to fund the construction of a road up the Arun River in 1989. After the cancellation (1995) and reincarnation (2008) of the dam project, this road only recently arrived at the proposed dam site with more than twenty years of delay. In the meantime, however, it has changed from a mere access road for the construction of the country's most controversial infrastructure project into a major trans-Himalayan arterial road that will connect Kolkata with Lhasa once it will be completed.

My paper will trace the protracted biography of this road through the Bank's reports, the memories of some of its former staff members and most importantly the narratives of people I met in the villages around the dam site. It follows Penny Harvey's call for a topology of roads that neither conceptualises them as straightforward means to accelerate connectivity nor unambiguous tools for increased state control. Instead, my conversations with people in the upper Arun valley show their complex relations with the road and the instability of infrastructural spaces. Beyond their hopes and misgivings about the new connection, their narratives shed light on the difficult relationship between the state and its citizens at the margins who know about their strategically important position between India and China but feel 'left in the middle.'

Fragments of the state: a rhizomatic ethnography of the Karakora Highway between China and Pakistan

Author: Alessandro Rippa (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)  email


This paper employs Deleuze's concept of rhizome and the idea of "fragments" in order to address the multiplicity of histories, objects and activities of which the Karakoram Highway is made.

Long Abstract

The Karakoram Highway connects Kashgar and Islamabad through the 4,693 meter-high Khunjerab Pass. The local impact of the road, particularly in the northern regions of Pakistan, has been the subject of various studies over the past three decades. Less attention, at least from an anthropological perspective, has been given to the international character of the road and its importance for cross-border trade. Moreover, recent anthropological literature shows how roads can lead to revealing analysis of the state, particularly about how it is imagined and represented, but also experienced and negotiated on a day-to-day basis. My research moves from a 12-month fieldwork along the Highway, where I had the opportunity to meet, talk and travel with small traders and businessmen. Through a focus on various "objects" - the materiality of the road, the goods traded, Chinese road workers - and practices - conducting a business transaction, crossing the border, travelling along the Highway - I have come to an understanding of the road in terms of "multiplicity" and "fragmentation". In this paper I move from this analysis and argue that the experience of the road brings about a different engagement with the state, as I show through the examples of carpet trade and Chinese workers in Pakistan. In order to make this point I resort to Deleuze's notion of rhizome, as through its focus on open-endedness, becoming and connectivity, it helps shedding new light not only upon our conceptual understanding of the road, but also upon the people who travel and conduct business on it.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.