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The Ethnography of Infrastructure

Susan Leigh Star (1999) · Read 2/16/2021


  • Asks methodological q's about studying infra, w/ tools and perspectives of ethnography
  • Infra is relational (means diff things to diff ppl), ecological (inseparable from env)
  • Challenges: scaling up from trad ethnographic sites, online <> offline interplay
  • Solutions: studying design of infra, understanding infra paradoxes as transparent and opaque, including invisible work in ecological analysis, pinpointing epistemological status of indictors

Methodological problems

  • "a slender [phone book] indicates a rural area; those that list only husband’s names for married couples indicate a heterosexually-biased, sexist society"

    • From "Fill to fulfill": "Forms reflect as well as shape how you view subjects. They can make you think that subjects inherently have these traits you’re gathering data about and that the traits are organized the way the form organizes them"
  • "Much of the ethnographic study of information systems implicitly involves the study of infrastructure."
  • "Study a city and neglect its sewers and power supplies (as many have), and you miss essential aspects of distributional justice and planning power. Study an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss equally essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change."

    • Tie-in to urban planning

Defining infra

  • Shift lenses

    • "For a railroad engineer, the rails are not infrastructure but topic... One person’s infrastructure is another’s topic, or difficulty."
    • '“infrastructural inversion”—foregrounding the truly backstage elements of work practice'
  • Properties of infra

    • Embeddedness: "our respon- dents did not usually distinguish programs or subcomponents of the software— they were simply “in” it"
    • Transparency: "does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly sup- ports those tasks"
    • Reach or scope: "reach beyond a single event or one-site practice"
    • Learned as part of membership
    • Links with conventions of practice: e.g. QWERTY; "when we suggested con- tinual update, it was soundly rejected as interfering with important conventions of practice"
    • Embodiment of standards: "infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion"
    • Built on an installed base: "infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion"
    • Becomes visible upon breakdown
    • Is fixed in modular increments: "Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure."

Infra and methods

  • "I brought an ethnographic sensibility to the data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgments about the built information environment."

    • Media literacy and interpretation
  • "I know of no one who has analyzed transaction logs to their own satisfaction, never mind to a standard of ethnographic veridicality"

Tricks of the trade

ID'ing master narratives and others

  • "single voice that does not problematize diversity" Does it "not problematize" diversity?
  • "deletion of modalities... has been well-described by sociologists of science—the process by which a scientific fact is gradually stripped of the circumstances of its development, and the attendant uncertainties, and becomes an unvarnished truth."
  • "International Classification of Diseases... committee of statisticians attempted to codify the “moment of life”: How can you tell, for the purposes of filling out a birth certificate, when a baby is alive?"
  • "blanks on the forms were both heteropraxial (different practices according to region, local constraints, beliefs) and heteroglossial (inscribing different voices in the seemingly monotonous form)"

From "Fill to fulfill":

  • 37 Code of Federal Regulations § 202.1(c) (2006) ("Blank forms, such as time cards, graph paper, account books, diaries, bank checks, scorecards, address books, report forms, order forms and the like, which are designed for recording information and do not in themselves convey information [are not subject to copyright]")
  • "The act of gathering information is almost always motivated by some hypothesis being (dis)proven — or at least some question, which has assumptions about the world baked into it."

Surfacing invisible work

  • "Information systems... may leave gaps in work processes that require real-time adjustments, or articulation work, to complete the processes."
  • "leaving out what are locally perceived as “nonpeople” can mean a nonworking system"
  • Implications: "Leave the work tacit, and it fades into the wallpaper (in one respondent’s words, “we are thrown in with the price of the room”). Make it explicit, and it will become a target for hospital cost accounting... making their work just visible enough for legitimation, but maintaining an area of discretion."

    • Types of incentives to make work invisible: economic (accounting), aesthetic
    • Tech using streamlined as selling point; ideas and products appear from nowhere, with no history

Paradoxes of infra

  • "Why would someone not punch a couple of buttons rather than walk across campus to get a copy of something? ... Assemblage" sure

Thorny problem of indicators

  • "One of the difficulties in studying infrastructure is distinguishing different levels of reference in one’s subject matter. This is a difficulty shared by all inter- pretive studies of media."
  • Info infra as:

    • "material artifact constructed by people... truth status of the content... is not relevant... only its impact"
    • trace of activities: infra as info-collection device
    • "veridical representation of the world... taken unproblematically as a mirror of actions in the world, and often tacitly, as a complete enough record of those actions"
  • "When large epistemological stakes are at issue in the development of a system, one political tactic is to focus away from the larger question, and instead to seize control of the indicators."

Bridges and barriers

  • "millions of tiny bridges built into large-scale information infrastructures, and millions of (literal and metaphoric) public buses that cannot pass through them"
  • "In information infrastructure, every conceivable form of variation in practice, culture, and norm is inscribed at the deepest levels of design."

Discussion keywords: lenses/foregrounding, context