The Agency of Infrastructure: A Critical Acquisition Framework for Understanding Infrastructure Development within Inequitable Societies
Gartner, Candice Marie
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Infrastructure development is a topic that has occupied a noble niche within development thinking since the middle of the twentieth century. However, despite over half a century of research concerning infrastructure development processes, structurally-oriented development theories continue to dominate infrastructure development research and praxis. Critically informed approaches to development, which acknowledge the integral role of place, power, and agency to infrastructure research, have yet to make a noticeable mark within infrastructure development policymaking. A review of the multidisciplinary infrastructure and development literature reveals a clear emphasis on structurally-oriented processes of infrastructure provision, and an insufficient understanding of agency-oriented, place-specific processes of infrastructure access, particularly within the context of inequitable societies. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to critically examine infrastructure development processes based on the lived experiences of marginalized populations and to integrate such experiences into the construction of infrastructure knowledge. This dissertation is a compilation of three manuscripts and three additional chapters (the introduction, methodology, and conclusion). The first of these manuscripts, entitled The Science and Politics of Infrastructure Research, is a conceptual paper that critically explores the intersection of infrastructure and development literature. Herein I describe three perspectives, the technocratic, interventionist, and critical perspectives, that articulate the different ways that infrastructure is valued among multiple actors involved in the production of infrastructure knowledge. Among these perspectives, I contend that technocratic and interventionist perspectives have occupied a dominant position with respect to informing infrastructure development policy and praxis throughout the twentieth century. I question whether such dominance is the product of superior scientific rigor or the politicized process of knowledge production. Towards the goal of giving greater prominence to the critical perspective, and in effort to offer a systematic way forward from this post-development critique, I propose the Critical Acquisition Framework. The framework is designed to facilitate an agency-oriented understanding of infrastructure development processes from the perspectives of marginalized groups. Inspired by critical-social theory and capability analyses, the Critical Acquisition Framework helps to understand how marginalized groups deploy their existing capability sets to access infrastructure via multiple overlapping institutions. In addition, the framework helps to envision alternative agency-oriented scenarios of infrastructure access. In essence, the framework demonstrates how the acquisition process influences the capability sets and therefore agency and power of marginalized groups. The framework can be used to assess whether infrastructure ‘develops’ according to emic perspectives, or whether infrastructure reifies inequitable power relations. The research is informed by a critical methodological approach and mixed-methods research design. To investigate infrastructure access through the experiences of marginalized groups, the empirical aspect of this research is based on two instrumental case studies located in the northern highlands of Peru. The first case study and second manuscript is entitled: Women’s Acquisition of Domestic Water Services in the District of Cajamarca, Peru. Three impoverished women’s groups, representing rural, peri-urban, and urban locales are analysed, based on the women’s experiences of accessing water through their respective institutions of domestic water provision. Overall, the findings illustrate how marginalized groups exercise agency, as well as the limits to their agency in accessing domestic water services. Considerable variations are found in the quality of domestic water institutions that play a deciding role in women’s experiences of access. The findings also suggest that inefficient institutions may be perpetuated as such in order to maintain the powerful positions of dominant groups involved in domestic water provision. The second case study and third manuscript, is entitled Access for Whom and to What? A Critical Acquisition Framework for Understanding Rural Experiences of Multiple Accessibilities. This paper examines the iterative process through which vendors working within an informal market district repeatedly deploy their multiple capability sets to navigate multiple overlapping institutions that regulate comprehensive access to rural transportation and other privatized infrastructures. Three sub-processes of rural accessibility are investigated: transportation access, market access, and infrastructure access. The findings reveal the complexity of rural accessibility, and suggest that failures of infrastructure access may be attributed to inequitable institutions that regulate the acquisition process. The instrumental case studies have been used to help inform, test, and refine the Critical Acquisition Framework. In doing so, this research has achieved its aim to integrate the experiences of marginalized populations in the construction of infrastructure development knowledge. This research offers a new way of understanding an old problem of infrastructure development. Positioning the notions of agency, power, and place as central tenets of infrastructure development analyses, not only complements the existing body of infrastructure knowledge, but can also lend to a more equitable process of infrastructure development within inequitable societies.