SO4C5      Half Unit
The Social Life of Infrastructure

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr David Pinzur STC S217a


This course is available on the MSc in City Design and Social Science, MSc in Culture and Society, MSc in Economy and Society and MSc in Sociology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course has a limited number of places (it is controlled access). Places are allocated based on a written statement. Priority will be given to students on the MSc in City Design and Social Science, MSc in Culture and Society, MSc in Economy and Society and MSc in Sociology. This may mean that not all students who apply will be able to get a place on this course.

Course content

We are all at least vaguely aware of the multitude of infrastructures that undergird our everyday lives: the global shipping and storage services that bring goods to our homes, the electronic networks that move our money from one account to another, the digital protocols that shape our experiences online. This course treats these infrastructures not as purely material objects (the province of engineers or computer scientists), but rather as densely social phenomena. Drawing on an interdisciplinary, social scientific literature on topics ranging from sewers to SWIFT, the course examines the complex, materially mediated webs of relations and practices that make infrastructures work. This approach highlights a distinct set of concerns. We will examine not only how infrastructures function, but how they produce distributive consequences, alter the nature of politics, articulate with legal and organisational arrangements, and embed beliefs, values, and ways of understanding the world. This situates our analysis of infrastructure as part of a broader concern with the nature of power in hybrid, socio-material environments. The course will provide a set of theoretical and methodological tools for analysing how infrastructures entrench inequalities and expand methods of dominance and control on the one hand, while generating new strategies and means for contesting orders of rule on the other.


30 hours of seminars in the LT.

Students on this course will have a reading week in LT Week 6, in line with departmental policy.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 piece of coursework in the LT.

In Week 9, students will turn in and post to a dedicated Moodle forum, a 1000-word extended abstract that provides a preliminary description and justification of the case that will feature in their summative research prospectus. This will also include an indicative bibliography (not included in word count).

Indicative reading

  • Susan Leigh Star & Karen Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces.” Information Systems Research 7(1):111-134.
  • Geoffrey Bowker & Susan Leigh Star. 2000. Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. MIT Press: Cambridge.
  • Paul Edwards. 2003. “Infrastructure and modernity: Force, time, and social organization in the history of sociotechnical systems.” Pp. 185-226 in Thomas Misa, Phillip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (eds.) Modernity and Technology. MIT Press: Cambridge.
  • Marieke de Goede. 2012. Speculative Security: The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN.
  • Deborah Cowen. 2014. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN.
  • Brian Larkin. 2013. “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42:327-343.
  • Donald MacKenzie. 2017. “A material political economy: Automated Trading Desk and price prediction in high-frequency trading.” Social Studies of Science 47(2): 172-194
  • Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra. 2019. Automating Finance: Infrastructures, Engineers, and the Making of Electronic Markets. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Nick Bernards and Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn. 2019. “Understanding technological change in global finace through infrastructures: Introduction to Review of International Political Economy special issue ‘The Changing Technological Infrastructures of Global Finance.’” Review of International Political Economy 26(5): 773-789
  • David Pinzur. 2021. "Infrastructural power: Discretion and the dynamics of infrastructure in action." Journal of Cultural Economy 14(6): 644-661.


Presentation (10%, 500 words) in the LT.
Essay (90%, 5000 words) in the ST.

Presentation (10%) -  Each student will sign up to lead the seminar discussion for one week of the term. This will be done in groups of 3-4 students. The group will post on Moodle a 500 word plan for the seminar discussion, including introductory comments and discussion question. The mark will reflect both written and oral components of the presentation.

Essay (90%) – Each student will write a prospectus for a potential research project on an infrastructure of their own choosing. This will have a 5,000-word limit and be due in the ST exam period. The essay will not involve collection or analysis of new data. Rather, it will ask students to: 1) identify an infrastructure that has potential to be the site of valuable, future research; 2) discuss the history of this infrastructure, its importance, and what makes it amenable to 'infrastructural inversion'; 3) analyse the potential theoretical value of this research, drawing on course concepts and literature; 4) sketch the data sources that could form the basis of this empirical research.

An electronic copy of the assessed essay, to be uploaded to Moodle, no later than 4.00pm on the second Wednesday of Summer Term.

Key facts

Department: Sociology

Total students 2021/22: Unavailable

Average class size 2021/22: Unavailable

Controlled access 2021/22: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication