Call for Papers "Material Assemblages. New Perspectives on the History of Infrastructure"

Jan E. Hansen's picture
Call for Papers
March 31, 2019
Subject Fields: 
Architecture and Architectural History, Environmental History / Studies, Geography, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Urban History / Studies

Call for Papers "Material Assemblages. New Perspectives on the History of Infrastructure"
Jan Hansen (Humboldt-Universität Berlin), Frederik Schulze (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster)

Date: May 27-29, 2020
Location: Berlin


Infrastructures are long-lasting material installments. They provide social functions such as mobility, exchange, and communication, and they keep human societies, economic systems, and political entities running. They structure human life on the most basic level. Without roads, tunnels, bridges, harbors, airports, dams, gas and water pipes, power lines, and telephone and internet cables, it would be difficult to grasp the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or understand globalization processes. Infrastructure is composed of material objects; it functions due to this materiality and its interaction with humans, the environment, and other material objects.

Since the 1970s, materiality has emerged as an influential research paradigm in archaeology, anthropology, science and technology studies, and sociology. Since then, a new interdisciplinary research field has developed under the banner of material culture studies. This field conceives of material objects not only as expressions of cultural meaning, but also as actants that exercise agency and decisively shape social networks. Due to the privileged status of written over material sources, the materiality paradigm has only been evolving for the past ten years. However, the history of infrastructure has not been explicitly affected by this trend, yet.

The workshop will enquire about the materiality of infrastructure. We are interested in how a specific material impacts the temporality and spatiality of infrastructure, as well as the process by which infrastructure has gained agency as material assemblages and has interacted with objects, nature, and humans. According to our assumption, the materiality of infrastructure is a fundamental yet under-researched condition for understanding infrastructure. In this sense, we combine the history of objects and the history of infrastructure, which, until now, were largely considered separately. 

This call for papers addresses scholars from a variety of fields, including historians, geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists. The focus of the workshop is directed, but not limited, to the following set of questions:

  • How does the materiality of infrastructure exercise agency in complex networks of humans, objects, and environmental factors? How can historians explore these dynamic and hybrid assemblages of human and nonhuman agency?
  • What is the relationship between infrastructure and space and time? While space and time certainly affect infrastructure, infrastructure also produces specific experiences of space, and it enables us to structure time. How does the material’s spatiality and temporality mold infrastructure? How is it being molded by these assemblages?
  • To what extent is research on the materiality of infrastructure connected to research on power? It is well known that infrastructure, such as railways, bridges, or water pipes, serve as powerful technologies (not only in colonial contexts). How does materiality exercise power? What are the limits of such an approach with regard to materiality?

Given these questions, we are particularly interested in case studies that consider infrastructure related to water, electricity, and transportation. However, we also encourage scholars to submit proposals dealing with other types of infrastructure or approaching the topic from a more theoretical perspective. Proposals might apply a global microhistory approach, fruitfully combining the advantages of global history and microhistory.

We cordially invite prospective participants to submit paper proposals of no more than 300 words along with a one-page CV to and All submissions are due on March 31, 2019. Pending the results of funding applications, we will cover travel costs and accommodation.

Contact Info: 

Dr. Jan Hansen
Department of History
Humboldt University of Berlin
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin