Sub-theme 63: Thinking Infrastructures

Martin Kornberger
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Neil Pollock
The University of Edinburgh Business School, United Kingdom
Geoffrey C. Bowker
University of California, Irvine, USA

Call for Papers

Infrastructures are powerful and ubiquitous organizing mechanisms that fundamentally structure social reality (Bowker & Star, 1999). Whilst economic sociology, anthropology, human geography, science and technology studies, social informatics, and a few disciplines within business schools, such as accounting, have appropriated the concept of infrastructure fruitfully, to date organization theory has by and large ignored the concept.
The objective of this sub-theme is to explore the notion of infrastructure as resource and tool in order to rethink organizations and processes of organizing. The sub-theme Thinking Infrastructures focuses on various forms of infrastructure that structure knowledge, epistemic cultures and intentionality of decision-makers: for example, informational infrastructures (Star & Ruhleder, 1996), numerical infrastructures (Power, 2015), and knowledge infrastructures (Edwards, 2010) are infrastructures that pattern what and how we know the world; they condition managerial and organizational cognition through defining what counts and how to count; what is perceived as risk and what needs regulation; and what we perceive as objects and how we behave as subjects. In other words, Thinking Infrastructures embody and enact a politics of truth that is based on making the invisible visible and “sorting out” things (Bowker & Star, 1999).
The sub-theme suggests understanding infrastructures as more than technological accomplishments; they are organizing devices made up of heterogeneous elements, constituting what Star and Ruhleder (1996) described as ecologies: infrastructures draw together technologies, human behaviours and social relations, creating ecologies in which the technological and the social are inextricably interlinked; simultaneously, infrastructures connect the local with the global: for instance, classifications or accounting codes are relational in that they connect a local phenomenon to a more abstract level that in-forms the local (Bowker et al., 2010). Infrastructures also fundamentally temporal concepts that connect the immediate with the longer term, what Ribes and Finholt (2009) provocatively call the “long now”. Through focusing on how people and technologies, words and things are dynamically being drawn together, this sub-theme fosters an understanding of how invisible infrastructures pattern processes, organizations and institutions; how infrastructures afford new ways of collaborating; how they disclose new worlds; and how they constitute new possibilities whilst always also representing apparatuses of governmentality (Larkin, 2013).
The power and opaqueness of infrastructures points towards epistemological and methodological challenges the sub-theme aims to address as well: Thinking Infrastructures invites reflections on research strategies to cope with the invisibility of infrastructures as they operate “under the surface”, becoming visible only upon breakdown (Star, 1999). They are also, and perhaps as a result, rather underdeveloped academic concepts, with disciplinary interpretations that overlap and even conflict.
Hence this sub-theme welcomes papers reflecting on (but are to limited to) some of the following issues:

  • What concepts and definitions of infrastructure do we have at our disposal, and how do they relate to each other? How can they inform a precise analytical vocabulary without loosing the multiplicity of the phenomenon?
  • How do infrastructures relate to other concepts that organization theorists have developed over the past decades? In how far could the concept of infrastructures provide an alternative foundation for ongoing debates in organization studies about agency and structure, global and local, social and technological, micro and macro, etc.?
  • In how far do infrastructures allow studying new phenomena such as big data that are not (yet) on the agenda of organization theorists? What other research possibilities does the concept of infrastructure afford?
  • What are the methodological tools and precautions that infrastructure research calls for? What methods are appropriate, which data gathering techniques are productive, which analytical strategies are critical?
  • Infrastructures are deeply political: they connect and cut off, they make visible and they hide. This begs the critical inquiry into question the specific power effects of infrastructures, understood as apparatuses of governmentality. How do they work, what are their unintended consequences, and how is resistance organized?
  • Last but not least, the ethicality of infrastructures: is there something like a “good infrastructure” (in the sense of the conference theme) or perhaps an infrastructure that makes ethically sound decisions and actions possible? If diversity and sustainability are important values for the “good organization”, which infrastructures contribute towards the conditions for diversity, sustainability and other values to occur?

The sub-theme would like to provide space for conceptual and empirical papers, mobilizing different theoretical resources and empirical cases.


  • Bowker, G.C., Baker, K., Millerand, F., & Ribes, D. (2010): “Toward Information Infrastructure Studies: Ways of Knowing in a Networked Environment.” In: J. Hunsinger, L. Klastrup & M. Allen (eds.): International Handbook of Internet Research. New York: Springer, 97–117.
  • Bowker, G., & Star, S. L. (1999): Sorting Things Out. Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Edwards, P.N. (2010): A Vast Machine. Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Larkin, B. (2013): “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42, 327–343.
  • Power, M. (2015): “How accounting begins: Object formation and the accretion of infrastructure.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 47, 43–55.
  • Ribes, D., & Finholt, T.A. (2009): ”The Long Now of Technology Infrastructure: Articulating Tensions in Development.” Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 10 (5), Special Issue, 375-398.
  • Star, S.L. (1999): “The ethnography of infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist, 43 (3), 377–391.
  • Star, S.L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996): ”Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces.” Information Systems Research, 7 (1), 111–134.
Martin Kornberger received his PhD from the University of Vienna in 2002, followed by a decade at the University of Technology, Sydney. He works as Professor for Strategy and Organization at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. He is also a Visiting Professor at The University of Edinburgh Business School, UK, and at the WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria.
Neil Pollock is Professor of Innovation and Social Informatics at the University of Edinburgh Business School, UK, where he heads the Entrepreneurship and Innovation academic subject group. He is also a member of the Edinburgh Social Informatics Cluster and the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI). He is primarily known for his interdisciplinary research on IT that sits at the intersection between information systems, innovation studies and economic sociology.
Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor at the School of Information and Computer Science, University of California at Irvine, USA, where he directs a laboratory for Values in the Design of Information Systems and Technology. Recent positions include Professor of and Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship at the University of Pittsburgh iSchool and Executive Director, Center for Science, Technology and Society, Santa Clara. Together with Leigh Star he wrote “Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences”; his most recent book is “Memory Practices in the Sciences”.