Author:Liviu Chelcea (University of Bucharest)
Paper short abstract:
The anthropology of houses and the anthropology of infrastructure may be hybridized through an ethnographic focus on plumbing and housing repairs.
Paper long abstract:
References to plumbing usually surface in anthropological texts as meta-commentary on civilization, post-colonialism, ethnographic location, development, cultural distance, or evolution, but ethnographers have been largely inattentive to plumbing as an analytic tool and ethnographic object. Plumbing is simultaneously a material, political, and symbolic practice. Social studies of infrastructure generally claim that urban infrastructures are materially and symbolically hidden, arguing that they become visible only when they malfunction. Drawing on fieldwork carried out in Bucharest, I question that claim, based on the way long-term tenants in nationalized housing conceptualize plumbing and housing repair as ownership. Without crisis or malfunction, tenants make symbolically visible, collectivize, and politicize the past plumbing of capillary endings of urban infrastructure in order to retain occupancy and gain ownership. These past interventions are (1) recompartmentalization-driven plumbing, (2) improved connectivity to municipal gas, water, or electricity networks as well as (3) ordinary running repairs. I describe the theoretical implications of analyzing the flows, materialities, and agencies of plumbing for the ethnographies of houses and urban infrastructures.
The anthropology of infrastructure: ordering people, places, and imaginaries