Invisible Infrastructure

Alessandro Rippa

New high-rise apartment buildings in Tengchong (Rippa, 2017)

My research to date has primarily focused on large-scale and highly visible infrastructure projects such as roads, Special Economic Zones, and new resettlement projects in rural China. My theoretical approach to such infrastructural spaces has been influenced by works in the social sciences that see infrastructure as ‘fundamentally’ relational. Here infrastructures are understood as both things and relations among things and thus defined by a multitude of practices. Furthermore, infrastructures are highly symbolic, generating affective responses and political outcomes. In my work, I address infrastructures as compelling sites for studying particular regimes of expectations, as well as points of relation that generate deferral and abandonment. 

While highly visible development projects speak to the material and political lives of infrastructures, as a Henry Luce postdoctoral fellow at CU Boulder, my current project brings attention to the less visible doings of infrastructural interventions. I address questions of labor and maintenance by focusing on a number of infrastructural projects in Tengchong county in Yunnan Province, where I have conducted research since 2015. In particular, over a few months of field research in the summer of 2019, I plan to work with Burmese/Myanmar migrant workers employed in large-scale infrastructural projects in Tengchong. Moving from classical works on labor migration, as well as from more recent research on foreign migrants in China, I focus on the role of migrant workers in the material production of modernity in rural China. More broadly, I am interested in questions of precarity and subalternity in the context of large-scale infrastructural development. In Tengchong, particularly, migrant workers remain largely absent in official discussions over the development of the city and are in fact remarkable for their non-presence in the city’s main residential and shopping areas. The invisibility of the migrant worker strikes an interesting parallel with the invisibility of the tasks they are employed for. It seems hardly paradoxical, then, that a foreign, un-recognized, and largely un-regulated labor force is in charge of the smooth functioning of infrastructures across Tengchong. In this research I attend to this particular quality of infra-structures: the lives and work of the invisible force in charge of their construction and maintenance – a study of what is beneath, foundational, and largely unseen.

Following the period of field research in the summer of 2019 I will be posting a research update on the China Made website.


Rippa, Alessandro. 2019. Infrastructure of Desire: Rubble, Development, and Salvage Capitalism in Rural China. Made in China Journal, July 23.

Rippa, Alessandro. 2022. From guest traders to live streamers: hospitality and technology in Yunnan’s gemstone market. Social Analysis 66(1): 44-63.



尽管高度显眼的发展计划能体现出基础设施的物质及政治特点,作为在科罗拉多大学博尔德分校工作的亨利卢斯博士后研究员,当前我的研究项目更关注于较少被提及的基础设施的干预介入特点。我从2015年开始在云南省腾冲县进行学术研究。通过关注腾冲县的几个基础设施工程,我强调研究与劳工和设施维护有关的问题。在即将到来的为期数月的2019暑期调研中,我计划特别研究腾冲当前在建大型基础设施项目中雇佣的缅甸外来务工人员。不同于经典的劳工移民研究以及近期关于中国外国移民的研究,我着重研究外来务工人员在中国农村现代化的物质生产过程中所扮演的角色。更广义地讲,我感兴趣的问题是大型基础设施发展中劳工的不稳定性及属下性(底民性)。特别是在腾冲,城市发展的官方叙述中缺失关于对外来务工人员的描述。同样惊人的是该群体也不出现于城市主要的住宅与购物区。国际外来务工人员的无形与基础设施的无形形成了有趣的平行对比。那么,在腾冲,国际的,不被公认的且通常被认为是无秩序的劳动力能掌控本地基础设施,并决定其是否能顺畅地发挥职能的事实看起来几乎不矛盾。在这个项目中,我致力于研究建立在无形劳动力生命与奉献上的基础设施建设与维护 —— 这是一个思考关于底层的,基础的和无形的研究。


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