What does it mean to “speak for the social” in projects of technical and infrastructural change? This is the problem that the contributors to Speaking for the Social: A Catalogue of Methods set out to explore through a series of creative interventions that reimagine the role for qualitative social science in understanding and shaping design and engineering projects. The book departs from familiar methods like interviews, surveys, and participant observations, to propose walks, exhibitions, performances, dialogues, online museums, meetings, and staged performances as an array of alternative ways of thinking about and eliciting the social implications of infrastructure projects.
Prompted both by a turn to infrastructure and material relations in social research and the concern with social impact and social value in technical projects, this book seeks to outline new ways for social scientists to engage with, critique, and participate in infrastructure design. The chapters build on theoretical attention to the social life of objects like roads, buildings, cities, and environments to devise practical methods that can help make social issues newly visible in infrastructure projects. Individually the entries offer a range of practical methods for “speaking for the social” in technical infrastructure projects. Taken together the book lays the ground for new kinds of collaborative, applied social research embedded in the latest discussions in social theory to explore how social value, impact, and responsibility might be rethought and achieved in the process of designing and engineering social change.
Hannah Knox is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. Her work concerns the relationship between technical infrastructures and social life, focusing in particular on how infrastructures, technologies, and data models frame and order the way that people imagine and engage with one another and the world around them. She has conducted research on road construction and the state in Peru, information systems and the transformation of work and welfare in the UK, and climate data and the problem of the city, also in the UK. Her current work is exploring how open data on energy and thermodynamics is being used in attempts to move towards a post-carbon culture. Hannah’s edited books include, with Penny Harvey, Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (Cornell, 2015), Ethnography for a Data Saturated World, with Dawn Nafus (Manchester, 2018), and Digital Anthropology, with Haidy Geismar (Routledge, 2021), and she is also the author of Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change (Duke, 2020).
Gemma John is an Honorary Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University College of London, and the Founder of Human City. She works at the intersection between social anthropology, urban governance, and design, illuminating the ways in which planners, property developers, architects, and other built environment experts negotiate legal and political infrastructures while creating places that deliver value to society and reflect imaginaries of the “good life.” Her interest in the politics of value, and the interplay between economy, morality, and design, stems from her post-doctoral research on devolved governance in the UK through the Localism Act, and doctoral research on Freedom of Information legislation and transparent citizenships in Scotland. As an academic, she has published on new knowledge practices, government bureaucracy, and personhood. As a consultant, she uncovers the relationships between technical, material, and social factors in urban contexts and enables organizations to design spaces that are morally and socially sustainable.
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