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Infrastructure as techno-politics of differentiation: social effects of the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya

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The Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, a large-scale transport project whose construction commenced in October 2016, has been promoted by the national government as a promise of “development” and “prospering people”. In this paper, based on fieldwork research across different sites (government offices, railway stations, construction sites, onboard trains, population settlements around railway infrastructures) I focus on material and semiotic forms of the SGR infrastructures through which the SGR acquires the socio-political meaning of “development”. Analysing these infrastructural forms, I argue that, contrary to the state narrative of “prospering people” of Kenya, the SGR project exacerbates the pre-existing socio-material relations of difference, thereby constituting several distinct populations that perceive, approach, and are impacted by the SGR in different ways. This is based on how these different groups are unevenly slotted into infrastructurally constituted aspirations of the “development” and “future” of the contemporary Kenyan state. Through these analyses, the paper, first, contributes to geographical scholarship on mega-infrastructures by highlighting how infrastructures, besides structural effects of ordering capitalist spaces and territorialities, are also constitutive of people, subjectivities, and populations, which has been relatively unexplored in this strand of geographical research. Second, highlighting how infrastructures entrench pre-existing socio-material differences further, the article also contributes to broader critical social science research on infrastructures by showing the importance of not overemphasising infrastructure as contingently shaped, in the ever-evolving process of remaking social, economic, and political relations, as this body of work tends to do.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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