Definitions of Infrastructure: a Sociologist and an Economist

“Infrastructure” is a term that is evolving in itself to include more than the pipes, wires, rails and roads that we normally think of when we think of “infrastructure”.

Susan Leigh Star explores infrastructure from a sociologist’s perspective. In her 1999 article “The Ethnography of Infrastructure”, Star emphasizes the non-material attributes of infrastructure–their basis in pervasive protocols and standards, for example. Here are her nine criteria:

  1. Embeddedness 
  2. Transparency
  3. Reach or scope
  4. Learned as part of membership
  5. Links with conventions of practice
  6. Embodiment of standards
  7. Built on an installed base
  8. Becomes visible upon breakdown 
  9. Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once 

The emphasis on the non-material attributes of infrastructure allows for the inclusion of government, education systems, healthcare systems, and information technologies, which are heavily in protocols, standards, and categorization, as infrastructure.

Another work broadens the definition of infrastructure from an economic standpoint. Frischmann in 2011 states that infrastructure resources must meet three criteria: “(1) The resource may be consumed nonrivalrously for some appreciable range of demand. (2) Social demand for the resource is driven primarily by downstream productive activity that requires the resource as an input. (3) The resource may be used as an input into a wide range of goods and services, which may include private goods, public goods, and social goods.”

When you think about it, these definitions expand the possibilities of infrastructure to include everything from a legal system to the atmosphere!

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