The Roads Project


‘Roads’ is a five year ethnographic research project on infrastructure development in South Asia. The project, funded by the European Research Council, will provide the first ethnographic account of the culture of ‘road builders’, their knowledge practices, interrelations and motivations at a regional scale.

‘Roads’ is headed by Edward Simpson, Professor in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. Simpson will work with research partners at the University of Edinburgh, and CAMP, a collective of contemporary artists based in Mumbai.

Globally, a staggering 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050, which is enough to circle the earth some 600 times. This figure predicts a 60% increase in the total length of roads from 2010. Nine-tenths of all road construction is expected to occur in the less prosperous nations, especially in Africa and Asia. Even assuming greater fuel and technology efficiencies, and that the percentage increase in traffic is less than the volume of new roads, this forecast also suggests an enormous increase in the amount of energy required to sustain mobility on such a scale.

This research asks:
To what end?
Who benefits?
What ideas lie in the foundations of this new infrastructure?

Roads are presented as solutions to poverty, ‘development’ and economic growth. Are they? What else might roads do? As cheap oil dwindles and questions of climate change remain, why are so many international institutions cultivating new roads?  The research will be rooted in case studies of road projects in Pakistan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. We selected these sites to highlight how nation-building, neo-liberalism, ambition, environmental vulnerability and modernity feature in contemporary road-building. We will look at the organisation of road building on the ground, in offices, and within a broader array of institutions and state bodies in national and international contexts in order to understand the global cultures of road-building practice.