23 Mar 2019

Fractal Infrastructures: A Road, the Border, and Compounding the State in Highland Nepal

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, Denver, Colorado.

Galen Murton


Infrastructures beget infrastructures. In Nepal, small, community-led road development projects have led, in the span of just ten years, to the escalating bureaucratic and institutional presence of the Nepali state in numerous districts at the historical periphery of the central government’s reach. As both state-led and internationally-financed road development accelerates across Nepal, it is of vital importance to understand how small transportation projects routinely generate new border controls, construction booms, tax regimes, and political economies, all of which serve to compound – or put together – the state itself. Infrastructure can thus be usefully employed to ‘see the state’ in productive new ways. As infrastructures unfold, state presence grows. Such development processes can resemble fractal growth patterns, or infinitely complex and never-ending patterns that take shape across multiple scales. To illuminate the connections between infrastructure development and state formation in Nepal, I approach infrastructures as fractal processes that reflect, redirect, augment, and replace one another. Fractal infrastructures are not things with definitive edges, beginnings, or endings but, rather, interdependent components of broader and more complex compound processes. Taken together, roads, fences, bureaucracies, and the like become greater than the sum of their parts, visible and experienced as transportation networks, border officials, trade administrations, and aid packages. In Nepal, these infrastructures continually intersect and refract one another across trans-Himalayan spaces and between China and India and, in so doing,reconfigure relationships between states and citizens in both predictable and unexpected ways.


"Infrastructural Imaginaries I: Projects and Places" Infrastructures of the modern world shape everyday life, socio-economic hierarchies, popular perceptions of space and movement, and prominent images of the individual, corporation, nation, region, and world. This includes not only physical infrastructures, such as sewer systems, communications networks, railroads, and highways, but also the virtual systems that define spaces, control movement, and mediate interactions by defining borders, territoriality, and citizenship. Infrastructure, which has recently emerged as a key site of study across the social sciences and humanities, joins disparate concerns about space, mobility, and circulation across scales and boundaries. In this pair of border-crossing panels, scholars from six disciplines, comparing examples from as many countries, will explore the ways infrastructures produce physical and imagined spaces.

This first of two panels takes up infrastructural projects that promote particular interconnected visions of place and progress. Projects to build roads and railways in Japan, Manchuria, urban Pakistan, and across the Himalayas have significance beyond the realms of transportation and commerce. Both government agencies and private groups have taken advantage of major transportation infrastructure projects in efforts to reinvent the spaces they connect and cross, assigning news meanings to space in connection with particular ideals for the future. The juxtaposition of four examples from different times and places helps explain an essential function of transportation infrastructure that is not necessarily integral to its ostensible purpose. Each presenter will speak for 15 minutes, after which we will pose a few shared questions to promote fruitful discussion with the audience.


  • Jessamyn Abel, Pennsylvania State University
  • Eric Dinmore, Hampden-Sydney College
  • Amen Jaffer, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan
  • Galen Murton, LMU Munich and James Madison University

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
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