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SOAS scholar secures ERC funding for research on road infrastructure in South Asia

12 February 2014

Dr Edward Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London has received a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant of almost €2 million for his research project on ethnographic approaches to infrastructure development in South Asia.

The five-year project 'Roads and the politics of thought: Ethnographic approaches to infrastructure development in South Asia' will provide the first ethnographic account of the culture of road builders, their knowledge practices, interrelations and motivations.

Dr Simpson, who is the Principal Investigator, will work with a team which includes Dr Laura Jeffery and Dr Kanchana N. Ruwanpura at the University of Edinburgh, an award-winning collective of contemporary artists, CAMP, who are based in Mumbai, India and at least three post-doctoral positions at SOAS.

The research will be rooted in case studies of particular road projects in Pakistan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. These sites have been selected to bring to the fore how nation-building, neo-liberalism, ambition, environmental vulnerability and modernity feature in contemporary road-building.

The scholars 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.

The aim of the research is to survey expert opinion and uncover the ideas driving current road-building practices in South Asia. As roads are being constructed at astounding and unprecedented rates in certain parts of the world, the research will ask: why, to what end and what ideas lie in the foundations of this new infrastructure? As cheap oil dwindles and questions of climate change remain, why are so many multi-lateral institutions cultivating new roads?

Dr Simpson said: “In Europe, a generation or more of people has grown up worrying about recycling plastic bags, learning the ‘car guilt’ their parents did not have, and trying to imagine what will happen when the oil wells and coal shales, finally, run dry. In contrast, in South Asia, there is currently a tremendous intensification of road building as a way of organising social life, national politics and international relations. Road building is literally, everywhere – in ways difficult to imagine, unless you can see it first-hand. This is a unique and significant moment in history in which mass petro-mobility is being woven into the future and national fabrics and further entrenched in popular imagination.”

The ERC Consolidator Grants enable already independent excellent researchers to consolidate their own research teams and to develop their most innovative ideas across the European Research Area. Demand for these grants rose by 46 per cent in this call, compared to the corresponding group of applicants in 2012.

European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "These researchers are doing ground-breaking work that will advance our knowledge and make a difference to society. The ERC is supporting them at a key moment where funding is often hard to come by: when they need to move forward in their career and develop their own research and teams."