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Information Infrastructures, State, and Citizens: An Initial Literature Survey

Posted by Khetrimayum Monish Singh, Ranjit Singh, Palashi Vaghela, and Nazifa Ahmed at Mar 28, 2018 08:55 AM |
Our approach to unpacking the nature of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) as an information infrastructure is centered on how it mediates the relationship between the Indian state and its citizens. In this sense, an information infrastructure is not end in itself, rather it is a means to an end. In our case, the end is the eventual differentiation between citizens and immigrants in Assam and the updated NRC is the means to practically achieve it. As the updated NRC is put to use, it simultaneously creates a particular conception of what the Indian state looks like and defines a new terrain of making claims to citizenship. By extension, it creates a new form of Indian citizenship enacted by tuples of data stored in the updated NRC. Thus, while paying close attention to the historical narratives of identity politics in Assam (Baruah 1999; Hazarika 1994; Roy 2010), our initial survey of literature speaks to the nature of this mediation. We focus on how scholars in a diversity of fields, ranging from Information Science (IS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) to Anthropology and Political Science, have engaged with how state infrastructures mediate the state-citizen relationship. We have divided this literature survey into three parts and we will specify the questions that we would like to ask of our field at the end of each part.


All posts related to this study can be found here:

Infrastructure Studies

Infrastructure as a metaphor draws on studies of large-technical systems (LTS) and actor-network theory (ANT) that treat systems and networks as keywords to describe a particular sociotechnical arrangement as an object of study (Grundmann 1999; Offner 1999). Here ‘metaphor’ points to an everyday use of these words — systems, networks and infrastructure — where they are not treated as being significantly different from each other. With respect to systems and networks, Offner has observed that, “Everyday language […] willingly substitutes one for the other: the railroad network or system, the telephone network or system, etc. To specialists of systems analysis […], for every system there is a corresponding network of interactions between sub-systems” (Offner 1999, 228). On a similar note, many studies of infrastructure treat the word ‘infrastructure’ as a given in a colloquial sense (roads, water pipes, internet, etc. as infrastructure). Their objective is not to theorize what infrastructure means in the particular context of a case study; rather infrastructure is used as a resource to specify the ways in which sociotechnical assemblages are constructed and to map out their consequences. Whether it is large technical systems or networks or infrastructures, their use as a metaphor is the initial condition for theorizing the different ways in which heterogeneous elements that make up a messy world (Law 2004) come together during analysis. In treating the updated NRC as an infrastructure, we are interested in examining the sociotechnical and legal-bureaucratic assemblage that holds the updated NRC together as a means to differentiate between citizens and immigrants in Assam.

This work of differentiating citizens from immigrants signifies a distinctly biopolitical role of the updated NRC in mediating state-citizen relationships. Other scholars have illustrated a variety of forms of this mediation at a variety of state infrastructural levels – bureaucracy (Weber 1946; Gupta 2012), street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980), census and statistics (Ruppert 2008; Alonso and Starr 1986), documents (Hull 2012a), identification technologies (Breckenridge 2014; Caplan and Torpey 2001), and so on. However, practically achieving such mediation is not a straightforward task at any of these levels. In the context of information infrastructures, Hanseth and Lundberg (2001) have highlighted the complex relations and dependencies that link “new” information infrastructures to pre-existing systems and arrangements (including paper-based ones) developed to accomplish the same work. Their insight is especially important in studying the use of information infrastructures within state bureaucracies because documents play a central role in organizing their work processes (Harper 1998; Sharma and Gupta 2006; Hull 2012b). Harper (1998) has argued that documents instantiate control by aligning perspectives and activities within and beyond organizations. Sharma and Gupta illustrate that documents are central to “how the state comes to be imagined, encountered, and reimagined by the population” (2006, 12). Hull has argued for the integrative function of documents, emphasizing “the way documents link to people, places, things, times, norms, and forms of sociality” (2012b, 255). Thus, documents signify pre-existing relationships within a bureaucracy that resist efforts of digital interventions to create paperless work procedures.

Furthermore, this insight on frictions between older (paper documents) and newer (digital infrastructures) forms of mediation is not only relevant with regard to using information infrastructures as resources for mediation, it is equally applicable in their design. Bridging the dichotomy between the design and real-world use of infrastructures, Pipek and Wulf have coined the term “infrastructuring” to emphasize the ongoing processes and reconfigurations by which settled systems and procedures are used, sustained, and reworked when aligned with information infrastructures to accommodate breakdown, innovation, and change, across multiple “points of infrastructure” (2009, 458). Thus, one core theme in our research is to investigate the relationship of the updated NRC with pre-existing modes of certifying claims to citizenship and the frictions and tensions that emerge between them.

The following list specifies our concerns in terms of the questions we plan to ask of our field:

  1. What are the different points in the process of updating NRC where tensions and frictions vis-à-vis pre-existing modes of certifying citizenship become visible and require interventions?
  2. What are the (intended and unintended) consequences of such interventions and how do they change the nature of how the updated NRC mediates between the Indian state and its citizens?

Enacting Citizenship

Making a legitimate claim to citizenship in the context of the process of updating the NRC requires mapping a person’s identity to a tuple of data. Thus, our initial point of departure in understanding citizenship is the question of how data categories that make up the updated NRC become a resource for, what Scott (1998) calls, legibility. Scott (1998) argues that the state ‘sees’ its citizens by simplifying their social reality. “State simplifications [...] did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. […] They were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade” (Scott 1998, 3). Thus, legibility of a citizen in the eyes of an official observer is achieved by simplifying their complex identity into data categories that enable claims to citizenship. Furthermore, seeing like a state not only manifests in bureaucratic simplification to understand the workings of a state (Hacking 1982; Desrosières 1998), but also enacts specific representations of citizens with real and immediate impacts on life courses and chances (Igo 2007; Foucault et al. 2007): in short, these are ‘lossy’ but consequential translations.

Returning to the biopolitical dimensions of infrastructure-enabled mediation between the state and the citizen, infrastructures foreground a particular way of seeing citizens and engender specific formulations of citizenship (Ezrahi 1990; Anand 2012; Holston 2007). For example, Anand (2011) develops the notion of hydraulic citizenship: “a form of belonging to the city enabled by social and material claims made to the city’s water infrastructure” (545). Holston (2007) offers an ethnographic account of conflicts and transformations of Brazilian citizenship in the demands of ‘insurgent citizens’ of São Paulo’s peripheries to legalize their homes and possessions. In each of these accounts, infrastructures, as pipes or housing, play central roles in shaping and reworking not only claims to entitlements but also form and meaning of citizenship. Our work contributes to this line of work by attending to the forms of citizenship that emerge in the Indian state’s use of genealogy as a resource for creating an identification infrastructure for registering citizens. This dynamic is in some ways of course as old as the modern state itself; as Breckenridge argues, “Processes of identification working together make up an infrastructure of citizenship – a set of slowly emerging rules, standards and networks of communication – which give any state […] a distinctive political character” (2014, 8). In pursuing this line of inquiry, we focus on how data categories constructed for updating the NRC enables specific formulations of claims to Indian citizenship.

The following list specifies our concerns in terms of the questions we plan to ask of our field:

  1. How is the transformation of complex identities of Indian citizens into data categories practically achieved? In other words, how does data collection along categories prescribed in the update of NRC become a resource for creating legible Indian citizens?
  2. How do these data categories circulate across legal, technical, and bureaucratic contexts of updating NRC and how are they interpreted in each of these contexts?

Anthropology of State Governance

While citizens are people, living their lives within the borders of a nation state, establishing some kind of relationship with that state, the state itself is both elusive and dynamic. It constantly formulates and reformulates its identity through the organization and negotiation between those that live within its borders and those who do not. In the context of those who live within its borders, there is further organization and negotiation between those who are citizens and those who are not. In this sense, the life or way of life of its citizens is also the foundation and makeup of the nation state itself. In treating the state as a conceptual object, we are not suggesting that we take the state “as a given – a distinct, fixed and unitary entity that defines the terrain in which other institutions function” (Sharma and Gupta 2006, 8). Rather, our attempt here, in line with the work of Sharma and Gupta, is to “bring together the ideological and material aspects of state construction, and understand how ‘the state’ comes into being, how ‘it’ is differentiated from other institutional forms, and what effects this construction has on the operation and diffusion of power throughout society” (2006, 8). Using the lens of examining the cultural constitution of the state, Sharma and Gupta have argued for two distinct arenas where the state becomes accessible to anthropological analysis. They place special significance on cultural struggles in interacting with the state. “Cultural struggles determine what a state means to its people, how it is instantiated in their daily lives, and where its boundaries are drawn. These cultural struggles are waged in the sphere of representation but also in the domain of the everyday practices of state agencies” (Sharma and Gupta 2006, 11). Following this trajectory of investigating cultural struggles, we will explore how the process of NRC update is represented in various forms of media ranging from print to digital and how is the Indian state represented in such media conversations. Furthermore, we will engage with on-the-ground implementation of NRC update to get a sense of the bureaucratic routines and procedures of data collection, verification, and curation.

Understanding on-the-ground implementation of NRC update will further involve investigation of how technological solutions get imbricated in the workings of a state. Lynch et al. (2008) have used the case study of DNA profiling in criminal forensics to argue that closure on controversies around use of DNA databases in administration of criminal proceedings was reached through a serially linked array of technical, legal, and administrative “fixes”. For example, a “legal fix” for a “scientific” controversy can be effected by a legal ruling that a forensic technique is “reliable” or “generally accepted” in a relevant expert community, while a “technical fix” that greatly enhances the discriminatory power of available techniques to persuade a court that debates among population geneticists about the probability of coincidental matches between a suspect’s DNA profile and criminal evidence are no longer pertinent. Furthermore, “administrative fixes” for controversies about contaminated samples can be demonstrated by pointing to proficiency tests, tightened protocols, and automated chains of custody. In the case of the updated NRC, resolution of controversies over determining authenticity of bureaucratic documents, processes of data collection, and so on have similarly required a serially linked array of technical, legal, administrative as well as policy fixes. To start with, a legal fix (in terms of public interest litigation for implementation of the project) in administrative governance (of differentiating between citizens and immigrants) has created an occasion for a technical fix (digitization of bureaucratic documents and the process of updating the NRC) and policy fixes around defining the contours of Indian citizenship.

The following list specifies our concerns in terms of the questions we plan to ask of our field:

  1. How is the Indian state represented in the cultural struggles of claiming citizenship in the process of updating the NRC?
  2. What is the nature of technical, legal, administrative, and policy fixes that mutually shape the construction, implementation, and appropriation of the updated NRC?


While the questions that we have raised in individual sections of the literature survey highlight different aspects of our research on how the updated NRC mediates a new relationship between the Indian state and its citizens, they are all geared towards understanding the interplay between databases, pre-existing identification systems of the state, bureaucratic rules and the legal setup around making claims to citizenship, and the becoming of an Indian citizen in contemporary Assam. Grouping the variety of concerns that we have outlined in this survey, we ultimately ask: How is a legible Indian citizen produced and resolved during the process of updating NRC in Assam? This focus should provide insight into the challenges of investing in data-driven computational infrastructures of governance in India and identify the social and legal stakes underlying technological rationalization of citizen identity in a tuple stored in the NRC database.


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