Daria Volkova, Urban Sociologist

A research on the challenges and negotiation processes in maintaining aging mass housing infrastructure

Daria Volkova
Daria Volkova
PhD Candidate, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

I am an urban sociologist, which sounds very specific but it is actually not. I am proud to belong to the very multidisciplinary field that deals with the places where most of us live on this planet - urban studies. Being an urban scholar (ideally) means finding ways to build communication between geographers, architects, sociologists, economists, planners, and, of course, city residents. Urban studies is the field where you have to be willing to go beyond the boundaries of your discipline and try to break out of the ivory tower.

In my research, I try to follow these principles. My research has been connected to different issues, one of which is urban expertise and those who are at the top of decision-making - urban consultants. But most of my time, including my Ph.D., I contribute to the research of mass housing of different forms and the consequences of its existence for the residents. Mass housing is an interesting modernist phenomenon spread throughout the world, forced by industry and mass production, the engineering wonders and the pressing need for housing the urbanizing nations. The countries of the socialist bloc is one of the examples where the need of industrialization policies, forced relocation and high urbanization posed the need for more housing, and quickly. To build so much housing requires a lot of resources, planning, expertise, labor, and infrastructure.

But what happens when all this new housing starts to age? For starters, not only does the housing age, but so does the infrastructure that supports it - pipes, wires, bricks, roofs. In the case of mass housing, not only did it take an enormous amount of resources to build it, but it also took an enormous amount of resources to maintain it. I examine the case where, for various reasons, this maintenance was not carried out properly for many years. In the city of Aktau, located in western Kazakhstan between the Caspian Sea and the desert, most of the housing was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and not much has been repaired since then. The thermal power plant that supplies the city with electricity and desalinates the water from the Caspian Sea has long since reached its maximum capacity, and major parts of it require replacement and constant attention. At the same time, the city is growing, and the lack of resources is becoming more and more visible.

Today, at least one house in the city suffers a water shortage or power outage every day. There is a clear understanding among many actors in the city that this is a state of a slowly unfolding crisis, and if nothing much changes, the collapse will not be long in coming. What I am researching is how different actors negotiate what is actually an adequate state of infrastructure. Standing on the shoulders of many great (urban) researchers who have shown that the infrastructures that surround us are not stable entities: it is the often invisible and unrecognized work of the maintainers that makes them seem flawless (see, for example, Corwin & Gidwani, 2021; Strebel et al., 2019), I focus my research on the maintainers and the inhabitants.

I think this is my favorite part of this research: by following the maintainers and those involved in thinking about housing infrastructure every day in Aktau, I can see why it is increasingly important to think in non-binary terms. Infrastructure cannot just be working or not. In fact, its state is always somewhere in between these two poles from the moment it begins to function. What if the elevator goes up and down as it is supposed to, but when there are gusts of wind, it stops working? Would we consider the water supply to be malfunctioning if the water pump delivers water to the 5th floor but rarely goes to the upper floors? As I show in my research, it is the process of negotiation that helps actors figure out how to treat such infrastructures and agree on what is acceptable or not.

My research is still ongoing, but I hope to continue exploring these conditions of being in-between, as there are many other situations in the world that could benefit from this kind of thinking. By maintaining the infrastructure in Aktau, many people make it work, but at the same time they deepen the infrastructural crisis. In the end, I hope not only to publish the book in Germany (since we have to publish it to get our degree), but also to write a bilingual book in Kazakh and Russian and make it open access. This is my way of trying to be of service outside of academia, but still, I have not come up with anything better than a book.

References Corwin, J. E., & Gidwani, V. (2021). Repair Work as Care: On Maintaining the Planet in the Capitalocene. 20. Strebel, I., Bovet, A., & Sormani, P. (Eds.). (2019). Repair Work Ethnographies: Revisiting Breakdown, Relocating Materiality.