An Anthropology of the Road

Dimitris Dalakoglou PhD candidate – UCL
A road in Albania, February 2006. The pavement and the roadbed are partly under construction, the yellow bulldozer in the front was going to the road-works. The local informant who was driving the car apologized: ‘Excuse me but this road, here, is only for the [horse-drawn] cart of the uncle in front’.
When I first went to conduct fieldwork in Albania my idea was not to study roads but rather the things that travel on them. Especially my PhD was to be about the material culture of Albanian migration. The possessions people take back and forth between the location of their migratory destination, and the place of their birth. A major part of my thesis will still be concerned with the house and home as part of a larger study of transnationalism, migration and material culture. Yet as time went on, and in particular when I started to write up my field material I realized that actually what was just as interesting was the infrastructure behind this, more especially roads and highways. Roads are dynamic, both materially and culturally, and proved so fruitful analytically that it would probably now be possible to produce a doctoral thesis solely in reference to roads, traffic and their infrastructure, which cross the southern Albanian borders to Greece.

From Shkodra to Athens, more than 1,000 kilometres in a 12 hours trip, Winter 2005.
Although roads and arranged routes are very old and basic things, as old and basic as clothes, houses or tools and other material culture objects of study; anthropological discourse seems to neglect them. Even though there is a growing literature on the car and other vehicles, after long bibliographical research I have been disappointed to find that there are no more than three ethnographic books which seems to relate to roads per se, besides a fistful of (printed) articles or book chapters, written by anthropologists. This is striking for such a significant and so extremely regular object as roads. There is not a day that you leave your home and you do not come into direct visual or tangible contact with a type of road; you, or your shoes, or the vehicle that you ride.
Yet there are a number of specific issues regarding the roads which made those in Albania so interesting. Firstly, their usage, Albania is probably the country with the proportionally largest migratory population in Europe (approximately one third of Albanian passport holders lives abroad today), and migration means mobility, and mobility means mostly roads. Secondly, is the political and social biography of traffic infrastructure in Albania. Vehicular roads in Albania have a complex spatial production, initially introduced by foreign armies during First World War. They went through a period of 45 years when private vehicles were forbidden, while people had to build them with forced labour, and now are being constructed within international development programmes. Roads were important to the political economy, political ideology of socialism, but equally to the contemporary context of Albania, international aid and the EU. Thirdly, there is the inspiration that these ideologically and individually charged spaces of mobility offer to the imagination of the people, who live around them and use them every day. In particular there sense of welcome and threat as to what roads may bring and what may leave. Fourthly, there is the landscape per se where these roads lie and the transformations that land and territory are undergoing since the political transition started. Finally, roads connect with the history of the sealed state borders which opened in 1990, almost suddenly, which together with the cross-border roads brings and takes away human beings and objects.
For all these reasons I expect my work to be increasingly ‘driven by roads’. I would be very interested to hear of others working on a similar topic or who can suggest any relevant and worthwhile literature.


  1. Hi,
    Your work sounds really fascinating! I don’t work on roads per se, but on an object (a 7 meter tall prehispanic rain deity) that was exchanged for a road (among other “modern” infrastructure such as a school and electricity) in 1964, in a marginal community in Mexico. The road, promised by the state in exchange for the object, was only built to take the object away, never actually completed nor paved, and only exists today as a ruin, a seven lane highway (large enough to allow a truck to come and carry the object away) that goes nowhere. The road, or rather its absence, is central to the community’s imagination of what it means to be modern, part of the nation, part of the map more generally.
    Since you seem to have perused the literature, have you come across any cases that sound similar. I only know of James Ferguson’s work in Zambia…
    Best Regards,

  2. Sounds interesting. Although I have looked at urban development and relational space in Nicaragua, I never focused on roads. I will have to think about it for a while.
    Good luck and have fun.

  3. Hi Dimitris,
    Yes interesting angle. I’ve done some work on hitch-hiking which you’ve reminded me I need to get back to at some point. Couple of years ago I ended up co-supervising an undergraduate dissertation on hitch-hiking at UCL which you might want to dig up since the reference section that the student provided might be useful. I’ve got a fairly exhaustive bibliography on the topic myself which also covers some work on roads, planning and development, the politics of access, etc. You’re right, I can’t recall that much of this research was by anthropologists, mostly by cultural geographers. Beverly Butler obviously has that JMC article on road protest. And Tim Dant (UEA) recently had ESRC funding to do a project on the materiality of cars, although that was mostly on their care. Anyway, he might still be helpful in terms of road literature. Once my stuff arrives here from the UK I can chase up some of the sources that I’ve horded over the years and pass them your way if any of them seem relevant.
    All best, P

  4. Hi Sandra and Patrick
    Thanks for your comments.
    Sandra see the amazing work of Rozeman (1996) on Spain (Galicia) the title is ‘How we built the road’
    I am looking forward to hear more about your work sounds very interesting.
    Patrick thanks a lot for the information. I will search this thesis and I am looking forward on hearing more on your work on the issue…I knew it that you would have done something similar at a certain point you belong into road anthroplogists category.
    If your ‘vast fortune’ wont come soon let me know, I volunteer to bring it to New Zealand.
    Thanks again

  5. Dear Dimitris,
    I’m in the early stages of writing about a road too – one in Vanuatu. Like yours, “my road” embodies changes in the direction and meaning of development in the area (and nation more generally), from the plantation economy to colonialism to aid donor driven projects. And I’ve been working around the sort of point raised in Sandra’s comment – the road as a point of reference for modernity, or maybe a recursive form. (All at an early stage, as I say).
    I agree that it is hard to find anthropological writing on roads themselves – in the case of Vanuatu, much concentrates on the metaphorical deployment of the term. For this reason I’ve enjoyed reading Penelope Harvey’s article “The materiality of state effects” (don’t have full reference to hand, sorry), for its attention to the road itself. It also points to other useful references. I’ve been compiling a bunch of references too which I’d be happy to pass on to you.
    Good luck,

  6. dear dimitris
    i just came across your blog. thanks for your interesting contributions and comments.
    i actually do field work in the high pamirs, tajikistan, and i am interested in the “anthropology” of the pamir highway from osh to the tajik-afghan border. there is almost no work done on the history and contemporary role of this busy and vital road.
    have you already finished your research? is your thesis available? and: i would be really happy about some more references. i’ve got the references mentioned here and the standard works on africa. have you come across works on roads in asia (execpt pakistan)?
    many thanks and all the best!

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