[This article is part of a roundtable on the relationship between engineering, technopolitics, and the environment in the Middle East and North Africa. Click here to read the introduction and access links to all entries in the roundtable.]
Like many middle-class teenagers, I began to think seriously about attending university in my senior year of high school. While I had grown up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, I had an unspoken agreement with my parents that the ideal situation would be to go to a good university in the United States. Drunk on stories from US popular and literary culture of higher education as a journey of pure self-discovery, I mulled my options. I loved to read and write, so what would my course of study be—perhaps journalism, history, or literature? My parents greeted these ideas blankly. Eventually my father scoffed and made clear that my undergraduate training must be in engineering. It was not only that this was the most marketable and economical degree available, or that my father, older brother, and several uncles were engineers. Perhaps more importantly, an engineering degree produced technically competent people—the type of people needed to develop and build a nation. I grudgingly agreed, and somehow still managed to have some of the most exciting years of my life studying stochastic modelling and thermodynamics at Georgia Tech. But I also took elective courses through the iconoclastic Science, Technology, and Culture courses at Tech. These courses taught me how to think about engines, circuits, and queues not just as technical problems, but also as social and political battlegrounds. A science and technology studies approach taught me to situate myself and my intimate history in a larger story of depoliticized development and nationalism.
Nearly two decades later, I am now an academic geographer working at the intersection of geopolitics, environment, and development. Understanding how power shapes and is produced by the interaction between engineering and society has been crucial for me. The idea of engineering nationalism has been particularly rich for me to think with. Engineering nationalism has a dual meaning. On the one hand, it refers simply to the way engineers experience and express nationalism in their professional lives. But it also refers more broadly to the idea that nationalism is not inherent or automatic—it is produced, at least in part through the efforts of engineers and technological interventions. The ambivalence of engineering nationalism provided an opportunity—as well as an obstacle—to finding common ground with my interlocutors during my dissertation research (to which I will return later).
My current research examines the geopolitics of infrastructure-led development in Asia. The historical and political context is defined by Cold War anticommunism, decolonization, and nationalism. I am interested in how imaginative geographies of a future Asian world were propagated by imperial powers—the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. How were these visions for a modern Asia articulated, mapped, and contested in the second half of the twentieth century? Considering current imaginative geographies circulating the Belt and Road Initiative and “rising Asia” more broadly, I am intrigued by how the contradictions of past imaginative geographies continue to shape imperial visions of Asia as an interconnected zone. I have started to write along these lines in my recent work on the developmental state in Singapore and in the geopolitical economic aspects of Chinese infrastructural investment in Pakistan. This new research direction draws on the imaginative and ideological projections of state administrators, diplomats, experts, and other bureaucrats. But it is my dissertation research on the politics of water development in Pakistan that focuses explicitly on engineers as a political category.
The methodological thread between my past research on water development in Pakistan and my current work on Cold War geoeconomic imaginaries in decolonizing Asia is the approach to technical experts as a specific social group. This social group is unevenly enmeshed in the administrative, territorial, and economic imperatives of state formation and capital expansion. As such, my engagement with engineers focuses on engineer-administrators, or engineers in the employ of the state. I have found inspiration in the writing of Antonio Gramsci around state formation in conditions of uneven and combined development and in critical engagements with Gramscian thought in development geography. By taking Gramsci’s categories of “traditional intellectual” and “passive revolution” and running them through the historical geography of Pakistan and the Indus Basin, I have theorized how engineers can function as the intellectual stratum of a larger social grouping that advances depoliticized, undemocratic, and elite-serving models of development. This approach to the critical analysis of expert authority has deep roots in development studies. It is not without flaws and blind spots, however, when it comes to the geographic analysis of engineering and society.
For one, the focus on state formation can occlude how engineers shape society and political structures from within the corporate sector—think of Silicon Valley and the political implications of the internet. In the specific case of water engineering in Pakistan, however, the public sector is the more historically grounded place to begin a deep contextualized study of engineering and society. Second, the focus on state formation from above—even if it is a critical perspective—eclipses the constitutive role of environmental struggle and resistance and does not adequately account for how water technologies shape the spheres of the everyday and of social reproduction. But it is still possible to shed new light on resistance by looking for contradictions within the exertion of power. I have tried to draw attention to the importance of struggles within the state apparatus by examining how ostensibly apolitical administrators and engineers are inescapably shaped by their ethnic, regional, and political identity and loyalties. For better or for worse, my research on engineering and society has been decisively shaped by my interest in state formation in a periphery of the world economy.
Although my research has moved somewhat to consider economic planning, geoeconomic imaginaries, and the making of world regions, I am still animated by the intersection between infrastructural politics, engineering studies, and Marxist development geography. What are the existing and emerging spaces of expertise, and how are these spaces formed through interaction with the spatiality of capital and state? Within political ecology, science and technology studies (STS) approaches focus on the politics of expertise in terms of power/knowledge, actor-networks, and object agency. The state is relatively undertheorized in political ecological research. There is much room to theorize the political relation between state power and engineers. The authority of engineering is not automatic. It is a political achievement formed around issues such as infrastructure planning, provision of utilities, and the logistics and circulation of goods and services.
A theoretical understanding of state power is particularly crucial for developing a technopolitical analysis of infrastructure in the Afro-Asian context. Unlike the Euro-American context that forms the unspoken backdrop for much political theorization, most of the population in this region have very little room to shield from or compensate for state violence. State violence is certainly experienced through the state’s excesses—evictions, killings, kidnappings, and dispossessions. But it is also experienced as the state’s absence—its infrastructural neglect, disavowal, and underinvestment. Understanding state power as an outcome of hegemonic struggle, then, is key to developing a politicized technopolitics that is attentive to the unevenness of political and material conditions.
Studying the politics of engineering and society presents certain methodological challenges and opportunities. I pursued two strategies to gather “data,” or more broadly, “primary source material,” on engineers. Both strategies aimed to identify and explain the main geographical, developmental, nationalist, and ecological imaginaries that underpinned technical planning around water infrastructures. The major strategy to access engineering imaginations and ideologies was to collect and systematically analyse the traces engineers left in planning and diplomatic archives. My specific concern was with the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 and the associated Indus Basin Plan projects led me to two major archives: the archives of the World Bank (who mediated the Indus Waters Treaty) in Washington DC and the Library of the Water and Power Development Authority in Lahore.
Eventually, I began to understand these diplomatic and technical cables and notes on river development projects in the decolonizing Indus Basin as a specific genre of state text. Chris Meulbroek and I have described this as the “prose of passive revolution." This is a type of bureaucratic and technical writing that functions to facilitate economic and technological transformation even while maintaining traditional elites’ hold on state power. In a seminal contribution to postcolonial methods, Ranajit Guha critiqued how state functionaries represented insurgents as apolitical criminals in their writing. We extend Guha’s method to a critical reading of state representations of dissent around development and state formation. We share Guha’s methodological impulse to situate the texts of state functionaries in a wider political, ideological, and institutional context. In the cases I was researching, the context was the fraught intersection of decolonization, developmentalism, and dependency.
I also relied on field methods. I interviewed over twenty irrigation and water development engineers and observed water engineers in their places of work and at professional conferences. As in most cases of research, my interviewees and I approached each other differently. Most engineers I spoke with thought they were experts providing me with technical information which I lacked. Of course, these people were better positioned than I was in terms of specific project histories and technical specifications, and I was happy to receive these details. But I was more interested in how engineers represented water problems the way that they did and how their experiences in the water development sector shaped their views on nationalism and state power. We were thus approaching the issue at hand very differently, which might have made it difficult to have a conversation.
My strategy was to stress common ground, starting with my own undergraduate training in engineering and the fact that many men in my family are engineers. While I do not employ quantitative, modelling, or statistical methods in my geographic research, I still find my engineering background useful for sociological reasons. In addition, I also stressed my common class and national background with most of my interviewees. It was important for my interlocutors to know I was an educated Pakistani conducting research into matters of national importance. Rather than adopting a critical tone or approach, I therefore stressed the overlap in the types of questions we were interested in: questions around development, modernization, technology, and the capacities and failings of the Pakistani state. Although we disagreed on most points, we were all deeply invested in and curious about “engineering nationalism.” However, differences in our understanding of this term arose: for me, this mainly meant the nationalism of engineers, while for engineers themselves it meant the positive role of engineers and technology in the making of the nation.
Perhaps the biggest challenges in working with engineers are epistemological—engineers are trained to reduce complexity to a solvable problem. This is socially valued because it enables action and intervention: build a dam, develop a vaccine, construct a new road. Furthermore, engineers receive positive feedback for producing a legitimate and valuable type of knowledge (high salaries, authority, and respect from the governmental and corporate actors). As such, engineers might find it hard to swallow that a social scientist or cultural critic would have something “useful” to say about topics like infrastructure. Questions that shed light on the layered complexity of reality and that situate understanding in context might seem to an engineer like distractions from the problem at hand. Perhaps these questions are distracting, if the objective is simply to act as soon as possible. But the real world is full of ambivalence and complexity, because matter and meaning come together differently in different places and for different types of people. Dealing with infrastructure or other technical objects does not somehow transcend this basic fact. One way to bridge the gap between engineering and social science is to dialogue with engineers about the larger context of "the problem" that requires solving—and if the problem needs to be redefined.
Let me close by briefly highlighting how the study of engineering and society presents some frontiers for comparative/connective research. How are world regions brought together—or pulled further apart—through the circulations of experts and the infrastructures they plan and build? Do state experts and the infrastructures they build create blocs, borders, and zones, alongside their well-known ability to foster transnational networks? How does it matter if Pakistan is in “the Middle East” or “South Asia” when it comes to its geopolitical history of development? Recent research on the history of global development and urban policy mobilities has been an important source of inspiration on these questions. Critical geographers are already making the necessary creative connections between Marxism, postcolonial studies, and world regional geography to understand the politics of globalization. Technology and engineering studies needs to be in the mix if we want to develop a deeper understanding of recent history in the region.
For example, technopolitical research has yet to adequately account for the labour geographies that underpin the urbanization and infrastructural modernization in much of “the Middle East” and North Africa. Migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia—especially working in the construction, transport, and sanitation sectors—are a part of this historical geography of labour. So are thousands of Asian engineers like my father, who were pulled into the region by the centripetal force of the oil boom in the Middle East. The story of how late twentieth century Middle Eastern urbanization articulated with streams of South Asian migratory labour, and how both were underpinned by the global arms and oil economy, has yet to be told. It is the kind of trans-regional story that demands greater theoretical reflection around the politics of regionalization and on methodological questions of comparing and connecting world regional experiences with engineering.
 Majed Akhter, “Geopolitics of the Belt and Road: Space, State, and Capital in China and Pakistan,” in Logistical Asia, eds. Brett Neilson, Ned Rossiter, and Ranabir Samaddar (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 221-241; Chris Meulbroek and Majed Akhter, “The prose of passive revolution: Mobile experts, economic planning and the developmental state in Singapore,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51, no. 6 (September 2019): 1242-1263.
 Alex Loftus, "Political ecology II: Whither the state?" Progress in Human Geography 44, no. 1 (2020): 139-149.
 Majed Akhter, "The proliferation of peripheries: Militarized drones and the reconfiguration of global space," Progress in Human Geography 43, no. 1 (2019): 64-80.; Mark Neoclous, War power, police power (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
 Meulbroek and Akhter, “The prose of passive revolution,” 1242-1263.
 Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 45-86.
 Gillian Hart, “Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice,” Progress in Human Geography 42, no. 3 (June 2018): 371-394.