American Sociological Association

Impossible Engineering

Chandra Mukerji - Impossible Engineering - Award Statement

Chandra Mukerji is Distinguished Professor of Communication and Science Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University, working with Howard Becker and starting out her career in the sociology of art. She took her first job at Boston University, where she learned about Marxist theory from Mike Miller and Susan Epstein, and about feminist sociology from Evelyn Glenn. She moved to San Diego to work with the cultural sociologists Joseph Gusfield, Bennett Berger, Kristin Luker, and Michael Schudson. Later, she and Michael Schudson moved to the Communication Department, and still later, she joined the Science Studies Program, working with Steve Shapin, Bruno Latour, Martin Rudwick and Steven Epstein. She also spent two years at UC Davis in the Science and Technology Studies Program with Patrick Carroll and Jim Griesemer, and spent time in Paris working with Claude Rosental. Two of her books have already won ASA awards. A Fragile Power: Science and the State (Princeton) won the Merton Award from the SKAT section, and Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles (Cambridge) won the Best Book award from the Sociology of Culture section. She has also been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Chandra Mukerji studies the built environment, and the relationship of social life to the physical/natural world. Interested in questions of history and power, she is one of the new historical materialists who study social life as physically located and socially grounded in the natural world. Building on Marx’s fundamental insights, she seeks new ways to link materiality to history. Mukerji is also a cultural sociologist who studies how the arts and architecture are deployed as material tools in relations of power, focusing (like Robin Wagner-Pacifici) on the political life as well as semiotic properties of art. Additionally, Mukerji is a sociologist of science and technology, drawing on the rich literature on materiality in the sciences derived from Bruno Latour and Karin Knorr-Cetina to understand both artifacts affecting social cognition and the use of natural knowledge and technology as tools of knowledge/power.

In Impossible Engineering, Chandra Mukerji tries to understand how states gain power from infrastructural engineering. She uses a historical case study to address the issue: the construction of the Canal du Midi in 17th-century France. She also argues that the canal, which linked the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through the southwest of France, was too difficult to construct with the formal knowledge of engineering in the period. So, its success raises the question of how was it was built as well as what advantages the state derived from it.

As William Sewell pointed out in his review in AJS, Impossible Engineering follows the intertwined stories of the canal’s technical construction and the political stakes and tactics involved. At the level of construction, the canal was a piece of collaborative engineering, drawing on both the formal knowledge of military engineers and scientists, and on the informal knowledge of peasants and artisans. Peasants and artisans (unbeknownst to themselves) had maintained techniques of engineering from the Roman Empire as common sense ways of buildings walls and creating water systems. Peasant women from the Pyrenees turned out to be the most sophisticated hydraulic engineers in France. They came to the canal simply as laborers, but ended up solving some of the most intractable problems involved in the canal. These workers as well as the gentlemen who were hired to supervise the project demonstrated how the state could use its lands for political effect, changing the topography and hydrology to reorganize life in the southwest of France.

At the political level, Chandra Mukerji argues that the minister to Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, engaged the entrepreneur for the project, Pierre-Paul Riquet, to give the state greater presence there, but produced a form a power that was more effective and even more dangerous than either of them could have imagined. Swaths of land were indemnified and taken from local nobles, and water was directed into new areas, changing local practices and undermining the patrimonial powers of the local nobility. Mukerji describes this as the discovery of the power of impersonal rule, and attributes state formation in France to this use of logistical power. Even though the project was hailed as a tribute to Louis XIV’s personal rein, it demonstrated the power of the state as an impersonal institution, wielding logistical power over the land.