Thijs Willems

Winner Dissertation Prize 2020

‘Monsters’ and ‘Mess’ on the Railways. Coping with Complexity in Infrastructure Breakdowns.

Supervisors: Prof. dr. Marcel Veenswijk & Prof. dr. ing. Alfons van Marrewijk
Nomination: VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences

Report by the selection committee

Dutch railway infrastructure is regularly disrupted by incidents, outages and breakdowns. Employees work every day to keep the infrastructure operational. They are constantly responding to these disruptions using technology. Some disruptions are major, but a pattern of barely perceptible disruptions unfolds daily. In the thesis, infrastructure is not seen as a system that may or may not work, but as a continuous and simultaneous process of breakdown and repair.

The author has conducted ethnographic research into this process and, from his spectator position, he discovers how embodied the knowledge is with which employees keep the process moving. At the same time, the author considers his own role and the significance of ethnography for understanding the working process. This book is of great importance not only to our understanding of industrial safety and dealing with infrastructure, but also to social reactions to accidents and disasters. It inspires the reader to think about responsibility, guilt, prevention and how society deals with these setbacks with more nuance. This is an extremely relevant and topical dissertation. The jury also highly praises its originality.