Thijs Willems

Winner Research 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

The infrastructure of the Dutch railways is regularly disturbed by incidents, disruptions and breakdowns. On a daily basis, employees are busy with keeping the infrastructure operational. In collaboration with technology, they are constantly responding to these disruptions. Some disturbances are major, but a pattern of barely perceptible disturbances 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 concludes from his spectator position how embodied the knowledge with which employees keep the process moving is. 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 for insight into industrial safety, dealing with infrastructure, but also for the 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 current and relevant dissertation. The jury also highly praises its originality.