Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance

Graham, Stephen; Thrift, Nigel
Theory, Culture & Society

This article seeks to demonstrate the centrality of maintenance and repair to an understanding of modern societies and, particularly, cities. Arguing that repair and maintenance activities present a kind of 'missing link' in social theory, which is usually overlooked or forgotten, the article begins by recalling Heidegger's concept of material things as being 'ready to hand'. The main elements of practices of repair and maintenance are then elaborated on so as to help establish the argument that, by focusing on failure and breakdown in technical artefacts and systems, their vital contribution can be brought to the fore. The article then moves on to suggest that prevailing cultural constructions, and imaginations, of the 'infrastructure' that sustains modern societies, actively work to push repair and maintenance activities beyond the attention of social science. To exemplify these arguments, the article explores in detail some of the repair and maintenance activities that sustain, first, the nexus between computer communications and electricity and, second, the system of automobility. The article concludes by excavating a politics of repair and maintenance in modern cities and societies.