What IS Infrastructure?

What IS Infrastructure?
by Trinity College Dublin

By the end of this section you should be able to…

  • Describe what a Research Infrastructure is.
  • Be aware of different perspectives on the definition of research infrastructures
  • Understand the history and formation of current concepts of Humanities research infrastructure

Research is all about extending our abilities to interrogate, understand, and communicate, so it probably comes as no surprise that research infrastructures play an ever increasing role in our lives as scientists and scholars.  But to really understand the role of these institutions and projects in our research lives, we first have to get beyond the idea of infrastructure as solely or primarily “bricks and mortar.”

Since 2006, the European Commission has used the following working definition of what is and isn’t an infrastructure:

“… facilities, resources or services of a unique nature that have been identified by pan-European research communities to conduct top-level activities in all fields. This definition of Research Infrastructures, including the associated human resources, covers major equipment or sets of instruments, as well as knowledge‑containing resources such as collections, archives and databases. Research Infrastructures may be ‘single-sited’, ‘distributed’, or ‘virtual’ (the service being provided electronically). They often require structured information systems related to data management, enabling information and communication. These include technology-based infrastructures such as grid, computing, software and middleware.”

This definition is already quite inclusive, but it is by no means the broadest definition of research infrastructure, or indeed virtual or cyber infrastructure (that is, research infrastructure with a strong information technology component) that has been proposed:

“Morphologically, digital infrastructures can be defined as shared, unbounded, heterogeneous, open, and evolving socio-technical systems comprising an installed base of diverse information technology capabilities and their user, operations, and design communities.”  

The important thing about these definitions is the manner in which they encourage us to think of infrastructure as knowledge, as networks, as people, as tools, as data, and indeed perhaps as spaces as well, but always in the service of aggregating resources to make us better connected and more informed.

Watch Dr. Jennifer Edmond present a video lecture on definitions around Research Infrastructures here:

You can download the slides from this lecture from our SlideShare page, or visit our collection of Training Slides on the Resources page.

Research Infrastructures within PARTHENOS

CLARIN – Dr. Franciska De Jong, Executive Director of CLARIN, introduces the research infrastructure and how it can help anyone working in language-based research (video provided by CLARIN-EU)

Relevant Training Materials

(links will take you to another page)

The History of Research Infrastructures in the Arts and Humanities

The modern understanding of research infrastructures in the Arts and Humanities has been developing for either thousands of years, hundreds of years or decades, depending on whose definition you follow.  It is widely agreed that for Europe, at least, the publication of the ESFRI (European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures) Roadmap in 2006 marked the beginning of a new era or awareness and focus on the development of fit-to-purpose infrastructure for research.

You can see the video lecture on this topic from Dr. Jennifer Edmond here:

You can download the slides from this lecture here.

Anderson, Sheila (ed.) ‘What are Research Infrastructures?’

Edwards, S. Jackson, G Bowker and C Knobel, ‘Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tensions and Design’

Unsworth, et. al., ‘Our Cultural Commonwealth. Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences 2006

Data Infrastructure (Wikipedia entry)

This text is under the licence CC BY 4.0. You are welcome to reuse it according to the licence information. Citation Recommendation: Trinity College Dublin, "What IS Infrastructure?," in Parthenos training, August 9, 2016, https://training.parthenos-project.eu/sample-page/intro-to-ri/what-is-infrastructure/.

Your progress through the "Introduction to Research Infrastructures" module