Epistemic Turbulence in Renewable Energy Engineering on the Chinese “Belt and Road”

  • Zhuo Chen University of Helsinki
  • Bryan Tilt Oregon State University
  • Shaozeng Zhang Oregon State University


Energy issues constitute a nexus of technological, political and economic challenges, particularly in light of the global climate crisis. Chinese banks and corporations, guided by a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure investment program called the “Belt and Road Initiative,” now account for one-third of global investment in renewable energy. In this ethnographic study, we explore the professional knowledge and practices of Chinese, Israeli and European engineers working on a pumped-storage hydropower project in Israel with financial and technical backing from Chinese energy firms. We examine how these experts construct and maintain a set of epistemic cultural practices within transnational flows of capital, technology, materials and expertise. Situating our findings within Science and Technology Studies (STS), we use the hydrological engineering concept of “turbulence” as a metaphor for the rapid transnational movements of engineering concepts and personnel in the renewable energy sector.


Akgul, Bartug K., Beliz Ozorhon, Irem Dikmen, and M. Talat. Birgönül. 2017. “Social Network Analysis of Construction Companies Operating in International Markets: Case of Turkish Contractors.” Journal of Civil Engineering and Management 23(3): 327–337.


Anand, Nikhil. 2017. Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Appel, Hannah. 2019. The Licit Life of Capitalism: US Oil in Equatorial Guinea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Batchelor, George K. 2000. An Introduction to Fluid Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage Publications.

Bernard, H. Russell. 2017. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Sixth Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bernard, H. Russell, Amber Wutich, and Gery W. Ryan. 2017. Analyzing Qualitative Data: Systematic Approaches. Second Edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Boyer, Dominic and Cymene Howe. 2019. Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. 1995. “Second Nature Once Removed: Time, Space and Representations.” Time and Society 4(1): 47–66.


Cai, Peter. 2017. Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Sydney: Lowy Institute for International Policy. http://hdl.handle.net/11540/6810.

Callon, Michel. 1986. “The Sociology of an Actor-Network: The Case of the Electric Vehicle.” In Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology, edited by Michel Callon, John Law and Arie Rip, 19–34. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Carse, Ashley. 2014. Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

China State Council. 2017. 关于促进建筑业持续健康发展的意见 Quān yú cù jìn jiàn zhù yè chí xù jiàn kāng fā zhǎn de yì jiàn [Opinions on Promoting the Sustainable and Healthy Development of the Construction Industry]. Report. Accessed September 9, 2022.


Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (Central Committee). 2013. 中共中央关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定 Quān yú cù jìn jiàn zhù yè chí xù jiàn kāng fā zhǎn de yì jiàn [Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform]. Third Plenum of the 18th National Congress, November 2013, Beijing.


Chen, Zhuo. 2020. “Chinese and International Engineers on the Belt and Road: Culture, Knowledge and Lives on a Renewable Energy Project.” MA Thesis. Oregon State University.


Daggett, Cara N. 2019. The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fisch, Michael. 2013. “Tokyo’s Commuter Train Suicides and the Society of Emergence.” Cultural Anthropology 28(2): 320–343.


Folch, Christine. 2019. Hydropolitics: The Itaipu Dam, Sovereignty, and the Engineering of Modern South America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goodman, James. 2018. “Researching Climate Crisis and Energy Transitions: Some Issues for Ethnography.” Energy Research & Social Science 45: 340–347.


International Energy Agency. 2019. World Energy Outlook 2019. Paris: OECD Publishing.


⸻. 2021. Hydropower Special Market Report: Analysis and Forecast to 2030. Paris: OECD Publishing.


Haas, Peter M. 1990. Saving the Mediterranean: The Politics of International Environmental Cooperation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harutyunyan, Aghavni. 2020. “China and Israel: Evolving Relationship within the Belt and Road Initiative.” Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 14(3): 410–429.


Harvey, Penny, and Hannah Knox. 2015. Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Holmes, Douglas R., and George E. Marcus. 2006. “Fast Capitalism: Para-Ethnography and the Rise of the Symbolic Analyst.” In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, edited by Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey, 33–57. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Huang, Yiping. 2016. “Understanding China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Motivation, Framework and Assessment.” China Economic Review 40: 314–321.


Ingold, Tim. 2013. “Anthropology Beyond Humanity.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3): 5-23.

Jasanoff, Sheila, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Peterson, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds. 2001. Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Revised Edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Jenkins, Kirsten, Darren McCauley, Raphael Heffron, Hannes Stephan, et al. 2016. “Energy Justice: A Conceptual Review.” Energy Research & Social Science 11: 174–182.


Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1999. Epistemic Cultures : How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lampland, Martha, and Susan Leigh Star, eds. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42(1): 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. The Pasteurization of France. Translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Law, John, and Michel Callon. 1988. “Engineering and Sociology in a Military Aircraft Project: A Network Analysis of Technological Change.” Social Problems 35(3): 284–297.


Nader, Laura. 1996. “Introduction. Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power, and Knowledge.” In Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power, and Knowledge, edited by Laura Nader, 1–25. New York: Routledge.

⸻, ed. 2010. The Energy Reader. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oliveira, Gustavo de L. T., Galen Murton, Alessandro Rippa, Tyler Harlan, et al. 2020. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Views from the Ground.” Political Geography 82: 1–4.


Park, Heedae, Seung H. Han, Eddy M. Rojas, JeongWook Son, et al. 2011. “Social Network Analysis of Collaborative Ventures for Overseas Construction Projects.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management 137(5): 344–355.


Rippa, Alessandro, Galen Murton, and Matthäus Rest. 2020. “Building Highland Asia in the Twenty-First Century.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 6(2): 83–111.


REN21. 2020. Renewables 2020 Global Status Report. Paris: REN21 Secretariat.


Saldaña, Johnny. 2015. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. Third Edition. London: SAGE.

Sidaway, James D., Simon C. Rowedder, Chih Yuan Woon, Weiqiang Lin, et al. 2020. “Introduction: Research Agendas Raised by the Belt and Road Initiative.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 38(5): 795–802.


Smith, Jessica, and Mette M. High. 2017. “Exploring the Anthropology of Energy: Ethnography, Energy and Ethics.” Energy Research & Social Science 30: 1–6.


Sovacool, Benjamin K. 2006. “Reactors, Weapons, X-Rays, and Solar Panels: Using SCOT, Technological Frame, Epistemic Culture, and Actor Network Theory to Investigate Technology.” The Journal of Technology Studies 32(1-2): 4–14.


⸻. 2014. “Diversity: Energy Studies Need Social Science.” Nature 511: 529–530.


Szeman, Imre, and Dominic Boyer, eds. 2017. Energy Humanities: An Anthology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tilt, Bryan. 2014. Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power. New York: Columbia University Press.


Traweek, Sharon. 1992. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

⸻. 1993. “An Introduction to Cultural and Social Studies of Sciences and Technologies.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 17: 3–25.


Tsing, Anna L. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1989. The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s–1840s. San Diego: Academic Press.

Watts, Laura. 2018. Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wisnioski, Matthew H. 2012. Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wong, Catherine M. L. 2016. “Assembling Interdisciplinary Energy Research through an Actor Network Theory (ANT) Frame.” Energy Research & Social Science 12: 106–110.


Xinhua. 2015a. “China Unveils Action Plan on Belt and Road Initiative.” The State Council of the People’s Republic of China. News Online. Last modified March 28,2015.


⸻. 2015b. “Chronology of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. ” The State Council of the People’s Republic of China. News Online, March 28,2015. Last accessed September, 13 2022.


14 Sep 2022
Original Research Articles