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Introducing the research

The entanglement of different waters, places and living beings, is what makes water research so interesting. Water appears differently in each assemblage, with different biochemical properties, cultural meanings and capacity to shape naturecultures.

The entanglement of different waters, places and living beings, is what makes water research so interesting. Water appears differently in each assemblage, with different biochemical properties, cultural meanings and capacity to shape naturecultures.

While the motion and flow of water is important, water is far more than an inert substance moving from place to place. All the lively chemistry of the biosphere takes place in a watery medium. Our bodies hold water, as do the bodies of trees, crabs, fish and birds. Water is life, as the Standing Rock water defenders explained. This is why human projects direct water, why an array of infrastructures adjust the classic hydrological cycle of clouds, to land, to river, to ocean. It’s necessary, to keep crops alive, and to quench our thirst. 

The interweaving of human societies with various waters create and reproduce, what human geographers have named hydrosocial cycles.

Wastewater is one aspect of these hydrosocial cycles. For my research I’m defining wastewater as any water that has been used in human activity. In being used, it is transformed, picking up an array of biochemical compounds (the waste part of this compound word). This transformed water goes on to impact people and the broader living world that we are part of.

How can I research the social-ecological processes by which humans and wastewaters interact? How can I situate my research in a broader world of human and more-than-human relations? 

Water has long been a focus of interdisciplinary study. Both natural science and social sciences have plenty to say about how water acts, but it’s not always clear how these different knowledges can combine. With my PhD I attempt this interdisciplinary merger. Interdisciplinary research is not a simple mixing together of different disciplines. What separates disciplines is not only the focus of study, but basic philosophical assumptions about how research should be done. 

To navigate these interdisciplinary waters, I am orienting my research around cognate fields. Cognate fields are disciplines that I take inspiration from. My key cognate fields are more-than-human geography and political ecology. I believe these are some of the best approaches for studying the entangled worlds of water. 

Mapping the disciplines that feed into my research
Mapping the disciplines that feed into my research

More-than-human geography is an emerging current within human geography, as part of a cross-disciplinary concept of multispecies studies. The motivating idea is that human action, always occurs in symphony with a broader world of other living beings, as well as technologies and artifacts. These more-than-human actors all have the ability to shape social worlds, and do not act as purely a mechanical backdrop to human actions. This insight is very relevant for examining water infrastructures.

Political ecology is a field of research which interrogates connections between ecological processes and social and political dynamics. One of the foundational texts of political ecology research challenged standard narratives about deforestation, showing how these stories suited certain political positions, but did not align with the real economic and ecological dynamics of land cover change. Political ecologists work for socio-political liberation, as well as ecological flourishing. 

After identifying and familiarising myself with cognate fields, my next step has been to develop a conceptual framework. A conceptual framework is a tool for analysis – it organises my ideas about what is relevant for studying water. It also connects to a broader literature. My conceptual framework is the ‘(waste) waterscape’. This develops the waterscape concept first elaborated by Eric Swyngedouw. I will use this concept as a way of describing all the social and ecological complexity of wastewater. I will apply this framework in studies at three locations; two rural villages in India, and one rural community in Scotland.  

To explore these wastewaterscapes I also need a lens. Something to draw boundaries, and orient the study. Trying to describe the full complexity of a wastewaterscape is an impossible task! For my research, I am focusing on the concept of ‘benefits’. My research question is ‘how are benefits produced?’. This is a more interesting question than ‘what are the benefits?’.  The kind of answer I’m hoping to give is one that recognises that both social and ecological processes are required to realise a benefit, and that these processes are entangled in many ways. 

Why is benefits a useful lens?  Firstly, benefits links with ‘nature-based solutions’ approaches which often emphasise #MultipleBenefits (and related concepts such as ecosystem services). Yet, many of the examples I have seen simply name the benefits that could be present, without exploring how they are actually brought about and sustained. Secondly, a focus on benefits aligns with the discipline of political ecology. The question of “cui bono?” is always relevant in the linking of people and ecologies. Different actors bring their own priorities to infrastructure. Finally, benefits are speculative. Some benefits are identified or hoped for, they may not eventuate. By exploring how benefits are produced I am also asking ‘what could be?’.

I am focusing on how three key benefits, which I have identified through my initial field visits and literature. These are improved water quality, resource production and habitat for non-human beings.

I will also examine the ways that wastewater infrastructures are enrolled in broader political projects, including water conservation, cleanliness and the production of science. 

For each of these benefits I am using a bespoke mixture of methods to identify and understand the processes involved in their production. I’ll be connecting each benefit with relevant theories and hypotheses. The aim is to tell a story of how both social and ecological processes allow or impede the realisation of benefits. I’ll say more about each of these benefits, and how I will be researching them in future writing.