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.

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. 


Water, Society, Ecologies

Back in September last year I had the privilege of participating in a PhD course hosted jointly by the University of Aarhus and the University of Cape Town. From the course description:

Attending to the centrality of water to colonial expansion, the neoliberal trend towards privatising water services and access, and the relative invisibility of water in contemporary political economy, the course works with the materiality of water — liquid flows around hard surfaces; flows through bodies; urban streams and oceans; urban biogeochemistries — to develop in-depth critical thinking skills about water, its many political, social and economic framings, and their enactment in water-related infrastructures.

The course aims to offer a space in which graduates integrate social theory with water and its flows through bodies, rocks, rivers, economies, politics and society. It aims to explore different disciplinary knowledges and conceptualisations of water, and different ways of understanding both the histories and the futures of water. 

With such a fascinating description it’s no surprise that this was a brilliant course, with fantastic participants and coordinators. As part of it – as travel to Denmark wasn’t possible – I focused my assignments on a body of water closer to home, the Union Canal. However, due to Covid quarantining I wasn’t even able to go there – so I wrote about it using a mixture of memory, google maps and online searching. Given the limited engagement I was quite happy with the results.

Research in progress



Presentation season

A short presentation exploring the idea of constructed wetland habitat
Presentation to the CEH student seminar explaining the ‘constructed wetland rationale’ chapter of my PhD

The nature of Nature-based Solutions

Talk presented at the POLLEN political ecology conference, 22-25 September 2020. The bibliography for the talk is attached below.


Producing wetland resources

My focus on wetland resources is grounded in the resource production possibilities that have been identified by the actors at each site. In contrast to multifaceted definitions of water quality, resource production seems easier to pin down. 

Following my overall approach to constructed wetland, my guiding question is ‘how are resources produced in the constructed wetlands infrastructure?’. Perhaps even more so that with water quality improvements, the answer to this question needs to weave together biophysical and political-economic processes. As with water quality, ‘producing’ each of these resources involves more than just material transformations. Questions of ownership and political/legal authority are an inseparable part of resource production processes. 

Three particular resources emerge from my case studies

  • Water itself (for reuse in various processes)
  • Vegetation grown within the wetland (used for aesthetic or biomass purposes)
  • Aquaculture (using treated water in the pond)

The social research of this chapter leads to two further questions. The first question is the classic one of political ecology ‘who benefits?’ How is the material or financial flow from these resources distributed? And related to this: who is responsible for the care and attention required? What rules must be followed, or ignored? In short, how does the production of resources intersect with power relations at these sites.

The second, and perhaps more important, question is ‘Why?’ In most wastewaterscapes, wastewater infrastructures are expected only to transform water quality. So why has making these wetlands productive become a focus? What were the sociotechnical imaginaries that made resource production part of these projects? Why did ecological processes become enlisted in creating resources/commodities? 

Apart from occasional harvesting of willow from the Scottish wetland site, resource production has so far been an unachievable goal at each of my study sites. But it was (and still is) a goal. The potential for resource production was part of how these projects were conceptualised. Therefore, part of the work for this research question is tracing where and when different ideas of resource production come into these waterscape histories, and what impact they may have on shaping outcomes. Due to a lack of actually-produced resources, the methods for this research tend towards interviews and text analysis. 

The ecological side of this chapter is strengthened by asking what resources can come from wetlands, why wetlands are well suited for producing certain resources, and what biophysical conditions (eg. water quality, temperature, hydrology) are required for certain resources. 

The summary above is dense with questions! I hope that by following these threads, through interviews, reports and observation ‘on-the-ground’ I can tie together the social and ecological sides of resource production, in a way that explains how and why the production of water, vegetation or fisheries was a success or failure at each of my research sites.