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.
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 to work across water approaches. What separates disciplines is not only the focus of study, but basic philosophical assumptions about how research should be done. Interdisciplinary research is not a simple mixing together of different disciplines.
To navigate these interdisciplinary waters, I am orienting my research around cognate fields of more-than-human geography and political ecology. I believe these are some of the best approaches for studying the entangled worlds of water.
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.
My conceptual framework is summarised by the idea of a ‘more-than-human wastewaterscape’. 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. I will use this concept as a way of approaching 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.