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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.

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. 

Thesis update – ‘benefits’

A previously described, my thesis is oriented around the concept of benefits generated within constructed wetland projects and their waterscapes. The way I think about this concept of benefits is constantly developing. This is a short post to try to summarise how I see each of the three key benefits, that I am developing into three thesis chapters, each with their own theoretical linkages and concerns, but with a connecting thread of thinking about the more-than-human processes and relations that make benefits possible.

Wastewater Treatment

After thinking about water quality, and gathering water quality data, I realised that what was at stake here was better described as ‘treating wastewater’, rather than ‘improving water quality’. This might just be semantics, but it makes the focus a more concrete. As I’ve seen, it’s possible for water quality to be improved without achieving the intended outcome of treated wastewater. Hence, wastewater treatment can be realised only through a combination of ways of knowing water quality alongside social processes that make this water quality meaningful.

In response, this chapter follows two lines of exploration. The first is to examine the social and ecological processes through which water and wastewater is transformed – what relations (social, ecological, infrastructural) shape wastewater quality in the case study wastewaterscapes? I include here water quality results alongside knowledge gained through conversations, engagements with wetland literature and direct observations. The second thread attempts to situate ideas of water quality, socially and historically, by asking about how water quality knowledge is generated. How do the processes through which water quality is known draw upon different discourses of water quality and hence (re)enact power relations? What is the role of more-than-human relations in these knowledge production processes?

Abstract image of water, plants and sludge

Resource production

This chapter still follows the vision laid out in this earlier post. I am currently writing the chronological stories of different forms of resource production, and refining my conclusions through interviews with project staff. The next stage, and where it all gets interesting is to think about what theoretical concepts to bring into conversation with these stories. A key observation that I would like to explore is the disconnect between the difficult of producing wetland resources and the way that the idea of wetland resources is promoted (see wetland rationale). One theme that has suggested itself is thinking about the moral economies that make resource production a focus. I am also inspired by Bakker and Bridge’s thoughts on networked thinking for resource geography.

the critical issue – and a fruitful focus for research – is the way in which contemporary materialities have been produced historically

Bakker and Bridge, 2006

I believe there is a lot of value in properly situating my stories. For example, how are fisheries being promoted in Uttarakhand, or across India? What are the ways that willow is being drawn into productive use in Scotland?

What insights can we draw about these plans (and their limited success) from reading the histories, discourses and materialities of wetland resources together?

Habitat

All of my constructed wetlands are habitat for a wide variety of creatures. I am interested in thinking about what kind of habitat they are, how to judge good habitat and what processes are involved in habitat making. How, how well and for who are these wetlands habitat? In this way I approach infrastructural habitat as a site for a more-than-human biogeography oriented towards multispecies ethics. To investigate the material and representational dimensions of habitat, I am using the lenses of diversity and vulnerability, and aiming to think carefully about spaces and times.

How do diversity and vulnerability pattern habitat? What role does habitat play in the world-making of constructed wetlands?

My two lenses are explored through stories about wetland plants, insects, birds, borders, ammonia, flooding/drought, snakes and mosquitoes.

In researching this chapter I am exploring some of the concepts and methods of more-than-human ethnography as well as critical description, in Anna Tsing’s use of the term. I’m learning some ecological survey techniques, and exploring methods of visual analysis. Finding the right terminology, questions and stories that decentre but don’t ignore humans is a difficult challenge, but one that makes this chapter interesting.

constructed wetland rationales

Last spring, as it became clear that fieldwork would not be possible for quite a while, I began work on a desk-based PhD chapter on the rationale for constructed wetlands.

I had been thinking about saying something on the normativities of wastewater treatment and constructed wetlands for a while. In the months of lockdown I worked out exactly what this would look like as a small piece of research. I decided to use published constructed wetland literature as my main source of data, supplemented with a few of the

The questions I focused on were: which rationale are used to argue for constructed wetlands? How does the prevalence of particular rationale vary over time and in different world regions?

So, with a sample of 300 constructed wetland papers, distributed across different time periods and world regions, I set out to analyse what reasons were given why constructed wetlands were a good thing to build. As I conducted my analysis, I dug into some of the STS literature and realised that there was a good connection to be made with the concept of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’, as introduced by Jasanoff and Kim (2015).

collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology

The analysis still needs some polishing, but the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries allowed me to think critically about the repeated stories I was finding; about constructed wetland performance, ecologies and economics. By asking ‘what sociotechnical imaginaries are these rationale reinforcing or responding to?‘ I was able to see in the rationale that emerged reflections of how infrastructure is placed within currently hegemonic economic imaginaries, and also different and somewhat contradictory desired futures.

A wordcloud to give a flavour of the draft chapter

“Inspirational quotes” from recent readings

The world’s (still) a mess. So, it’s always nice to come across writings that suggest a link between my PhD work and broader ecological-political questions. Here are two from the past month.


https://viewpointmag.com/2021/04/14/the-kaleidoscope-of-catastrophe-on-the-clarities-and-blind-spots-of-andreas-malm/

“Certainly, human action (including by way of the state) and modern technology are needed. But so are the politics, ethics, and amodern technologies of ecological repair, mutuality, regeneration, and making-habitable. Both sides, I would suggest, are necessary.”

“The epic simplification of agency to humans results in a limited view on the types of human agency needed to end fossil civilization. Questions of care and other forms of non-productive and non-consumptive social agency, such as play and idleness, are left aside, as are questions of our rooting in soils and non-bordered ecologies, and our imaginaries of the good beyond the carbon economy, and the bad within it. Yet the answers to such questions are essential not just for a post-fossil society, but for the awakening of social desires.”


https://www.newframe.com/long-read-overcoming-the-politics-of-abandonment/

“A lot of the rights and privileges that some people treated as built into whiteness are in fact contingent on the particular social structure they live in, their wealth and power to distribute it in discriminatory ways. So it’s because the United States has the wealth that it was able to create a middle class that had economic privileges above and beyond its racialised underclass. Rights and freedom are contingent upon a people’s nation, its geopolitical position, which is contingent on economic production. These in turn are contingent on the sky, the rain, the air and the water, the plants and the animals, things that we will no longer have the luxury of taking for granted in this century. ” – OT

“We need an emancipation, which includes humans and non-humans, because the fate of the humans is now more than ever before tied to the fate of other species. The times we live in require a multispecies project.” – AM

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