The central question of my PhD is how benefits are produced within a wastewaterscape. To answer this question requires a mix of methods. However, mixing methods is not as simple as cake or even concrete making. For those who have made their own mayonnaise, I think this provides the best metaphorical mixture.

It can be done! But there’s also the potential for a lumpy, unmixed, unappealing mess. The key is to proceed carefully.

The oil-water separation between social and natural science methods begins with foundational assumptions about the nature of reality and the role of science. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with how we know things. The point of all methods is to create some kind of knowledge. However, different academic disciplines are foregrounded on different projects of knowledge creation. I’d like to avoid diving too far into concepts such as positivism, post-positivism, and ontologies here. I think a rough and ready way of exploring this terrain is to highlight a difference between prediction and interpretation. These may be caricatures, but I hope they highlight some of the differences that need to be discussed, in order for interdisciplinary synthesis to be possible.

Natural science is built on an approach to method that works towards prediction. A good method produces laws or relationships that are expected to hold in the world in general. In order to make these predictions, a degree of simplification is always required – this is why so much research takes place in the controlled conditions of a laboratory. Even when a constructed wetland system is being studied, something designed to go out into the world, a large number of papers publishing results from constructed wetlands have been conducted on small systems in controlled research conditions. Another consequence of this is that the role of the researcher is removed from the final outcome. Predictions should be the same no matter who carries out the research. The politics of the research, the way that findings may influence the ongoing entangling of the world, is rarely given 

In contrast, much social research aims for interpretation. Firstly, many social researchers are not prepared to accept the concept of a detached observer (see Haraway for more on this suspicion). Researching social dynamics automatically places you within the social setting, where your actions will have some impact. Given the complexity of social realities, interpretive choices need to be made, and good social research is open about these interpretive choices, and the way that these are influenced by the position of the researcher. Given the importance of context and history in producing a certain natureculture, the possibilities of prediction are constrained. However, through developing theoretical tools, similar analyses can be applied across cases. Finally, in developing theories, social research realises that ways of describing the world have the power to shape it. 

What does this mean for my research?

For conducting my PhD research, I find the methodological approaches of social science more compelling. Waterscapes are inescapably social, and influenced by social and political dynamics. One example of how these insights are important to my research plan is how I treat the concept of benefits. 

Benefits don’t exist independently of social actors who create or recognise them. Treating benefits as constructed through social processes requires my research to be open to multiple ways that benefits can be understood. Certain social actors have more power to define benefits, but that doesn’t mean I should take these definitions as the most appropriate! There’s a political muddle going on as I select and define the benefits I will be studying. I have tried to include the voices of those living near the wetland, and how the project appears to them. 

As I develop these benefit definitions I am simultaneously mapping a collection of social and ecological processes which is tied up in the production of this benefit. These are what my methods will investigate.

It is here that natural science methods come back into the frame. Natural science methods aim to describe or quantify ecological/biophysical processes. These include:

  • Water quality sampling at various points along the ‘treatment chain’
  • Vegetation survey of the wetlands
  • Camera observation to create a visual and audio record of animal interactions with the wetlands
  • Water sampling for eDNA analysis to describe microbial communities in inflow and outflow water, as well as within the wetland itself.

This is where some of the assumptions of natural science methods are still appropriate. In collecting water quality, or ecological data, it is entirely reasonable to hope that data are going to be the same no matter who collected them. 

Social science methods aim to describe social relations relevant to the benefits. Social relations is an umbrella category, including pretty much any form of human action: legal processes, rule making and following, emotional reactions, as well as the knowledge that then shapes action.

The methods used to approach these topics are:

  • Interviews, surveys and focus group discussions with people living near the wetlands
  • Interviews with ‘key stakeholders’, including scientists and those with political power
  • Textual analysis of documents and reports produced by stakeholders
  • Observation and note taking, in the villages, and in the labs/offices of project stakeholders.

Another function of social research methods is to add detail and context to the findings of the natural science methods, through investigations of the history of each method (drawing on literature), as well as participant observation and interviews to understand how each method is applied.


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.