The hydrosocial cycle & why to rethink some versions of it

I’ve mentioned my comings and goings with the concept of the hydrosocial cycle before. And I mentioned last week that a new paper of mine would be out soon. It’s here. Well, technically it is here [pdf]. It is an open-access article from Water Alternatives (which is currently transitioning its website to a new server so if it isn’t a smooth link, it should be soon). The special selection of papers on informal water spaces also looks really interesting in this issue of the journal.

My essay makes an argument about some of the current ideas popular in the literature that suggest a key feature of modernity was that water (and nature in general) was understood as a passive and inactive thing. From this premise, there is often an attempt to re-read history with contemporary understandings of water (and nature in general) as a more active player. In this paper I suggest the former view is wrong. Water was understood as an active planetary agent in precisely some of the cases theorized as exhibiting the modern society/nature divide. Because of this, the attempt to re-read history needs to be rethought with these earlier understandings of water in mind. All comments welcome. Here is the abstract:

Historicising the hydrosocial cycle

This paper examines the historical claims made in support of the hydrosocial cycle. In particular, it considers how arguments advancing the hydrosocial cycle make historical claims regarding modernist conceptions of what water is (i.e. H2O) and its fit with society. The paper gives special emphasis to the society/nature dualism and to the notion of agency as key sites of contest in arguments regarding the hydrosocial cycle. It finds that, while several versions of the hydrosocial cycle seek to advance a political ecology more sensitive to non-human actions, these same accounts often do not address the robust account of non-human agency in the historical record. Evidence is presented regarding water’s agency amongst late 19th and early 20th century architects of key water management norms in the United States. This evidence troubles accounts of the hydrosocial cycle that critique the US experience and suggests new directions for rethinking the role of historical and institutional norms in water policy.


  1. […] this spring, I recalled another way of presenting water without people (UPDATE FEB 16, 2014: You can now read this paper here). It was one developed by the World Economic Forum. Take a look at the video below and note that […]

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