EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Water and social relations: Wittfogel's legacy and hydrosocial futures
Location U6-30
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Franz Krause (University of Cologne) email
  • Lukas Ley (University of Toronto) email

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Short Abstract

This panel discusses Karl Wittfogel's classic concern - the links between water and social relations - in the context of current ethnographic material.

Long Abstract

In 1957, Karl Wittfogel published his influential book Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, in which he argued that the development of centralised hierarchies in mainly Asian societies was triggered by their control of water. Wittfogel wrote as a historian, but his work found strong resonances also in anthropology. While the book's analysis has been criticised, the understanding that the governance of water and the governance of people go hand in hand continues to inform discussions in anthropology and related fields. Recent studies concerning water-related political ecology, hydro symbolism, and the distribution and circulation of water echo some of Wittfogel's legacy.

This panel will explore Wittfogel's core concern - the links between water and social relations - in the context of current ethnographies. It will discuss various anthropological approaches to water's relationality and the forms it may take, for instance in drinking water provision, flood control, agriculture, navigation, hydroelectricity, and conservation.

We seek contributions that examine social and political relations in ways that take their tensions and correspondences with water seriously, as Wittfogel did half a century ago, but in a less monolithic and totalising manner, with careful attention to the situated, partial, multiple and open-ended encounters that (un)make these links. We further challenge contributors to sketch out to what extent the water-related sociality in their ethnographies could be conceived of as 'hydrosocial', i.e. to what extent watery and social relations are mutually constitutive, or even coterminous. Despite Wittfogel's concern with Asian societies, this panel has no regional focus.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Pure water: purity discourses, profit, and power in the ritual meanings and uses of water in Ghana

Author: Kirsty Wissing (Australian National University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on Wittfogel's analysis of connections between politics, religion, and water resource management, I will consider how multiple discourses of 'purity' contest moral authority over water as a natural resource. My case study is religious and secular ritual uses of water in Akosombo, Ghana.

Long Abstract

In his work Oriental Despotism, Wittfogel observed the link between human political control, water resource management, and religion whereby "the position, fate, and prestige of the secular masters of hydraulic society were closely interlinked with that of their divine protectors…to confirm and bulwark their own legitimacy" (1957: 40). Drawing on the hydro symbol of water as purity and by extension morality, as articulated through religious (traditional and Christian) and secular ritual uses of fresh water, I will consider how multiple purity discourses contest moral authority over water as a natural resource. I will also consider whether and how ritual uses of water correspondingly shape social identity. My ethnographic case study is Akosombo, Ghana.

Riding on the wave of post-independence fervour, President Kwame Nkrumah's vision for national industrial development was realised through the construction of Ghana's largest hydro-electric project, known as the Akosombo dam. The dam created Lake Volta and resulted in a government-led forced resettlement of 78,000 people from 700 inundated settlements that vastly altered local human relationships to their fresh water environment. While the dam promises national and even transnational energy provision, the state-controlled hydro-power industry, and increased internal migration for livelihood opportunities, have threatened to reshape customary landholding arrangements and human-environment relations as stipulated by Akosombo's local pre-dam Akwamu population. In this paper, I will consider how water as framed in purity discourse can become commodified for profit, and ask how localised ritual actions can interrogate overarching national environmental freshwater management frameworks.

From water reservoir to amusement park: the Chongqing garden EXPO park and local water politics under a hydraulic society perspective

Author: Michela Bonato (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg)  email

Short Abstract

Analysis of Chinese local water politics under a hydraulic society perspective with the Chongqing Garden Expo Park as case study.

Long Abstract

K. A. Wittfogel in his Oriental Despotism emphasizes the creative ability of the Hydraulic Societies that lasting through the centuries, could evolve into diverse political forms according to the different historical stages. Moreover, Wittfogel is skeptical about the effects of Western influence on the 'Oriental Societies', arguing that private property and enterprise are not always clear signs of a 'modern middle class' based on Western values. Starting from this assumption, this paper takes the Chongqing Garden Expo Park as case study to analyze Chinese local politics and their significance on the social milieu: the particular waterscape of Chongqing represents in fact a means by which local government tries to implement its politics of physical and mental subjugation of the population, through subtle processes like the regulation of the leisure time, and the redistribution of land according to a gentrification pattern. Some evident measures of population containment such as the corvée, have been replaced by the power of shaping people's desires, inspiring ideals, and creating knowledge. This paper thus addresses the significance of local politics for understanding people's attitudes over water and possible phenomena of resilience, and aims to clarify to what extent the fulfillment of the Hydraulic Society model is possible on the actual substratum of Chongqing city.

Keywords: hydraulic society, water politics, tertiary sector, China, Chongqing Garden Expo Park

"What unites us is the umbilical cord of water": hydrosociality, precarity and politics in Peru

Author: Astrid Stensrud (University of Oslo)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the complexity of hydrosocial relations and precarities in the Majes-Colca watershed and the Majes Irrigation Project in Peru, and discusses whether new forms of politics emerge from conflicting water-related practices and notions of ownership.

Long Abstract

The Majes Irrigation Project in the Majes-Colca watershed in southern Peru was constructed in the 1970s as a project of regional development. The 100-kilometre long Majes canal enables the flow of water from the Condoroma Dam at 4000 meters of altitude to the arid pampa of Majes, where the desert has been transformed to fertile and productive land for export agriculture. The Majes Project was planned in detail by state engineers who designed urban centres and infrastructure for 40.000 inhabitants. Today's population, which is already three times as big with an estimated number of 120.000 people, is spreading out in the desert, where there is yet no infrastructure and no safe drinking water. The dependency on one main canal makes it an extremely vulnerable place, and after 30 years, the canal is in need of maintenance. The threat of droughts and earthquakes in the highlands is a constant, although not overt, preoccupation. The canal also produces new relations between the lowlands and the headwaters, where poor farmers are suffering the consequences of climate change.

The paper will explore the complexity of hydrosocial relations, senses of precarity and tensions in the Majes-Colca watershed and the Majes Irrigation Project, and discuss conflicting water practices and notions of ownership. Finally, it will discuss whether new forms of politics emerge from diverging water-related practices and anticipations of the future.

Wittfogel and beyond: water, infrastructure and political rule on the Hungry Steppe (1950-1980)

Author: Christine Bichsel (University of Fribourg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper takes stock of recent conceptual engagement in water studies with Wittfogel’s link between irrigation systems and forms of rule. Drawing on these re-conceptualizations, the paper explores the case study of irrigation development on the Hungry Steppe in Soviet Central Asia.

Long Abstract

The relationship between modes of water governance and forms of rule is a long-standing debate. Karl Wittfogel's (1957) postulated relationship between large-scale irrigation systems and the emergence of centralized bureaucracies, and possibly authoritarian rule, provided a critical impetus. While Wittfogel's work was met with considerable critique, it has also informed much research in water studies. The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it takes stock of recent conceptual approaches in the social sciences to engage and take further Wittfogel's statements. Secondly, it explores the link between irrigation systems and forms of rule in Soviet Central Asia. Empirically, the paper centers on the case study of the Hungry Steppe, a large plain subject to large-scale land reclamation and irrigation development during the 19th and 20th century. Several of Wittfogel's criteria are applicable to the case study: the prevailing arid and semi-arid climate which requires irrigation for intensive agriculture, the authoritarian form of Soviet rule in Central Asia and mass mobilization of labor for irrigation construction and agricultural production. The paper focuses on the historical period of 1950-1980 during which irrigation systems in Central Asia received considerable financial and technical input. Data stem from archival research in Dushanbe and Moscow during 6 months in 2011 and 2012. This paper argues that, while Wittfogel's statement is problematic for its concepts and causalities, he nevertheless correctly identified an interrelationship between water, infrastructure and political rule. This interrelationship must be further explored to better understand the social and political relations with/over water.

Destituted despotism: the reconfiguration of the Chinese hydraulic edifice in the age of sustainability

Author: Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

Karl Wittfogel's concept of hydraulic empire was based on the study of imperial China. One of the way in which contemporary China departs from its own past is in how modern projects of water control are redesigning local concepts of citizenships, participation and of the state in a age of shortage.

Long Abstract

This paper aims at bringing Karl Wittfogel's water-society nexus in dialogue with more recent interdisciplinary attempts at theorizing the mediating and constitutive effects that flows of water and their accompanying infrastructures have on social relationships and the shape of human collectives. Specifically, it draws on ideas of water as an "uncooperative commodity" (Bakker 2003) and as a "common" (Ostrom 1990) to explore what forms of hydro-society are engendered by contemporary Chinese water management practices. Based on long-term ethnography in various water agencies of a drought-prone area of rural Yunnan, this paper addresses the question of how contemporary Chinese notions of citizenship, entitlement and governance get shaped through China's often contradictory re-articulation of regressive projects of drinking water supply in the age of sustainability with water's own fluctuating patterns of flow and availability.

In Yunnan, where this research was conducted, efforts to distribute water equitably are currently being undermined by increasing socio-economic pressures and the demands for more efficient, environmentally sustainable water use. Looking at the everyday bureaucratic practices of water management, including processes of institutional divestment from rural infrastructures and investments into new regimes of institutional accountability and techno-legal devices of water governance, this papers show how Wittfogel's conceit of water as a vector of power still holds true for present day China. Differently from his view however, the Chinese recognition of impending water crisis is making such top-heavy projects of water control appearing much more tenuous and disputable to local users.

State of suspension: Nepal's unfinished water infrastructures

Author: Matthäus Rest (Ludwig Maximilian University)  email

Short Abstract

Through the long delayed Arun-3 dam and the Melamchi Water Supply Project in Nepal, my paper will discuss the hydrosocial implications of promised but unbuilt water infrastructures and bring Wittfogel in conversation with the recent literature on the technopolitics of water.

Long Abstract

In many ways, the Nepalese state is struggling with water - its overabandance and lack. One of them is connected to the fact that it is at the same time among the countries with the highest hydropower potential and the lowest electricity production per capita. The consequences are long hours of daily brownouts for citizens and a high dependence on petroleum imports from India. Another major difficulty is the dramatic shortage of water in the Kathmandu valley where people receive water of poor quality for a few hours every three to for days only, therefore have to store large quantities in private water tanks and often rely on private water providers. In both cases, critical infrastructures have been suspended for decades: while the country's remote mountain areas are full of proposed hydropower projects, inhabitants of Kathmandu have been promised relieve through a tunnel connecting the Melamchi valley with the capital.

Through the Arun-3 dam and the Melamchi Water Supply Project, my paper will discuss the hydrological, political, technical and social implications of promised but unbuilt water infrastructures and bring Wittfogel in conversation with the recent literature on the technopolitics of water. I will argue that the government and foreign donors through their concentration on large-scale projects and the far future have severely hindered the promotion of small-scale solutions and institutional reforms through the process Jane Guyer called the evacuation of the near future.

The USSR as a hydraulic state: Wittfogel in light of the desiccation of the Aral Sea

Author: William Wheeler (Goldsmiths)  email

Short Abstract

This paper assesses Wittfogel's claims in light of the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which dried up as a result of Soviet irrigation policies in Central Asia.

Long Abstract

Wittfogel's work elides two seemingly unconnected theses, one about the hydrosocial nature of 'despotism', the other about the totalitarian exercise of power in the 'total managerial economy' of the USSR. But these two theses are in fact connected in a way Wittfogel did not recognise, for in many ways the USSR itself can be construed as a hydraulic state, especially in the Central Asian periphery, where expansion of irrigation for cotton both depended on and further cemented the power of the apparatus which controlled it. The environmental consequences of this famously include the desiccation of the Aral Sea - which was subject to a economistic rationality prioritising cotton over a sea. I draw on archival research, and ethnographic research in the former port of Aral'sk, Kazakhstan, to assess Wittfogel's theses. Archival data contradict the image of hierarchical bureaucratic control, showing instead a picture of a bureaucracy divided against itself, and weak central control over local water usage - which challenges both Wittfogel's theses. But some contemporary local narratives in Aral'sk about the desiccation of the Aral seem to concur with Wittfogel's claims: some cast it as the outcome of the arbitrary exercise of power by the apparatus, while others suggest that there was not enough exercise of power, claiming that had the state's hydrological capacity been stronger, the sea would have been saved. In such narratives irrigation acts as a 'state effect', playing a role in imagining a particular sort of strong, centralised state.

Death by certainty: the Vinca dam and the withering of canal associations in the Têt basin of the Eastern French Pyrenees

Authors: Jamie Linton (Université de Limoges)  email
Etienne Delay (Université de Limoges)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the ongoing social effects of a large dam in the Eastern Pyrenees region of France. We employ the concept of the hydrosocial cycle – borrowing from Wittfogel’s dialectic, but demanding a more complex account of hydrosocial relations - to explain the dam's broader implications.

Long Abstract

This paper considers the ongoing social effects of a large dam in the Eastern Pyrenees region of France. In 1976, the French state constructed a dam near the town of Vinça on the Têt River, altering the hydrological conditions that had co-produced a complex system of hydro-social relations evolved since the Middle Ages.

Wittfogel's dialectical insights into the relations between the control of water and the control of people help explain the effects of the dam, which we argue was built partly as a means of gaining territorial presence in a region historically resistant to the control of the French state. However, a more complex set of dialectical relations is at play in this situation, requiring a subtler explanatory tool. We show that the dam has had the effect of transferring expertise and social power from local to central authority, but not in a direct way. Rather, the production of hydrological certainty in the form of assured and regular flows has weakened the local social structures and relations that had evolved to accommodate - and were sustained by - hydrological uncertainty and periodical scarcity. We employ the concept of the hydrosocial cycle - which borrows from Wittfogel's dialectic, but demands a more complex account of hydrosocial relations - to explain these developments.

We conclude by hypothesizing some of the longer-term consequences of the dam in terms of its unintended impacts on the agricultural sector of the region and, ultimately, on the influence of the state.

Social ocean: an ethnographic exploration of hydrosociality, the sea and maritime labour

Author: Johanna Markkula (Stanford University)  email

Short Abstract

By extending theories of hydrosociality from land-based water systems to the sea, this paper uses ethnographic material from international cargo-ships and maritime governing organisations to explore the mutually constitutive relationship between the sea, maritime labour and social relations at sea.

Long Abstract

Wittfogel's work on hydraulic societies, and the theories of hydrosociality that emerged from it, have mainly dealt with the governance of land-based water systems. This paper extends these theories to consider the mutually constitutive dynamics of the sea and social relations at sea by focusing on maritime labour and everyday practices of maritime governance.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork aboard internationally trading cargo-ships, and with key maritime governing organisations ashore such as Coast Guards and maritime industry authorities, this paper explores how the "nature" of the sea and the different social representations of it, produce specific forms of social organisations, practices of governance and communities, both ashore and at sea. The sea provides the main surface for circulation of global transport and as such is a key space of global capitalist society. Yet, the vastness and fluidity of the sea, and its legal ambiguity due to it being situated outside of national boundaries and jurisdictions, require specific structures of governance for its management. These structures and forms of social and political organisations and connections in turn shape the global circulation of ships, goods, people and labour at sea, producing the multicultural floating communities of cargo-ship crews, which are themselves reproducing larger, global social inequalities in the local environments onboard. Finally, the paper also explores how the social maritime world is produced through the labour and everyday practices of these maritime workers, and how the sea itself and the seafarers' representations of the sea are shaping social relations onboard.

Keywords: Hydrosociality, maritime labour, seafaring, Philippines, global governance

Infrastructural relations: water, political power and the rise of a new 'despotic regime'

Author: Veronica Strang (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on water in Australia and the UK, this paper traces changing relationships between cosmological beliefs, infrastructure and political arrangements, suggesting a current trend towards new 'despotic regimes' of water governance.

Long Abstract

It is 60 years since Karl Wittfogel highlighted a key relationship between political power and the ownership and control of water. Subsequent studies have suggested, commensurately, that exclusion from the ownership of essential resources represents a fundamental form of disenfranchisement – a loss of democratic involvement in societal direction. Several areas of theoretical development have illuminated these issues. Anthropologists have explored the recursive relationship between political arrangements and cosmological belief systems. Narrow legal definitions of property have been challenged through the consideration of more diverse ways of owning and controlling resources. Analyses of material culture have shown how it extends human agency, as well as having agentive capacities itself; and explorations of infrastructures have highlighted their role in composing socio-technical and political relations. Such approaches are readily applied to water and the material culture through which it is controlled and used. Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on water in Australia and the UK, this paper traces changing relationships between cosmological beliefs, infrastructure and political arrangements over time. It suggests that a current trend towards privatised, transnational water ownership potentially opens the door to the emergence of new 'despotic regimes'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.