Accepted Paper:

Water, enclosure and the state: why the UK's itinerant boat-dwellers are problematic citizens and yet continue to resist measures to make them legible  


Ben Bowles (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

The UK state finds it hard to govern and map the population living on its waterways due to both historical processes of enclosure and particular qualities of water, making the interaction between the state and boat-dwellers fundamentally “hydrosocial.”

Paper long abstract:

James Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed contains a frustrating teaser: "had I the patience and even more of an impulse to comprehensiveness, there would and should have been a chapter on watery regions of refuge" (Scott, 2011:15). My field work, conducted between 2012 and 2013 with itinerant boat-dwellers ("Boaters") on the waterways of South East England, attempted to fill this lacuna in Scott's project. I came to view the waterways as a "muddy" edge of the state into which individuals can escape in order to gain a utopian liminal experience of the city. This paper asks why waterways - not sea-lanes, but more easily policed and mapped inland waterways - are troubling areas vis-a-vis the state wishing to act upon a legible citizenry. I found, during my fieldwork, a situation from which it is difficult to extrapolate and generalise. The waterways have resisted enclosure due to particular historical processes; including nationalisation during world war two, the action of advocacy organisations in its aftermath, and the difficulties the state has in either gaining a bureaucracy large enough to properly administer the waterways, or otherwise to privatise them. What is universal, however, is how dwellers on waterways can resist surveillance and mapping technologies through their embracing of the mobility-affording and boundary-confounding qualities of moving water. Water is, for various material and historical reasons, hard to govern, as the state must engage with the particular qualities of water in a fashion best summarised as "hydrosocial."

Panel P29
Muddy footsteps and hydrosocial futures: understanding relationality with, through and about water