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