ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Muddy footsteps and hydrosocial futures: understanding relationality with, through and about water
Location Science Site/Engineering E102
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Franz Krause (University of Cologne) email
  • Caterina Scaramelli (Amherst College) email

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Discussant Nikhil Anand (University of Pennsylvania)

Short Abstract

Hydrosociality had occupied anthropologists for a long time. We invite to think through the uses and limits of classic anthropological footprints through the muddy terrain of human engagements with water, exploring the hydrosociality concept for understanding current and past water predicaments.

Long Abstract

The links between social and hydrological relationships have occupied anthropologists for a long time. This is evident, for example, in longstanding engagements with seafaring (Malinowski), seasonal flooding (Evans-Pritchard) and irrigation (Wittfogel), as much as in more recent work on maritime identities, water expertise and infrastructures, water symbolism, and climates. Traditions of anthropological thinking are much less dry than often portrayed. However, in the context of current concerns about water scarcity, flood risk, water pollution and climate change, these traditions have acquired renewed salience, while also interrogating the role of water itself as "theory machine" (Helmreich) in anthropology.

Anthropological studies of water and attempts to understand the role of water in society and culture —hydrosociality— are burgeoning. By "hydrosociality" we mean the manifold ways in which human and non-human becoming is meshed in relations that are simultaneously social and hydrological, in the sense of involving or impinging on the circulation, distribution and quality of water, as well as on the materials that water gathers: muddy sediments.

What happens when hydrosociality meets its sediments? This panel will provide an opportunity to think through the uses and limits of classic anthropological footprints through the muddy terrain of human engagements with water, and to explore the utility of the hydrosociality concept for understanding current and past water predicaments. We use hydrosociality to interrogate ethnographically watery relations, scaffoldings and sediments. We welcome paper proposals that make explicit what muddy footsteps they engage with and how the hydrosocial figures in their approach.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


City of Mud: wet transformations at the edge of Izmir

Author: Caterina Scaramelli (Amherst College)  email

Short Abstract

My talk argues that conflicts about the muddy place of ecology at the edge of Izmir are embedded with imaginations about the materiality, of sediment: muddy hydraulic materiality is always in the making.

Long Abstract

The Gediz river delta, north of the city of Izmir, has in the past two decades been managed as a protected conservation wetlands. The area is also at the center of ongoing contestations about the remaking of land, water, and sediments at the edge of an expanding metropolis. Drawing from two years of ethnographic and archival fieldwork, my talk explores conflicts between environmental NGOs, local residents, the university and the state about sites of watery and muddy transformation. These have long been locales of production regimes — agricultural, urban, industrial, and cultural. In the talk I take conflicts about the very materiality of the delta, its dynamic muddy sediments — from wastewater to industrial outflow to the saline waters of the saltpans — to be revealing of contemporary ecological politics in Izmir and in Turkey. The politics, I content, is about more than the shifting boundaries of land and water, about what counts as coastline, river, wetland, canal, farmland, saltpan or road. While those topographies are always shifting, I argue that conflicts about the place of ecology in contemporary life is embedded with imaginations about the materiality, the hazards, the value, and the potential futures afforded by sediment. This talk takes muddy hydraulic materiality to be always in the making.

Situating wetness in Soomaa, Estonia

Author: Franz Krause (University of Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation analyses wetness in the Estonian Soomaa wetlands as a relational phenomenon, situated in the context of changing social, economic and cultural practices.

Long Abstract

Soomaa - literally "marsh-land" - is an Estonian national park, the area of which has long been known as a peripheral place due to its wetness. Soomaa has historically been a place for runaways, deserters, and coerced settlers. During the 1920s and 1930s, the area's flood meadows provided the basis for a dairy production heyday. Subsequently, the political and economic transformations of the Soviet Union involved the attempt to drain large parts of forests and bogs, as well as the consolidation of the population in a few dryer places. In the 1990s, the establishment of the park led to an initial surge in popularity for the area. Today, the tourism entrepreneurs in Soomaa market the destination particularly through its floods and bogs.

This presentation reviews the narratives through which current Soomaa inhabitants relate the challenges and benefits of living in a wet environment. It traces how not only the different evaluations of wetness, but also the very understanding of what wetness is, are situated in specific social, political and economic contexts. In Soomaa, wetness is one thing to an ecologist working on bog restoration, another thing for a farmer trying to make ends meet, and yet another for a visionary newcomer building an artists' residence, or for a tourism entrepreneur marketing canoe trips through flooded forests. Wetness emerges as a relational phenomenon, situated in the context of changing social and cultural practices, and intimately caught up in people's activities, projects, ideals and embodied experiences.

Intervened River, transformed muddyscapes: exploring clashing perceptions across state-society interface in the 'chars' of Lower Gangetic Bengal, India

Authors: Jenia Mukherjee (Institute of Development Studies Kolkata)  email
Flore Lafaye De Micheaux (University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

It captures how intervention on a tropical River altered deposition pattern of its alluvial sediments, leading to the disruption of socionatural metabolism and changing perceptions towards riverine islands (chars) among multiple social actors.

Long Abstract

Hydrosocial framework provokes understanding transforming fluvial processes of different waters (canals, marshes, sandy shoals, etc.) of a river basin not as objects of social processes, but as natural entities that are shaped by and shape politico-economic trajectories, social relations and subjectivities over space and time.

The muddy terrain of human engagements with water assumes significance in the context of River Ganges in Bengal when it meanders and bifurcates into numerous channels, forming sandy shoals (chars in local dialect), before meeting the Sea. Riverine flood-erosion and formation of chars are natural-historical processes across Lower Gangetic Basin. Being extremely fertile, these provided revenue to the state and ecosystem services to marginal inhabitant communities (choruas).

The construction of Farakka Barrage in 1960s, to manipulate flow in one of the major distributaries of the Ganges, intercepted the normal sediment transport-deposition pattern causing increased flood intensity and leading to the rise of running chars in upstream and downstream of Farakka. The continuous emergence, submergence, re-emergence and re-submergence of chars have influenced social processes of settlement, displacement, re-settlement and re-displacement among choruas. While the state considers running chars as 'sikasti' (water) to legitimize its strategy of not providing infrastructural provisions in these 'fragile' spaces, considering choruas as non-citizens, the latter, struggle for getting the status of 'payasti' (revenue villages) for these muddyscapes. An understanding of these complex processes of shifting water paradigms and its impact on the River and its sediments across hydrosocial framework provides the context for addressing future water management policies in the region.

"Amphibiousness: quagmire of mud and gender in North Bihar, India"

Author: Luisa Cortesi (Yale University)  email

Short Abstract

In rural North Bihar, India, a space of troubled waters and mud, women negotiate their life and social identity as a mucky quagmire. This paper will confront their ways of knowing space and choosing risk while floating on, but at time sinking in, the tension between nature and culture.

Long Abstract

North Bihar, India, is a land of water. Recurrently flooded and crisscrossed with rivers that swell mud every monsoon, the landscape is engorged with marshy water through the seasons. When every path feels like a slippery bog, how do people navigate the landscape? This paper narrates women moving on unstable surfaces, neither gripping nor skidding on them, as evidence of their amphibiousness.


Despite the precarious ground, no adaptive behavior that eases movement is apparent. Where the no-slip soles of the anthropologist are still slippery, local women master the path on dainty and fashionable heeled slippers. Yet, counter intuitive choices stick, even when the mud gets thick with consequences. Women die more often than men when the frail overloaded boats capsize -as they often do. Their sari inflates like a balloon, and once drenched, engulfs them and drags them down, burying them alive in the clay of the riverbed. Yet, even in the very moment in which the boat is keeling over, very few attempt survival by loosening their clothing.


To examine how the materiality of the watery landscape clashes with gendered norms of sociality, this paper borrows, and questions, theories of space from Bachelard, of spatial practices from Lefebvre, of cultural production of spaces from De Certeau, and of embodied spatial knowledge from Ingold. The result is a study of amphibiousness as a knowledge of space, through the miry trajectories of amphibious women between nature and culture, between the banality of the everyday and the tragedy of death.

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

Author: Ben Bowles (SOAS/LSE)  email

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.”

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."

Catching the "Social Life" of a Central Asian river: what kind of net is 'hydrosociality'?

Author: Jeanne Féaux de la Croix (University of Tübingen)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on a collaborative history of the Syr Darya, this paper experiments with ‘catching’ its social life with the net of hydrosociality. I deploy other tools such as ‘enviro-technical system’, ‘landscape’ and ‘resourcecultures’ to reflect on the different kinds of river life that each concept projects.

Long Abstract

This paper uses a collaborative history of the Naryn and Syr Darya rivers to experiment with 'catching' its social life with the net of hydrosociality. It deploys other tools such as 'enviro-technical system', 'landscape' and 'resourcecultures' to reflect on the different kinds of river life that each concept allows us to hear. I chose a Soviet-era dam, an ancient Silk Road city, a cotton-irrigating village and an international think tank as the main sites of reflection. The material is drawn from a research project involving anthropologists, political scientists and historians from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Germany, studying different aspects and actors of 'social life' along the main feeder of the dying Aral Sea. Seeking a new appreciation of the Syr Darya as an object of enquiry and interaction, the project looks beyond the quarrels over water-allocation dominating transnational river policy and representations.

Since concepts are not only tools of analysis, but also tools of communication, this paper also discusses the benefits and drawbacks of these terms in translation e.g. when working with Russian-language scholars, or with other disciplines such as history and archaeology. I conclude by reflecting on the aesthetic connotations of water and 'hydrosociality' that affect its application, the analytic paths taken and not taken.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.