Slippery Subjects: The Material Politics of Water

Hi there,

I’m co-organising a session at the annual 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) meeting (Oct 9-12 2013 in San Diego) on the topic of politics in the context of water management. Matthew Kearnes and I have put this together (mostly Matt) and we’d love any comments or suggestions you might have.

The outline for the session is below, including a list of the presenters: Judy Motion, Jeremy J. Schmidt, and Susie Pratt. We’re also really pleased to have Prof. Wiebe Bijker as a discussant. Here are the Abstracts: The Material Politics of Water.

Slippery Subjects: The Material Politics of Water 

It is increasingly being recognised that water is “intensely political” and that the politics of water are “implicated in contested relationships of power and authority” (Bakker, 2012, 616). Issues concerned with water quality, purification and the socio-technological infrastructures of water distribution have been at the centre of a range of contemporary environmental and social disputes. The resource economies of water, coupled with the increasing privatisation of water reserves, are also central to the development of new forms of governance, administrative practices, and technologies for provisioning. Water is simultaneously an object of state control and management whilst the materiality of water exceeds practices of political containment.

This session explores the material politics of water by focusing on the construction of water as an object of public participation, consultation and education. In light of a series of technological risk controversies in areas such as water purification and the reuse of wastewater government authorities have begun to employ techniques drawn from public education and science communication in order to effect behavioural and attitudinal changes. This session constitutes a critical assessment on these developments, featuring papers that document the construction of water as an object of public deliberation and political negotiation. The session traces modes of expert and lay reasoning in the socio-technologies of public participation and consultation, together with the coproduction of water and institutions of public and civic authority.

Session Chairs:

  1. Matthew Kearnes (Environmental Humanities Programme, University of New South Wales);
  2. Brian Cook (Department of Resource Management & Geography, School of Land and Environment, The University of Melbourne


  1. Brian Cook (Department of Resource Management & Geography, School of Land and Environment, The University of Melbourne)
  2. Judy Motion (Environmental Humanities Programme, University of New South Wales)
  3. Jeremy J. Schmidt (Social Anthropology, Harvard University)
  4. Susie Pratt (Journalism Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales)


  1. Prof. Wiebe E. Bijker (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University)

New paper into Press

Hello there,

I just wanted to direct your attention to a paper that has just come out that I’m really pleased with. Basically, we’ve tried to explain the belief that “the system inhibits participation’. If you like/hate the paper and would like to speak about it, please get in touch.

Take care (from Los Angeles)


The persistence of ‘normal’ catchment management despite the participatory turn: Exploring the power effects of competing frames of reference


Presented as a panacea for the problems of environmental management, ‘participation’ conceals competing frames of meaning. ‘Ladders of participation’ explain insufficiently why public engagement is often limited to consultation, even within so-called higher level partnerships. To explain how participation is shaped to produce more or less symmetric exchanges in processes of deliberation, this article distinguishes between (1) discourses/practices, (2) frames and (3) power effects. This article’s empirical focus is the experience of participatory catchment organisations and their central but under-researched role in integrated catchment management. In addition to an analysis of policy statements and other relevant documents, this article draws on qualitative interview and participant-observation data gathered in an international participatory knowledge exchange that we facilitated among four participatory catchment organisations (and various other agencies). Results suggest that while statements about legislation promise symmetric engagements, the mechanics of legislation frame participation as asymmetric consultation. In their own arenas, participatory catchment organisations deploy participation within a framework of grassroots democracy, but when they engage in partnership with government, participation is reshaped by at least four competing frames: (1) representative democracy, which admits, yet captures, the public’s voice; (2) professionalisation, which can exclude framings that facilitate more symmetric engagement; (3) statutory requirements, which hybridise participatory catchment organisations to deliver government agendas and (4) evidence-based decision-making, which tends to maintain knowledge hierarchies. Nevertheless, participatory catchment organisations proved capable of reflecting on their capture. We thus conclude that the co-production of science and society, and the power effects of framing, must become explicit topics of discussion in processes of environmental policy deliberation for participation to result in more symmetric forms of public engagement.

Teaching, teaching, teaching… and a panel on Marginality in Perth (Australia)

Hi there,

I’ve been really pleased with the response to this blog. It’s been great speaking with people who have similar interests. If you are interested in these areas/topics, please do get in touch: brian.cook [at]

Things have been incredibly manic with my current teaching load. I’m coordinating more than 300 students, and am responsible for all of Geog 30019: Sustainable Development, and Geog 10001: The Geography of Scarcity. It’s been great, and the students are (for the most part) very good.

Fortunately, a few research projects have managed to move forward.

Institute of Australian Geographers: 2013 Conference (July 1-4)

JC Gaillard (The University of Auckland) and I are organising a panel on the topic of Marginality. It will build on a similar effort for the AAG conference in LA earlier in the year. If you’d like to be involved get in touch, because I am also drafting a related paper and would like to engage with peopel as part of that effort. So if Marginality, Marginalisation, Marginal lands, or Marginality are your thing, send me a note.

Marginality and Human Development in the Context of Environmental Vulnerability

IAG 2013 – following from AAG 2013 Panel

As opposed to an individual’s state or characteristic, vulnerability to natural and technological hazards is increasingly understood in terms of dynamic pressures and/or root causes. This interpretation requires a shift away from an emphasis on vulnerability and towards the processes that allow vulnerability to persist. In this session(s), we will explore ‘marginality’ as a way of conceptualising and analysing this production of vulnerability.

Marginality has multiple connotations, each a way of interpreting dynamic, multi-scalar forces. For example, it is the condition of poor access to political and policy decision making. It is exclusion from the social and natural capital required of livelihoods. Simultaneously, people that are marginalised are often relegated to more hazardous locations. The marginalised lack access to many services (both social and natural) enjoyed by most members of society, including the savings needed to resist disaster impacts and to quickly recover. Linking each of these processes of marginality are disadvantages that accrue to certain individuals and groups, normally to the benefit of others.

Analyses of marginality must be about understanding the diverse pressures and relations that affect segments of the population and push some individuals and groups to the margins of society and space.

In this session our aim is to examine marginality. We will emphasise the relations, processes, and pressures that make marginalisation so difficult to overcome or escape. This call is particularly oriented to scholars able to: 1) speak to successful countermeasures and 2) for those able to explain the direct and indirect forces that allow marginality to persist. In order to provide a boundary to this expansive topic, we ask that emphasis be placed on rights and human development in the Asia-Pacific region.

Questions may include but are not limited to:

  • How is marginalization experienced?
  • Can examples of marginalization or marginality be compared?
  • What approaches have successfully or unsuccessfully engaged marginalization?
  • What allows marginalisation to persist?


Brian Cook, The University of Melbourne, Department of Resource Management and Geography

JC Gaillard, University of Auckland, New Zealand, School of Environment

Presentation at the AAG conference in Los Angeles (April 2013)

I’ll be heading to L.A. for the annual American Association of Geographers‘ conference this April. I’m looking forward to two specific activities. First, I will present a paper on the relationship between water and food production in Bangladesh. This paper is already drafted, and I think does a good job of integrating quantitative data from the FAO with my own qualitative data (the abstract is below). Second, I will participate in a panel discussion on the topic of risk and marginality – details to follow.

I look forward to engaging with other AAG participants. Please get in touch if you’d like to meet for a discussion or drink.

Water and Food in Bangladesh: swinging between opposing knowledge claims and the controversy over what should be done

For this paper I combine publicly available quantitative data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) with qualitative data from interviews with influential individuals in Bangladesh. These data sets are shown to be complementary, though the qualitative findings offer a substantially more pessimistic interpretation of future water and food management than is implied by the quantitative data.

The interview data helps to define periods within the FAO data based on an accumulation of technological innovations: beginning with flood control, adding irrigation, and later adding high-yielding varieties of rice. These periods are then used to explain the polarisation of opinions that populate current debates over water and food in Bangladesh, leading to my interpretation of the water-food relationship as a post-normal problem (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). For example, the periods help to contextualise the ‘polarised-and-fluctuating’ debate over the protection of agriculture from floods.

My reinterpretation of Bangladesh’s water-food history adds to debates over water/food security by showing how both Boserup– and Malthus-inspired analyses are accurate (Turner and Ali 1996): necessity has successfully driven innovation, though a collapse remains probable given current trends. Unfortunately, the analysis also shows that the benefits of technological innovations have been ‘consumed’ by population growth and development, leaving fewer options for Bangladesh as it struggles to meet food demands. In terms of post-normal problems, the research helps to explain: 1) why more knowledge can make controversies less clear and 2) how an emphasis on context can help differentiate competing knowledge claims.


Water; Flood; Food; Bangladesh; Controversy; Knowledge; Post-normal; Security; Sustainable

Funtowicz, S. O. and Ravetz, J. R. 1993. Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7): 739-755.
 Turner, B. L. and Ali, A. M. S. 1996. Induced intensification: Agricultural change in Bangladesh with implications for Malthus and Boserup. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 93(25): 14984-14991.

Presentation at the ANU Sociology Department

I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the ANU (Australia National University) Sociology department last week. I was a little worried about speaking to sociologists, but they were incredibly welcoming and the questions were extremely valuable.

Here is the abstract:

Amongst debates over the management of environmental risk, an important theme has been the involvement of publics (Irwin, 1995) and the legitimacy of public knowledge (Collins and Evans, 2002). In terms of flood management in Bangladesh, public knowledge has informed critiques of dominant practices by demanding the democratisation of the knowledges deemed legitimate. To date, the ramifications of this situation have gone unexplored. Drawing on interviews with more than fifty decision-making experts, this analysis finds that public knowledge has been accepted as legitimate, seemingly capitulating to a long-standing criticism. Local and expert knowledges are now commonly incorporated within flood management, blurring any distinction between the two. Unfortunately, in a somewhat absurd twist, the informal knowledge and experiences shaping flood management appear to be the recollections, opinions, and anecdotes of the power-holding experts. The experts have re-established their authority by deploying their own lay knowledges-experiences as a way of including lay knowledge without including ‘others’. In terms of the democratisation of governance, the flood management case study suggests that power-holders have been re-empowered by arguments designed to make flood management more representative.

Presentation at ANU: Tapping the Turn Conference

Here is the Abstract for a Talk I am giving next week.

Bangladesh will experience another disastrous flood that will spark vociferous debate, but what is it that will be debated? The scale of events in Bangladesh makes floods difficult to imagine as anything other than catastrophic, but social and participatory research has shown that people distinguish between flood impacts that are harmful (Bonna) and flood impacts that are beneficial (Barsha). This distinction represents a cultural interpretation of what a flood is, which is informative for anyone contemplating living with floods. But important questions remain concerning the underlying assumptions concerning floods, particularly with regard to sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and resilience. For example, what does it mean for a flood manager to believe that floods are or are not a problem? Such questions are imbued with power and are as much about competing interpretations as they are about the water flowing down the Indo-Gangetic plains through Bangladesh.

Flood management in Bangladesh represents a problem with no solution. For this discussion I use the term ‘knowledge controversy’, which is an increasingly important conceptual basis for individuals exploring water’s social dimensions. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a knowledge controversy is that “different expert positions can be consistent with the available evidence yet incommensurable with each other” (Evans and Collins, 2008: 619). This interpretation is consistent with Irwin and Michael (2003: 13), who argue that modern problems and management are moving away from singular rational truths toward more pluralistic accounts in which “multiple rationalities co-exist”. In terms of flood management in Bangladesh, this means that multiple seemingly equal interpretations can substantiate multiple seemingly equal knowledges, arguments, and management strategies, which in turn raises the issue of having to choose between equally valid yet incompatible perspectives.

This research draws on semi-structured interviews with more than fifty decision making experts responsible for flood management in Bangladesh. The respondents include leaders from government, the academy, NGOs, donors, and international organisations. As part of the discussions, each expert was asked ‘whether flooding was a problem in Bangladesh?’ The findings show that opinions concerning the detrimental or beneficial nature of flooding are predetermined and bound to positions on four related issues: 1) governance, or the perception of Bangladesh’s economic and institutional ability to control floods; 2) geography, or the perception of the climatic and topographic factors that influence the sustainability of physical management; 3) society, or the cultural and historical factors wedded to seasonal flooding and flood mitigation; and 4) agriculture, or the recognition that food security is of prime importance, making the negative consequences of floods an unavoidable necessity.

The findings expose the underlying and sometimes hidden rationalisations that (pre)determine the positions that populate the flood management discourse in Bangladesh. By tracing [deconstructing] the issues that indirectly shape expert perceptions of flood management, the knowledge controversy that will inevitably follow the next catastrophe is shown to be a far more complex and socially grounded debate rooted in opinion, perspective, and power than is assumed within much of the discourse. Furthermore, this approach enables analysis and consideration of the ‘flood problem’ that is more representative of the rationalisations underlying (power-holding) opinion; the research shows that debates over flooding are more accurately highly complex debates that draw together numerous related topics and assumptions that need to be considered if a sustainable response to flooding is to be negotiated.

Evans, R. and Collins, H. 2008. Expertise: From Attribute to Attribution and Back Again? In Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M. and Wajcman, J., editors, The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (3rd Edition), London: MIT Press.
 Irwin, A. and Michael, M. 2003. Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Maindenhead, U.K.: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

Another set of research opportunities – this time Honours-level

Department of Resource Management and Geography: research opportunities for prospective honours students

Brian is interested in supervising students exploring topics related to flood management, risk, knowledge, and/or human vulnerability. Proposals situated in Australia, Bangladesh, India, the UK, and Portugal are welcome, though other contexts may be possible. Brian has experience with both quantitative and qualitative research methods, for example including projects that explore flood impacts on homes or perception-based analyses. Brian’s recent research has emphasised the ‘power-holder’ or ‘decision-maker’, leading to research findings that explore how flood management occurs and how the people making decisions rationalise what they do. This type of research emphasises who benefits and who is negatively affected by flood management practices; ultimately, this informs critiques aimed at social justice and appreciation for the disproportionate impact of disasters on (often already) vulnerable individuals. As part of these projects he has collaborated with NGOs in the developing and developed world. Alternately, he has experience with analyses at the local scale that explore how people experience, perceive, and understand disasters.

Overall, his research tends to use controversies as entry points, allowing for analyses that prioritise the multiple, entwined understandings that fuel controversy, rather than attempts to ‘uncover a solution’. These methodologies can lead to policy-relevant findings, and it is hoped that future projects will follow a similar path. Brian asks that students seeking supervision consider: 1) what interests them, 2) what skills they wish to develop, and 3) how this project fits with their wider aspirations. It is hoped that projects will have purpose and will be student-driven.

Potential topics might include:

  1. Analyses of flood mitigation efforts by individuals, communities, groups, or local government in the context of the 2011 Victorian floods.
  2. Controversy over the Victorian desalinisation plant (Wonthaggi Desalination Plant) and questions over technical intervention compared to individual behavioural changes.
  3. Flood management in Bangladesh, India, or the wider Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin.
  4. The role of scientific knowledge within flood management relative to ‘alternate’ knowledges such as local, indigenous, or perceptions from people who have experienced disasters.

Please get in touch to discuss any potential ideas. For more topics, other academics in the department, or for ideas for potential co-supervision, please go here.

Research Opportunity for Masters-level Student

Sharing Responsibility for Disaster: Developing Subsidiarity Principles for Local Government

Dr. Alan March (Urban Planning), Associate Professor Louise Harms (Social Work), and Dr. Brian Cook (Geography) are seeking masters-level students interested in flood and fire management in Australia. This qualitative project seeks to identify the most effective level at which management of floods and fires occur within local Australian government. With support from the city of Whittlesea and the University of Melbourne, the project asks how authority shifts during catastrophic events, with an aim of better understanding how decision-making adapts and is adapted in response to floods and fires.

The researchers are seeking 1-3 masters-level students for complementary projects. They will have the opportunity to work alongside a Research Assistant employed for the project, who will provide additional support. Whether associated with a specific discipline or by drawing on supervision from the three disciplines, we are looking for motivated students, with experience with qualitative methods, and an interest in disaster and risk management. For consideration, students are asked to submit a proposal (no more than one page) and brief CV (outlining relevant experience and related expertise).

The projects are likely to start late 2012 or early 2013. For further information, please contact Dr. Brian Cook.