Histories and Society in the Hydrosphere

April 28, 2023 (All day) to April 30, 2023 (All day)

Workshop Website

Organized by: 
Prasenjit Duara, Oscar L. Tang Family Distinguished Professor of East Asian Studies; Director of Global Asia Initiative (GAI) and Asian-Pacific Studies Institute (APSI), Duke University
James Wescoat, Aga Khan Professor,  Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The life of communities, historical and contemporary, is penetrated and encompassed by the hydrosphere. Land-centered visions of life persist even though 70% of the planet is water and holds 90% of biotic life. Moreover, land is more dependent on water than the other way. Oceans shape land forms not only through tectonic and volcanic activity but also, as do rivers, with currents, erosions, sedimentation and the building of rocks with deposits and waves. Insolation of the hydrosphere together with the atmosphere generate and distribute heat and energy that enables life. We look at water in its various forms and states beyond the liquid – as vapor, snow, and ice.  Water envelops, soaks, seeps, swamps, stores, floods and drains. We will also see its prevalent role within individual human and social bodies as the source of sustenance, power, and meaning —enabling and destructive of life. We will explore histories and contemporary society in the hydrosphere; i.e. from the view of how water conditions social activities, and how in turn, these activities alter, consciously or not, hydrologic processes.

In the Humanities and the Social Sciences of the 20th century, hydrological processes are mostly taken for granted, and they have tended to relegate its study largely to the specialized sciences.  However, from the beginnings of history– in ancient water cosmologies, natural philosophies that reduce all substances to water, mythic mixing and separation of salt and fresh waters, flood myths, sea dragons, rain maidens, and so much more– humans have paid particular attention to water as it shaped human life and community.

The onset of volatile climate change in recent years is likely to have contributed to the explosion in the study of water in these humanistic disciplines during the last decade.  While the hydrological cycle had been changing slowly enough to enable human ecological adaptation, which in turn enabled humans to record and recognize themselves as societies and civilizations, at least in some places and times, these out-of-cycle climactic events are beginning to disrupt that self-understanding. Certainly, paleo-climatologists working with historians have shown how these wild cards or ‘jokers’ have wiped out civilizations just as much as they have brought them – and in particular, the state—into being. Accounts of water-related collapse may be more alluring than creation stories this time around, when the threats are envisioned as planetary. Water history operates for the most part in between such accounts of creation and collapse, in regions and on timescales where different human groups and associated creatures gain the water access and control necessary to thrive.

We focus our view of water as having an interdependent force and agency on the planet with which humans interact in different ways. Over time, water and humans act and react upon each other in an “ongoing spiral of challenge-response-challenge, where neither nature nor humanity ever achieves absolute sovereign authority, but both continue to make and remake each other” [1] differently in space and time. Today, with great disturbances in the hydrosphere, the principal threat to populations are thought by many to emerge from the tumults and turbulence of the ocean.  In this project we will consider when and where the hydrocycle and the local hydrosocial process are deemed to be well matched and where and how water determines its own course of action.

Modern societies have often thought of water as a natural resource to be measured, controlled, regulated and extracted for purposes of growth and expansion.  For much of the twentieth century, research on water resources focused on increasing water use efficiency in physical, economic, and administrative terms.  Water institutions, equity, ethics, and politics were important but smaller fields, though in some regions water became a specialized subfield of legal research.  Water historians are likewise few in number but influential in the field.

Emerging Views.  The focus and language of water research is shifting in the 21stcentury.  The modern ideal of mastery over nature that seeks to utilize and commodify the many dimensions of water has produced mixed results and can often be destructive of planetary life forms. It is surprised by hydrologic “anomalies,” “extreme events,” and “hazards,” and strives for escalating levels of natural and social control. Critiques of water as a resource have taken a range of historical and philosophical approaches.  A related shift is occurring from institutions and policy to politics and governance. What Jamie Linton has described as ‘modern water’ is a scientific way of knowing and representing water, H2O, apart from its social context.[2]  Jeremy Schmidt argues for stronger historicizing of such critiques in Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity.[3]

Cosmologically, some non-modern societies had a more holistic understanding and, often, religious respect for water in its various aspects, even while they sought to practically manage flows and energy for various purposes. The pre-modern paradigm was more concerned with how waters were different and particular, rather than as a universal resource object. At the same time, historians of ancient, medieval, and pre-colonial water regimes have cautioned against romanticizing such views, citing instances of social oppression and environmental instability, for example, in medieval southern India.[4]  Although the binary we have posited is over-simplified, it gives us a handle to grasp how various local hydrosocial processes combine these paradigms in their activities.

A related set of movements challenge modern water constructs that objectify water bodies, e.g., rivers, lakes, oceans, and assumptions about their boundaries and boundedness.  Sometimes associated with ontological arguments about the pervasiveness of water in beings and being, some argue for a philosophy of wetness present in varying amounts in all domains of atmosphere, soils, and life itself.[5]  These ideas resonate with, could engage more with, but attempt to go far beyond, scientific models of the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere Continuum (SPAC).  At a global level, they view the hydrosphere as pervading all other spheres.  Locally and regionally, they argue for ways of living-with-water or living-in-water that go beyond current progressive proposals of “making room for the river”, “sponge city,” and “nature-based solutions.”  In a related vein, several lines of feminist research have offered arguments about relationships between water and the feminine, in addition to contributing critiques of oppression and domination through water. [6]

The authors in this volume are principally experts in the study of Asian societies and waters—particularly ‘Monsoon Asia’, but while their empirical work is centered on East, SE and South Asia, they reference a global context and we believe that their findings will be relevant to understanding histories and contemporary society ‘in the hydrosphere’ in many other parts of the world.   They disclose how the hydrosphere is a key agent in the construction of political and economic power, uneven global relations, social structures and even intimate relationships.


[1] Donald Worster,  Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books; 1985. P.22

[2] Jamie Linton, “Modern water and its discontents: a history of hydrosocial renewal” WIREs Water 2014, 1:111–120. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1009

[3] Jeremy J Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of HumanityNew York: NYU Press; 2017.

[4] David Mosse, The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.

[5] Steinberg, P., & Peters, K. (2015). “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: Giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33(2), 247–264.   Dilip da Cunha  The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture) Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press; 2018

[6] Jessica Bardsley, “Fluid Histories: Luce Irigaray, Michel Serres and the Ages of Water” philoSophia 2018, 8.2

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  • Asian/Pacific Studies Institute
  • Global Asia Initiative