Empowering Infrastructures: water, steel and stone
Anthropology and related disciplines have usefully theorised the social life of things, what (and how) things mean; and the agentive effects of material objects and processes. Water infrastructure brings together some very ‘powerful’ materials: water, steel and stone which, through their particular properties, co-construct the relationships we have with them. They generate polarities of meaning: fluidity and fixity; elusiveness and certainty; openness and resistance. Water expresses all of these in different contexts. To some extent steel and concrete, at various stages in their construction and use, also undergo morphological and behavioural changes, but in their final form they provide a material counterpoint to water’s ultimate fluidity. This paper aims to provide some insights into the ‘power of materials’.
Water infrastructure is also – famously – empowering to human groups. Since Wittfogel’s influential work in the 1950s there has been a general understanding that the control of water is intimately linked to political and social power. In a contemporary era, attention has turned not only to how water infrastructures promote particular human interests, sometimes at the expense of others, but also to thinking about how they often override the interests of non-human species and ecosystems.
Analysing the design and development of water infrastructure allows us to consider cultural and scientific understandings of the agentive properties and behaviours of materials; societal desires to engineer the environment; and the social, political and human-environmental relationships (and power relations) that are manifested in the process.