Understanding the Role of Water in History and Development


Former 2008/2009 Social Sciences - Law


On the conceptual and theoretical level the project aims at addressing the fact that the water factor has been absent both from most modern theories of development and from dominant historical explanations in general, although all societies have a hydraulic dimension. As all societies at all times and in all places have been forced to relate to water in one way or another, water is compared to other elements in nature a truly universal resource, at the same time as it has a unique physical character; it is always changing, varying over time from place to place and at each individual locality. This project will both reflect and discuss how this embodiment of the universal and the particular in a unique way makes freshwater availability and human control of it an important empirical aspect of all types of development processes, which again creates opportunities for conceptual and theoretical innovations of relevance to social science in general. Its theoretical ambitions reflect that there is an extensive literature on the relationship between nature on one hand and culture and society on the other hand, but few works on the more specific but at the same time universal relationship between water and culture or water and society. As this project aims at helping to grasp the particular role of water in society, a practical deconstruction of the notion of “nature” is required, because more precise notions of how nature and its different elements become manifest in societies, might be helpful in constructing more useful theories of nature/society relationships and also in explaining why some societies develop differently from other societies. Empirically the project will concentrate on freshwater (the physical character of rivers, rainfall patters and climate) as a factor in explaining how the initial phases of the industrial revolution developed (1750s-1780s), helped by the particular waterscape of Northwest Europe and the Severn/Mersey basins of England as compared to the water landscape of other relevant countries. The project will also analyse how this social process fundamentally affected the water landscape and how the cultural and conceptual construction of the water landscape was changed, or to phrase it differently; it will reconstruct changes in the relationship between mindscape and waterscape.


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