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Making sense of a river in a world of flows

Author: Prof Jonathan Rigg

One of the challenges of social science research in a world of flows is that nothing stays still, in the place it is ‘meant’ to be. Theoretical framings, conceptual categories, research methodologies, and administrative units are often inadequate to the task at hand. This is all too clear when it comes to thinking about, and researching, a river like the Mekong.

The Mekong at Bueng Kan in Thailand

Often the first task of a social scientist is to determine ‘who?’ Who are the subjects of our research? Next, and linked to this, ‘where?’ So: where do we draw the line that delimits our subjects and then permits us to decide the object of our research?

Making sense of a research ‘site’

In the TECSEA project we are interested in delineating and interpreting the ways in which water and river management impacts river people’s lives and livelihoods, and what this means for environmental governance. Increasingly, however, many effects are off-stage, in other spaces and places that on the face of it have little to do with the river. But when we follow people through networks of kinship and track remittances and labour from river to city, for instance, it becomes evident that urban work may ripple back to the river, both as cause and effect. Water ‘grabbing’ may displace people whose livelihoods were once rive-based, forcing them to make a living elsewhere. If we are interested in justice, then we should pay attention not only to who is there, at the riverside so to speak, but also those who are no longer there. As to effect, demand for power in distant places creates a logic driving hydropower projects. Spatial justice and injustice traverse boundaries.

This, then, raises questions of ‘what?’. What are our units of analysis?

The basic, elemental social unit for much social science research is the household. The household, classically, is defined on the propinquity of its members: their co-residence in a place, reflected in survey protocols as those who ‘eat from one cooking pot’ or who ‘live under one roof’. But, what if they don’t? Is a young mother displaced from a riverside settlement because dam construction means that it is not possible to stay, who leaves her child behind to be raised by her parents, visits ‘home’ only periodically, but regularly remits income sufficient to reproduce the family, not a member of that household? Or, do we accept that the notion of the household we have inherited is not fit for purpose and that we need to devise a unit that captures the multi-sited nature of contemporary living?

Surveying ‘the’ household

Administrative units may also not capture the nature of change and its spatial and sectoral signatures. Just as co-residential notions of the household can lead us to overlook the ways in which the household is changing, so too with the village. The village is not a world unto itself, but we are often encouraged, even obliged, due to structures of administration and data collection, to take the village as our entry point. Hence, the scores of village studies undertaken across the region which tacitly assume, first, that the village has explanatory traction and, second, that this village is somehow representative of a larger reality. What if on both these counts the evidence points in another direction?

The legibility agenda: mapping the administrative village

Boundary-making: a Mekong riverside settlement

The challenges connected with how we define the household and the village raises the connected question of ‘how?’ How do we go about, methodologically, recording and measuring these matters? If there is much about the household that can only be gleaned by thinking out of the household box, and much about the village that only makes sense when we stop thinking in terms of the village as settlement, what methodologies are suited to capturing such matters? One common approach is to adopt a multi-sited methodology that reflects the increasingly multi-sited mode of living across Southeast Asia. This is demanding in terms of time. It also requires a qualitative, interpretative and exploratory approach, rather than one that is closed and predictive.

In an interview we held at the start of the project, a hydropower manager said to us: ‘Hydropower is simple. It is just concrete and the laws of physics.’ He then added: ‘It is everything around hydropower which is complicated’. By ‘complicated’ we sensed that he meant ‘difficult’ or ‘contentious’.

So too with the social science of water and rivers. We know what interests us: rivers and their transboundary environmental governance. But we also sense that the approaches, categories and tools that we have to hand do not always capture what is going on and offer only a partial insight into the processes that interest us.

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