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  • Water and Moral Economy
  • Clay Arnold

The relationship between water and society is as complex an historical, sociological, and regional problem as any that can be imagined.

—David Mosse (2003, 1)

Understanding the community value of water requires a different kind of analysis.

—Helen Ingram and F. Lee Brown (1998, 115)

Water is a relatively recent (circa 2001) addition to the growing field of moral-economic inquiry, a somewhat surprising time frame given the attention scholars paid to water and ancient hydraulic civilizations in the 1950s and 1960s (Steward 1955; Wittfogel 1957). Today scholars increasingly recognize water as a cultural as well as material resource, one that permeates "practically all domains of social life, rural as well as urban" (Orlove and Caton 2010, 403). When applied to communities in arid or semi-arid environments, moral economy is the claim that water embodies a popular moral consensus. A "shared moral universe, a common notion of what is just," as Scott (1976, 167) famously defined it, constitutes the moral economy of water as much as it does the more familiar moral economies of the crowd (Thompson 1971), peasants (Scott 1976; Edelman 2005), laborers (Posusney 1993; Li and Cheng 2013), and food (Bohstedt 1992, 2010; Orlove 1997). However, where traditional conceptions of a moral economy typically feature the moral universe of a pre-market or nonmarket society threatened by fast-developing, modern commercial forces (Arnold 2001), the concept developed below rests instead on an analysis of water's status as a complex social good, especially as found in the work of Helen Ingram and her many collaborators. Numerous agenda-setting contributions define Ingram's nearly 50 years of water-related scholarship, not the least of which is, at least from the perspective of the debate over the idea of a [End Page 60] moral economy, the claim that water is a good deeply embedded in ongoing social relations and often the source for communal notions of legitimacy (Brown and Ingram 1987; Ingram and Brown 1998; Ingram 2006; Feldman and Ingram 2009; Blatter and Ingram 2001; Whiteley, Ingram, and Perry 2008; Wilder and Ingram 2016).

Water is a complex good for it symbolizes "widely varying" cultural as well as material values (Blatter, Ingram, and Levesque 2001, 51).1 Although an undeniably crucial physical resource, especially in arid regions, water is also the "focal point of community and culture building" (Ingram, Feldman, and Whiteley 2008, 277). Politically relevant conceptions of individual and especially collective identity flow from how a given community distributes, uses, and governs water (Brown and Ingram 1987). Community members judge water-related proposals, policies, and practices accordingly. In short, complex social goods constitute their own spheres of justice (Walzer 1983). With respect to water, the relevant moral economy is best viewed as a function of what water means to those who recognize it as a social good.2

The moral economy of water is not uniform. The fundamental normative principles at the center of any given moral economy of water differ in part due to various socioeconomic factors, including the number and kind of uses to which water is put; the type, size, and scale of the water control systems; and whether they are located in developing versus developed countries. Other factors are more theoretical in nature, among them the conceptualization of the kind of good or goods at stake, as well as how closely the moral economy of water is "anchored in the analysis of protest action or the relation to authorities" (Siméant 2015, 169). Given the above, most of the contemporary studies on the moral economy of water reflect what I call an anthropological model of moral economy. Building on Helen Ingram's research on the community and equity values in water, I describe a distinctly political version of the moral economy of water, especially as it is found in the arid American West.

An Anthropological Model of the Moral Economy of Water

A focus on small-scale, largely subsistence irrigation systems defines the anthropological model, especially as found in the work of its leading representative, Paul Trawick (Trawick 2001a, b, 2002, 2010; Trawick, Reig, and Salvador 2014). Although present in a number...


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