Book Review: City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements by Sophie Watson

Review by Lorna Flutter and Kate Moles

Sophie Watson is Professor of Sociology at The Open University. She is the author of City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and co-editor of the New Blackwell Companion to the City. She is currently involved in a European research project on Moving Market Places which looks at the everyday practices of market traders.

City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements by Sophie Watson draws our sociological gaze toward social lives that are made, unmade and remade by water. The sociological object of interest is urban waters, and throughout this detailed and eclectic book, Watson explores the ways water shapes human relationships with city space, interactions within it and the fluid practices that run through our social worlds. The book combines academic insight and political activism in the skilful crafting of a series of stories about water that bring together historical knowledge, cultural specificity and social lives. As Watson takes us around the world of urban waters, we are introduced to different sides, framings and issues important to sociological inquiry as a whole.

Watson has not attempt to compartmentalise or define the role of water in cities, but rather, considers it as a cultural object that takes on a myriad of complex meanings in social, political and cultural urban contexts. This sets Watson’s enquiry away from previous academic attention to water, which has been dominated by geographers ontological reimagining of ocean spaces and variant forms of interaction with them. In contrast, City Water Matters repositions our attention onto the social, cultural and political entanglements between water, people and place, and in doing so, the book does not attempt to separate city water from its terrestrial surroundings.

‘Water is a substance that has a unique power to evoke passions, attachments and a sense of connection and belonging which enrols bodies in new socialities, alliances and politics in unpredictable ways’

(Watson 2019: 135)

This continues Watson’s academic interest in urban life, mundane practices and the (dis)enchantment of city publics. Similar themes run through her previous publications, and we can pick up ideas and theoretical approaches that are reconnected with and developed through the focus on water. This engaging and instructive book on how to write and present compelling sociologically informed narratives will be a useful resource for any student of sociology and for anyone interested in practices of social life. While the book is firmly anchored in London and the Thames, it offers international examples that provide focused insights into other places and spaces. The book is fluid in structure, and meant to be read as such: Watson advises not to read the chapters as a linear set of connections but as a flowing and overlapping conceptual map.

Each chapter positions contemporary social and cultural practices in an unfolding historical narrative with an attention to detail that reveals layers of meanings and meaning making. Photographs, narratives and facts are interwoven to demonstrate the entanglements of social life and water. This encourages the reader to reconsider social lives and cultural practices, and how they have changed and remained the same over time. For example, the practice of mudlarking on the River Thames is woven through both Chapter Four and Seven in very differing time frames and contexts; developing our understandings of it as job for the most deprived, to it as a leisure activity undertaken by Londoners looking for remnants of times gone by.

Whilst Watson keenly illustrates entanglements and fluidities water affords to the city, she also draws our attention to the territories, borders and controls that are reflected onto wet spaces. Through examples such as banning people from playing in public water fountains detailed in Chapter Two and the discriminatory exclusion of particular bodies from gendered swimming spaces found in Chapter Six, we are invited to see city water as ‘deeply political, implicated in relations of power and constitutive of social, cultural and spatial differences’ (Watson 2019: 3).

Chapter Five illustrates the connectivities between water and our occupation of both public and private social space. The transition of laundry washing practices and facilities back and forth between the two spheres shows the way the social lives of women have been bound within the socio-technical relations and the gendering of domestic activity. The connection of water-based practices to the occupation of public and private space is also echoed within Chapter Three. Here, Watson provides a detailed description of the religious purification (washing) rituals that are undertaken in public bathrooms when facilities are not provided for by employers. The transferal of these practices from private to public space reveals the diversity of the city and the role water plays in defining the differences between everyday lives.

‘engagement of bodies with water represents a key site of everyday material politics, which is constituted through material artefacts and technologies, urban regimes of government, the availability of water and institutional networks’

(Watson 2019: 105)

Watson explores everyday practices such as religious rituals, washing laundry and bodily sanitation practices within their local and situated context, whilst drawing on the broader patterns of water consumption within cultural, social and spatial groups. Chapter Three details that while the flat rate water charges have positioned water as a ‘boundless source’ in the UK, black markets for often dangerously unclean water thrive in poorer and dryer nations. Here, we are reminded of the global implications of water usage and the political implications of our already changing relationship with water in the future.

Watson leaves us to consider the often ‘forgotten’ and ‘invisible’ nature of city water and its infrastructures. Chapter Eight provides a variety of photographed ‘traces’ from where water once occupied space and performed specific roles. In drawing on the gradual redundancy and dilapidation of these historical ‘water features’, Watson mirrors Gandy’s (2004) take on the invisibility of, and detachment from, the technological water systems of today’s Western cities. Thus, suggesting that as water systems modernise and our old connections to water fall into memory sociologists must remain attentive to the way water shapes city life.

This book invites us to read the city through its waters, tracing and reconsidering its role within the social, cultural and political ordering and experience of urban lives. Watson promotes a research agenda that foregrounds water as a sociological object of interest and advocates for a particular kind of sociology that gives room for narratives to be weaved together to form a vibrant and informative illustration of the city.

Lorna Flutter is a PhD student at Cardiff University looking at boat dwelling, mobility and the city. She tweets @FlutterLorna

Kate Moles is a Sociologist and Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. Her research and writing explores the relationships between everyday practices of memory, mobility and place, which she has engaged with through ethnographic, multimodal methods. She is also a swimmer, and is currently working on an ethnography of outdoor swimming in the UK. She tweets @molesK

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