The hydrologic cycle and the hydrosocial cycle

8 mai 2014


Jamie Linton, Professor, Queens University, Canada and University Paris-Ouest, France

This presentation considers how different ways of understanding the relation between water and human society have been reflected in different concepts of the circulation of water from the 1930s to the present in English-language hydrological and geographical literature. In 1931, the modern concept of the hydrologic cycle was introduced as a framework for the hydrological sciences in the United States by the American hydrologist Robert E. Horton. Originally conceived as representing a purely "natural" (i.e. non-social) process, the hydrologic cycle quickly spread in scientific, administrative and popular discourse. Scientific and cultural developments in the post-war years – especially the growing concerns for the human impact on the natural environment – gave rise to new ways of conceptualizing and representing the hydrologic cycle, so as to accommodate and reflect anthropogenic influences on the quality and flow of water in the hydrosphere.

While integrating water and society, these concepts and representations reflected a rigid distinction and separation between nature and society, characteristic of modernity. As this distinction has weakened in more recent years, new concepts and representations of the hydro-social dynamic have appeared that reflect new ways of understanding this relationship. The presentation concludes with a discussion of the “hydrosocial cycle”, a concept that has been developed by the author and other critical geographers as a way of representing and analyzing the political and social dimensions of water.


  • Linton, J. (2008). "Is the Hydrologic Cycle Sustainable? A historical-geographical critique of a modern concept." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98(3): 630-649.
  • Linton, J. (2010). What is Water ? The History of a Modern Abstraction. Vancouver, British Columbia, UBC Press.
  • Linton, J. (2014). "Modern Water and its Discontents." WIREs Water 1: 111-120.
  • Linton, J. and J. Budds (in press). "The hydrosocial cycle: Defining and mobilizing a relational-dialectical approach to water." Geoforum.
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