Irrigated landscapes, produced scarcity, and adaptive social institutions in Rajasthan, India

Trevor Birkenholtz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article employs an actor-network (ANT) and materialist approach to examine the changing relations among nature, society, and technology in dynamic groundwater-irrigated landscapes. Drawing on a case study from Rajasthan, India, it merges these frameworks to advance our understanding of the role that tubewell irrigation technologies play, through their associations with other objects, in altering existing social power relationships, environmental practices, and socioecologies, paying attention to the directedness of these relationships. This article demonstrates, first, that tubewell adoption is made possible through the creation of tubewell partnerships, a new social institution. Second, although tubewell adoption initially enhances production, significant groundwater withdrawal negatively alters groundwater and soil chemistry. This undermines farmers' abilities to grow high-yielding seed varieties, prompting a return to traditional crops, and exacerbates existing social inequalities both within and between partnerships. Third, irrigation practices and daily production activities follow from the demands and constraints of the tubewell, enabling and constraining human and nonhuman action. The adoption of the technology, therefore, sets in motion a recursive process of technological adaptation, social institution formation, and ecological change. Although this is presently leading to socioecological differentiation, the results suggest that these social institutions formed around the tubewell are very durable. The conclusion offers suggestions for encouraging them toward more equitable outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)118-137
Number of pages20
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Agrarian technology
  • India
  • Nonhuman agency
  • Scarcity
  • Social institution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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