Program in Agrarian Studies

Undergraduate Seminar

“Rivers: Nature and Politics”

Political Science 420; Anthropology 406a
(fall term 2012)

  1. Instructor
  2. Meetings
  3. Description
  4. Expectations
  5. Readings & Assignments
  6. Syllabus


James C. Scott, Political Science and Anthropology


The course meets from 3:30 pm to 5:20 pm Wednesday afternoons.


Rivers, on a long view, are living things. They are born; they die; they are occasionally maimed or even murdered; they move both gradually and violently, they teem (usually) with life. Historically, they, along with seacoasts, were the main arteries of commerce, of social connection, of cultural influence.

Control over navigable waterways has been a source of political power. When states endeavor to engineer, retrofit, and manage rivers to their advantage — to stimulate commerce, to irrigate agricultural land, to drain swampy land, to generate electricity — the complexities and flux of rivers frequently frustrates these efforts. Thus, the dilemma of the political control of the natural world is our ultimate quarry.

The course begins with some exemplary studies of rivers that are historically apposite. Later, in a research paper, students will examine closely a particular river in relation to the theme of the seminar. Students are expected to acquire a basic understanding of the geo-morphology, demography, hydrology, and social and commercial history of the river their river.


The course will be demanding of attention and thought.

Vigorous participation in discussion is required of all. Students will be responsible for helping to organize discussion with classmates. Each week students must be prepared, if called upon, to make a 10-15 minute analysis, critique, appreciation of the readings assigned. The goal is not to sow terror but to improve skills at oral presentation and argument.

Readings & Assignments

There is a huge literature on rivers, wetlands, water control, environmental politics, dams, and the science, sociology, and struggle swirling around them. By the second week, a number of possible avenues for further research will be suggested. (An expanded list of relevant books is appended to the syllabus.)

Many of the books assigned can also be purchased through abebooks.com, which is a network of bookstores, often for less than the postage. The books are available for purchase at the Yale Book Store and many are available as an electronic resource through the library


The syllabus for the fall 2012 course gives a detailed description of the seminar and its weekly schedule. The expanded list of relevant books supplements the syllabus.