Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Legitimatizing the right to water in Michigan’s post-industrial cities

Legitimatizing the right to water in Michigan’s post-industrial cities

Colleen Linn

Water as a human right is concept recognized by the United Nations, but infrequently ratified by U.S. national or state governments. In Michigan, two recent controversies over water, the Flint Water Crisis and the Detroit Water Shutoffs, have demonstrated how lawmakers’ decisions concerning access have left socially marginalized groups further disadvantaged by lack of access to clean, affordable water. In keeping with Sally Engle Merry’s suggestion to understand the “vernacularization” of human rights from global to local contexts, and Orlove and Caton’s suggestion to study water as a total social fact, this paper employs a critical discourse analysis of policy efforts put forth by both local activist groups and state lawmakers on how to remediate the ramifications of water insecurity experienced by two post-industrial cities in Michigan. Although human rights are a product of Western culture, how they are interpreted and employed domestically has been minimally researched. This paper seeks to understand how this concept is understood and used as a linguistic tool by non-profit groups engaged with the crises, as well as how lawmakers at the forefront of decision making respond to the claims. The critical discourse analysis focuses on texts put forth by a spectrum of actors, including local and national policy initiatives, briefings, as well as non-profit research and blog posts, in order to further assess how blame and agency are constructed by actors intent on changing the way their communities access water. Findings suggest that while government is understood as responsible for providing equitable water service, the ratification of water as a human right is impeded by the need for infrastructural upgrades and consequently political will to alter policy.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. While you have plenty on your plate already, you might consider scoping your discussion so as to include the issues raised by the superannuated oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac– our own version of Standing Rock 50+ years on– an “infrastructural upgrade” in dire need. In the open waters of the Great Lakes, these policy (in)decisions have international ramifications.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2017 | Reply

  2. This is such an important topic for discussion, and there’s a million different ways that one could go about examining this issue, because in effect, this involves everyone on the planet. But I believe that the best way to answer many of these impending environmental disasters and issues must be solved at the local level first if we are ever to solve the problem. As you point out in your abstract this is a multifaceted issue that has no simple answer to, and unreality it is rooted in economic and political bureaucracy. Water as a human right, in this time, is perhaps the most important issue we face as a species today, as we have corporations such as Nestle, who strive to commoditize clean water while other areas of industry and commerce contaminate our other sources of water at an obscene scale.
    How do these infrastructure issues play into the ideas of rights to water when it comes to not only the water pipelines in many of Michigan’s cities, but also the contamination or potential for contamination in regards to oil pipelines and other industrial sources of pollution. I live near what is referred to as “chemical valley” in Sarnia, Ontario where their cancer rates are off the charts and has subsequently led to the EPA seeing the St. Clair River being an area of concern due to the contamination potential by the petrochemical refineries of Sarnia.
    I think a nice addition to your research could be the analysis of people from varying cultural backgrounds to see how they define water’s usefulness and rights to clean water access such as the difference between indigenous Americans versus the capitalist approach. Although that suggestion could be an entire paper in itself.
    Sounds like a great paper, would love to read it.

    Comment by Josh Wolford | April 17, 2017 | Reply

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