My project focuses on water and sanitation through the technologies that provide them, as a highly specific material index for abstract sensibilities about what constitutes a “proper” and dignified human life. Although my analytic frame is comparative across place and time, the technical and ecological politics of water and sanitation in contemporary South Africa play a central role in articulating concerns of the present, particularly tensions between egalitarian desires to distribute services equally and growing awareness of environmental limits within changing climate conditions. The core research derives from an ongoing ethnographic collaboration with Professor Steven Robins at the University of Stellenbosch, examining how South African citizens claim a constitutional promise to formal equality, while experiencing widely unequal degrees of material services from state and municipal authorities. At the same time key urban sites in the country, especially Durban, serve as a laboratory of sorts for efforts to redesign sanitation systems led by the Gates Foundation and other international donors, along with a global array of designers and researchers. By tracking this evolving interplay, our larger goal is to outline articulations of human value as they defined and contested in practice.
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