Moral economies for water: A framework for analyzing norms of justice, economic behavior, and social enforcement in the contexts of water inequality

Melissa Beresford, Amber Wutich, Dustin Garrick, Georgina Drew

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Over the past two decades, scholars have invoked E. P. Thompson's and James Scott's concept of a “moral economy” to explain how people mobilize notions of justice to make claims to water. We draw together 20 years of literature to assess the state-of-the-art present in research on moral economies for water. We trace the historical foundations of the moral economies concept and its relevance to water; define the three basic components of a moral economy for water—(1) shared understandings of justice, (2) normative economic practices, (3) social pressure mechanisms—and provide examples of how they manifest globally. We then discuss how moral economies for water can cycle through four basic states—balanced struggle, intensified reaction, mass revolt, and collapse and dissolution—at different scales. We also explore the implications of the moral economies framework for key areas of current research on water: water sharing, water commons, water markets, and biocultural outcomes, and discuss the ways in which the moral economies framework dovetails with recent advances in water research, especially the economics of water and development. We argue that the moral economies framework is a powerful explanatory tool for understanding the relationships between ideas of water justice, economic behaviors, and mechanisms of social enforcement that complements other methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives. We envision moral economies for water as a field that can facilitate a range of norm-based analyses of economic behavior and water justice, including across scales—from local to global—and in broad, integrative, multiscalar, and cross-disciplinary ways. This article is categorized under: Human Water > Water Governance Human Water > Value of Water Human Water > Rights to Water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1627
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2023


  • reciprocity
  • social movements
  • subsistence
  • survival
  • water insecurity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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