Environmental History

Environmental History deals with the historicity of human-environment relations. It focuses on the historical constitution of environmental thought, traces the relationship between environmental changes and political constellations over time, analyses how archival and memory practices shape how humans engage with the environment, and explores how the historical contingency of human-environment relations offer entry points for critique and societal change.


Deconstructing steppe imaginaries in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature from 1890 to 1960

The research project aims to deconstruct the notion of “steppe” in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature (1890-1960). It starts from the assumption that “steppe” is not solely a term describing a particular environment, but rather a pivotal idea which has shaped and shapes identities, cultural assumptions, political reasoning and even geopolitical thought.

Existing research demonstrates the centrality of the steppe as a key symbolic figure for Russian history until the 19th century. So far, scholars have neglected to examine the importance of the steppe for the 20th century. Yet, it was during this period that the steppe environments underwent large-scale transformations through processes of land reclamation, irrigation development and industrial agriculture.

We address this gap in research and examine how steppe imaginaries have accompanied these large-scale environmental transformations in relation to state-building and national identity.

This research is carried out by Ekaterina Filep.

Contact:  christine.bichsel(at)unifr.ch

Funding: SNF project 10001A_162393 (2016-2019)


Memory in the everyday: practices of remembering and collective farming in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

This research examines the constitution of memory and its influence on contemporary everyday practices of collective farming in Kyrgyzstan, one of the five nation-states of post-Soviet Central Asia. The aim is to explore the role of memory in shaping human-environment relations. While existing research on memory in Central Asia offers a historical account of these relations, scholars have so far neglected to inquire the importance of memory for present-day practices. The present study addresses this gap in research based on an empirical case study of collective farming in a rural area of Kyrgyzstan.

This case study is well placed to generate insights on memory practices, as the trajectory of collective farming in Kyrgyzstan spans from the Soviet to the post-Soviet era. At the same time, memory is an often foregrounded, but also highly contested theme in post-Soviet societies. In the context of the post-Soviet nation-states, nation building processes mostly make recourse to historical narratives and include the reinvention of past traditions to specific political purposes.

Yet, other forces are also at play, such as the adoption of new forms of Islamic practices and narratives of improvement propagated by mainly European and US American aid agencies. The study seeks to examine resulting memory practices by innovatively combining two methodologies in social sciences; i.e. ethnography and oral history.

Contact:  ottavia.cima(at)unifr.ch

Funding: Fond de Centenaire de l’Université de Fribourg



Water, infrastructure and political rule

This research explores recent developments in research on water, infrastructure and political rule. The relationship between modes of water governance and forms of political rule is a long-standing debate in the social sciences. Wittfogel’s (1957) postulated relationship between large-scale irrigation systems and the emergence of centralised bureaucracies, and possibly authoritarian rule, provided a critical impetus to this debate. While Wittfogel’s hypothesis of such a “hydraulic society” was met with much critique, his observation of a possible relationship between political organisation and water management has informed and is still informing much research in the field of water.

At the same time, new concepts which do not draw on Wittfogel’s work to explain this relationship have emerged and shape research on water. This research takes stock, but also compares and contrasts recent approaches including Political Economy, Political Ecology, Actor-Network Theory, Social Construction of Technology, Large Technical Systems and Anthropology of Infrastructure which address the nexus of water, infrastructure and political rule.

Contact: christine.bichsel(at)unifr.ch


  • Bichsel, C., Mollinga, P., Moss, T. and J. Obertreis (guest editors). 2016. Special issue: Water, infrastructure and political rule. Water Alternatives 9(2).
  • Bichsel C. 2016. Water and the (infra-)structure of political rule: A synthesis. Water Alternatives 9(2): 356-372. Link : http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol9/v9issue2/320-a9-2-10/file.

Irrigation development on the Hungry Steppe (1950-1980)

This research centers on irrigation development on the Hungry Steppe. The designation “Hungry Steppe”, translated from Golodnaya step’ in Russian, refers to an area today shared by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The vast rolling plain of about 1 million hectares has been subject to large-scale land reclamation and irrigation development during the 20th century. For many centuries, prior to these changes induced during the Soviet period, the grasslands and shrubs of the steppe were used by nomadic pastoralists. The advent of irrigated agriculture profoundly transformed the steppe environment into large-scale plantations, with cotton being the predominant crop.

Moreover, resettlement of populations to the steppe, the industrial agriculture in the context of state and collective farms, the construction of new towns and villages, and the building of new transportation and communication facilities fundamentally altered human-environment relationships in this area. While significantly expanding the cultivated area, the campaign’s ambitious targets were never met though. Moreover, it led to great human suffering through forced resettlement as well as to adverse environmental consequences such as soil salinization and pollution, and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Contact: christine.bichsel(at)unifr.ch


  • Bichsel, C. 2012. ”The drought does not cause fear”. Irrigation history in Central Asia through James C. Scott's lenses.” Revue d'études comparatives Est-Ouest (RECEO), 44(1-2), pp.73-108.
  • Bichsel, C. From dry hell to blossoming garden. Metaphors and poetry in Soviet irrigation literature on the Hungry Steppe, 1950-1980. Water History (under review).

Unit of Geography - Chemin du Musée 4 - 1700 Fribourg - Tel +41 26 / 300 90 10 - Fax +41 26 / 300 9746
nicole.equey [at] unifr.ch - Swiss University