Social memory and infrastructure governance: a century in the life of a rural drinking water system

Julia H. Haggerty, Jennifer Dunn, Grete Gansauer, Stephanie Ewing, Elizabeth Metcalf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Even in advanced economies, underperforming infrastructure is a persistent rural development challenge, with the case of non-compliant small drinking water systems (SDWSs) especially concerning because of the importance of safe drinking water to human health. While technical and financial deficits are known contributors to SDWS underperformance in rural settings, the role of local cultural and social context in water governance are less clear. The need for interoperable concepts that help explain how local contextual factors influence rural water governance and operation motivates this study. Drawing on insights from community resilience and critical infrastructure scholarship, this study draws attention to a previously overlooked dimension of local infrastructure governance: social memory. Archival research and 25 semi-structured interviews with experts and local stakeholders inform the paper’s reconstruction of the 100 years history of an SDWS in rural Montana, USA and analysis of the contemporary social memory it has generated. The study finds that social memory acts as a medium through which the lived experience of infrastructure influences priorities and values about its governance, especially in the context of small towns. Three major themes in the dynamics of social memory of infrastructure are described, including longevity, aesthetic and material qualities, and articulation with economic trajectories. In addition to establishing social memory as an effective conceptualization of the generative influence of infrastructure in water governance at the local scale, the paper has implications for policy; specifically, the observation that in addition to financial and technical capacity, historical experience is a powerful driver of infrastructure governance and outcomes such as underperformance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number035004
JournalEnvironmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


  • Montana
  • SDWS
  • community resilience
  • nitrates
  • rural
  • social memory
  • water governance


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