Water over the dam: A qualitative social scientist looks at how biologists, ecologists and engineers negotiate the past, present and future of the St. Lawrence River

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Robert Bogdan


Social scientist, Biologists, Ecologists, Engineers, St. Lawrence River

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


This dissertation presents the results of research into the activities of the Environment Technical Work Group (ETWG) of the International Lake Ontario--St. Lawrence River Study, a five-year, $20 million initiative of the U.S. and Canadian governments (through the Canada-U.S. International Joint Commission) to review and revise the regulation of the weekly outflow of water from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Power Dam near Massena, NY. Several different engineering, ecological and biological perspectives expressed in the ETWG are analyzed through the words and actions of the participants. The structure of the process is built around a "shared vision model"--a decision support tool based on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Principles and Guidelines that locks in the meaning of key concepts such as "interest," "water level control," "planning," "environment" and others. Engineering paradigms embedded in the shared vision model constrain the ability of the ecologists to fully articulate their own perspectives within the context of the regulation review. The decision support tool also presupposes a market model of governance in which government agencies optimize the satisfaction of competing interests. An alternative model is suggested by which agencies accept responsibility for environmental protection and sustainable management of water resources. The ETWG activities are analyzed using a symbolic interactionist approach to qualitative research focusing on the way participants communicate and negotiate meaning through their various interactions. An analysis of the construction of meaning within the work group and its implications for water management is presented and related to other attempts throughout the world to include ecological considerations in decision-making processes typically dominated by economic and engineering paradigms.


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