Lonely Drinking Fountains and Comforting Coolers: Paradoxes of Water Value and Ironies of Water Use

Peer Reviewed

"Drinking fountain." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.


This paper focuses ethnographically on Americans and technologies of drinking water, as tokens of and vehicles for health, agency, and surprising kinds of community. Journalists and water scholars have argued that bottled water is a material concomitant of privatization and alienation in American society. But engaging Latour this paper shows that water technologies and the groups they assemble, are plural. Attention to everyday entwining of workplace lives with drinking fountains, single serve bottles, and spring water coolers shows us several different quests, some individualized, some alienated, but some seeking health via public, collective care, acknowledgment of stakeholding, and community organizing. Focused on water practices on a college campus, in the roaring 1990s and increasingly sober 2000s in the context of earlier US water histories of inclusion and exclusion, this paper draws on ethnographic research from the two years that led up to the recession and the presidential election of 2008. It argues for understanding of water value through attention to water use, focusing both on the social construction of water and the use of water for social construction.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published other articles on the concept of community, such as Brian Keith Axel’s “The Context of Diaspora” (2004), René T. A. Lysloff’s “Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography” (2003), and Mei Zhan’s “Does It Take a Miracle? Negotiating Knowledges, Identities, and Communities of Traditional Chinese Medicine” (2001).

Cultural Anthropology has also published numerous articles about the United States, including Jessica R. Cattelino’s “The Double Bind Of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty” (2010), Jake Kosek’s “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee” (2010), Joseph Masco’s “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008), and Daniel Rosenblatt’s “The Antisocial Skin: Structure, Resistance, and “Modern Primitive” Adornment in the United States” (2008).

About the Author

Martha Kaplan is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program in Asian Studies at Vassar College.   She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her PhD from the University of Chicago.  As an anthropologist of colonial and postcolonial societies her doctoral research focused on anticolonial political religious movements in Fiji (Kaplan 1995) with ensuing work on decolonization and the nation state (see Kelly and Kaplan 2001 for a critique of Anderson’s imagined communities). Her work on production and distribution of “Fiji Water” (bottled on the ancient lands of inheritors of a famous Fijian political religious movement) engaged this global commodity in the context of Fiji’s postcolonial politics. Her research on water value in the US which began with study of the extraordinary US reception of Fiji Water, now examines environmental ideologies, workplace communities, and local and national politics of US drinking water technologies (including this study of maniacal bottles, lonely drinking fountains and comforting, cared-for coolers). Current research in Singapore focuses on highly directive state water management, deployment of technology, water scarcity solutions and (via the playful mascot figure “Water Wally”) the possibilities in water fetishism.

Martha Kaplan's Vassar College faculty profile

"Martha Kaplan." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.

About the Photographer and Research Assistant

Photographs in the article were taken by anthropology major Natalia Luna (Vassar College 2008). Her participation in the research was made possible by a grant from the Ford Scholars Program at Vassar College which fosters student and faculty collaboration on research projects in the humanities and social sciences.  She is currently pursuing a Johns Hopkins University MA in Museum Studies.

Select Additional Works by the Author

Local Politics and a Global Commodity:  Fijian Water in Fiji and New YorkCultural Anthropology 22.4(2007): 685-706. *Reissued 2010 in a Cultural Alnthropology virtual issue on Water*

"The Hau of Other Peoples' Gifts"  Ethnohistory 52.1(2005): 29-46.

Represented Communities: Fiji and World Decolonization. Co-authored with John D Kelly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

"Nation and Decolonization: Towards a New Anthropology of Nationalism." Co-authored with John D. Kelly. Anthropological Theory 1.4(2001): 419-437.

Neither Cargo nor Cult: Ritual Politics and the Colonial Imagination in Fiji. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

"Panopticon in Poona:  An essay on Foucault and Colonialism" Cultural Anthropology 10.1(1995): 85-98.

Current Research

“Why ‘Water Wally’? Envisioning the Environmental Good in Singapore”

Mas Shafreen, "Water Wally." November 2011.

Relevant Links

Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

Photos from the Article     

"Drinking fountain." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.

"Vending machine." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.

"Cooler." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.


"A cared-for cooler." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.


"Another cared-for cooler." November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.


"Cooler 'This is me [sic] hat to keep me from turning green. Thanks.'" November 2011 via Martha Kaplan.


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