Editor's Introduction

By Ashley Carse

We encounter water no matter where we live and work. It trickles across forest floors and consolidates in rivers.  It collects behind dams, runs under cities, and is diverted into irrigation systems.  It is pumped from wells and travels in plastic bottles.  It makes up our bodies and shapes our institutions.  However, a search of the Cultural Anthropology archives reveals that, until recently, anthropologists seem to have largely taken water for granted.  Perhaps its apparent ubiquity and uniformity once made water seem too banal for a field concerned with cultural difference.  But the past 15 years have seen a rising interest in water, both generally and within cultural anthropology.  Water has emerged as a critical matter of concern for – and often point of tension between – policy-makers, corporations, resource managers, and numerous user communities.  At the same time, anthropologists and other social theorists have increasingly deployed “watery metaphors” (flows, fluidity, circulation, etc.) to theorize the era of globalization.  It is this conjuncture and its stakes that this water virtual issue engages.The virtual issue brings together five articles published in Cultural Anthropology between 1999 and 2009.  The articles included were selected because they approach water in diverse and provocative ways and, also, because their authors have conducted water-related research and writing beyond these publications.  In several cases, the articles do not even focus on water, per se.  It flows between foreground and background, sometimes disappearing altogether.  Consequently, the issue highlights original supplemental content designed to bring water to the fore and draw the authors and their work into dialogue.  In new interviews conducted specifically for the virtual issue, I asked the authors to approach the anthropology of water from three angles: fieldwork, theory, and stakes.  They reflect on past research and larger projects, as well as water itself.  Collectively, these articles and interviews provide a window into the varied manner in which cultural anthropologists have engaged water in recent years and suggest exciting future directions.  The issue points to the unique theoretical and empirical contributions that anthropologists might make to the study of water and, in turn, how water as an object of anthropological inquiry might reorient the discipline.  Finally, we are delighted that Stefan Helmreich has agreed to write a commentary responding to the author interviews.  Helmreich gave a plenary lecture at the 2010 Society for Cultural Anthropology Annual Meeting entitled “Nature/Culture/Seawater,” in which he explored changing relationships between cultural anthropology and water.  The plenary lecture and his incisive comments bookend the materials collected here.



Stefan Helmreich

Plenary lecture, Society for Cultural Anthropology Annual Meeting

"Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity"

Martha Kaplan

Kaplan provides a transnational biography of bottled water as commodity, analyzing the meanings it is given as it is extracted and bottled in Fiji and consumed in New York.  She argues that the transactional connections established between sites of production and consumption do not translate to shared meanings or motives.  In the accompanying interview, she discusses how she came to study Fijian water, the benefits and limitations of studying water ethnographically, Fijian cosmology of land and sea, and the diverse communities that come together around drinking fountains, bottles, and coolers

"“Local Theory”: Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place"

Hugh Raffles

Raffles explores the “coming-into-being” of Amazonian landscapes where rivers, land, and social life are inextricable.   He shows how localities are sets of relations, at once mobile and situated.  In the author interview, he discusses how he came to study amphibian landscapes, the language of water, anthropology of the elements, and his favorite water writings and paintings.

"Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond “Nature” and “Culture”"

Stuart McLean

McLean argues that creation is a generative multiplicity that extends beyond the human realm to include the “self-making” of the material universe.  He explores the watery environment of Venice, a city at the unstable boundary of land and sea, to illustrate this point.  In the author interview, he discusses his interest in in-between environments (wetlands, bogs, islands), moving beyond received vocabularies for socio-historical analysis by drawing upon literature and the visual arts, and the role of water in a posthumanist anthropology.

"Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area"

David McDermott Hughes

Hughes examines the construction of nature through conservation policy and practice in Southern Africa.  In contrast to first nature (pristine) and second nature (anthropogenic), he argues, new forms of “third nature” (speculative) make space and time.  Through a case study, he shows how virtual water brings future visions into contemporary struggles.  In the author interview, Hughes illustrates the difficult fieldwork that might elucidate the material role of water in shaping social relationships, explains why he challenges students to think like water molecules, and links his past work on water and present research on petroleum in Trinidad.

"The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India"

Ananthakrishnan Aiyer

Aiyer analyzes conflicts over water in Kerala, India, emphasizing the importance of domestic political-economic realities in shaping these struggles.  He argues that that the struggles over water privatization often overemphasize globalization and transnationalism, a conceptual framing that downplays critical local, regional, and national dynamics.

Commentary on Water Virtual Issue

Stefan Helmreich

Sept. 2010

Image Credit

National Archives at College Park, Record Group 185g, Box 3, Vol. 6.Photo caption: “The Panama Canal.  Test of east Emergency Dam, Miraflores, as a Spillway.  View from east wall looking downstream with second wicket from east side, top row, raised.  Jan. 27, 1932.”