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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Veronica Strang's Public Lecture

Date: 19 November 2009

Time: 7.00pm

Venue: St John's College

Title: Water, Culture and Power: anthropological perspectives from 'down under'

This lecture explores the meanings encoded in water, and the ways in which it represents wealth, agency and power. It considers how broad cross-cultural themes of meaning relating to water are shaped in diverse cultural contexts. Drawing on ethnographic research in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, it invites the audience to embark on an imaginative journey to some key water places: an ancient well; a Renaissance spring; an outback lagoon; and a colonial park fountain. In exploring these, it looks at the material culture relating to water, and the ideas and values that it communicates. It observes that decorative water features are an especially rich source of symbolic imagery, illustrating key relationships between water, culture and power.

Anthropological research elucidates different cultural perspectives on water, and the ways in which these are expressed in political and institutional arrangements, social and religious activities, and economic practices. People's particular beliefs, knowledges and values are powerful undercurrents in increasing conflicts over the ownership and control of water resources. The insights provided by ethnographic research in this area therefore have both theoretical and practical utility, making a theoretical contribution to debates about human-environmental relationships, and informing analyses of water issues. A fuller understanding of the social aspects of human-environmental relationships, and the ways in which different cultural and sub-cultural groups engage with water, has considerable potential to assist water managers and policy makers in their efforts to resolve conflicts over resources and encourage more sustainable forms of water use.