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Institute of Advanced Study

Water, Culture and Power: Anthropological Perspectives from 'Down Under'


What does water mean? Through time and across cultures, water has been encoded with core themes of meaning, most particularly as the substance of social and spiritual identity, and as a source of health, wealth and agency. These meanings flow into and are shaped by diverse cultural and temporal contexts, finding expression in particular institutional arrangements, social and religious activities, and everyday economic practices. As well as shaping people's interactions with water, these themes of meaning form deep undercurrents in conflicts over the control of water resources.

This essay explores how the meanings of water are materialised in historic and contemporary 'sacred sites.' Drawing on ethnographic research in the UK and New Zealand, it considers an ancient well; a seventeenth-century garden; and a colonial park fountain. Such sites are an especially rich source of symbolic imagery, illustrating a reality that the control of key water places, and of water resources, is central to social, economic and political power. Observing that successive waves of invasion and appropriation have subsumed regimes of control at each site, the essay suggests that an understanding of the relationship between water, culture and power, and the ways in which this relationship is manifested, can be applied more generally, illuminating the tensions that continue to permeate the ownership, use and management of water. It concludes by considering how this approach might be applied, for example, to the diverse cultural and sub-cultural groups in Australia who are engaged in an increasingly intense contest for the control of water.

Insights Paper