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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

IAS Staff

Publication details for Professor Veronica Strang

Strang, V. (2005). Common Senses Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning. Journal of Material Culture 10(1): 92-120.

Author(s) from Durham


This article is concerned with the relationship between sensory experience, material realities and the creation of cross-cultural meanings. Focused on water, it offers a comparison of two, highly diverse, ethnographic examples: one an Aboriginal community living alongside the Mitchell River in Far North Queensland, and the other describing the groups inhabiting a river valley in the south of England. It considers how engagements with water are experienced and interpreted within these specific cultural contexts. Drawing on theoretical developments from studies of art and material culture, analyses of cross-cultural aesthetics, and accounts of how meanings are encoded in natural objects, it describes the formal qualities of water and human interactions with these. It suggests that two important ‘ universalities’– the particular qualities of water, and the physiological and cognitive processes that are common to all human beings – generate cross-cultural themes of meaning that persist over time and space. Thus the ethnographic analysis provides the basis for a discussion about the relationship between universal and cultural experiences, contributing to the critique of cultural relativism and suggesting a need for anthropological theory to recall its comparative foundations.

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