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date: 07 July 2020

Ethnographies of Water

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Water, in all its permanent, temporary, salt, and freshwater forms, is vital and life-sustaining to humans and other living species, as well as to landscapes. Ethnographies of water tell a multitude of stories, not only about water’s intrinsic value to life, but also how different societies conceptualize, sustain, and use it. Water as a cultural lens reveals how both the presence and absence of water is managed, as well as how it is believed to have originated and should be cared for. Practices such as the regular enactment of religious rituals, the development of irrigation, origin narratives, and the problem of drought all convey a complex of water-inspired stories. That water features as a subject for artworks, architecture, texts, and sculptures in a myriad of locations also reveals important descriptive and investigative foci, as do disputes about ownership and access when sources are scarce, demands are high, and floods disturb lives. Water’s relationship to other elements—air, wind, fire, cloud, and smoke—is also part of the depth and breadth embedded in ethnographies of water, constituting a richness of narratives, especially when explored from country to country and place to place, as new generations and circumstances across time and space converge.