ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Fluid-scapes: places of motion and change

Panel convenors: Garner & Strang

Panel abstract

In recent years anthropology and cognate disciplines have made constructive use of spatial metaphors of analysis. What has often been emphasised by this focus on place are aspects of embedded connection, of attachment to relatively stable metaphors enabling claims to important pasts and powers, and of metaphors that are ‘grounded’ in land. This panel examines the uses of spatialised metaphors that are themselves fluid, in motion and subject to constant or rapid change. These may or may not prove to lend themselves to more mobile identities and networks but nevertheless deserve our attention.

In recent research, space has been seen as a component of identity as important as ethnicity, class, race, and religion. A conceptual ‘place’ with which to connect is often fundamental to communities in their struggle for autonomy and identity. However, comparatively little research has focused on the metaphoric opportunities of water or the role of bodies of water in people’s lives. Water, in the sea, rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, can be both firmly placed and ephemeral; a stable metaphor that is always moving and changing. The panel will address the role of water in the landscape, of water environments and seascapes in making senses of place and identity. It will question how waterscapes might challenge traditional forms of fieldwork, and examine the opportunities and limitations of metaphors which are mobile, moving and changing from moment to moment. Indeed, the ubiquity of the use of ‘landscape’ in publications that address themes of place and space should alert us to the assumptions of stability that often overlook the importance of water and sea in many people’s lives.

The following questions will guide contributors to this panel:

  • How does water provide people with metaphoric opportunities?
  • If ‘locality’ has been highlighted as a problem for both informants and fieldworkers what challenges arise from research into aquatic worlds?
  • If ‘place’ is a key concept in anthropology, are water or the sea considered placeless? How do mobile and constantly changing waterscapes connect to senses of place or placelessness?
  • Do water and marine environments challenge our understandings of place?
  • What are the relationships between fluidscapes and identity? How is ownership and access to water and its resources expressed and contested?
  • How are ephemeral aspects of sea and waterscapes related to identity and place?
  • How are marine and waterscapes co-opted in economic and/or leisure discourses?
  • How have aquatic worlds shaped everyday modes of life?

Surfers, the materiality of waves and the protest against water pollution

Patrick Laviolette, UCL

It is a truism that water, the coastline and the sea are markers of great importance in the formulation of Cornish identity. Fishing, boating and seaside holidays have been mainstays of the peninsula for generations. Building on this maritime heritage, this paper explores both the fluidity and materiality of waves, tides and coastal seascapes through a metaphorical framework encompassing symbolic as well as literal issues of pollution. It examines Cornwall’s distinct surf culture in relation to concerns over the effects of sewage and other malignant discharges on public health and the quality of the marine environment. The paper outlines the ways in which certain environmental pressure groups, charity campaigners and corporate surf companies have become involved in attempts to safeguard the ecological sustainability of coastal leisure pursuits. It does so primarily through an ethnographic case study of the ‘Longlife’ surf-art exhibition, competition and auction. This took place over the summer of 2003 and was co-organised by Oxbow, Third Planet and Surfers Against Sewage. On the surface, the symbolism of fluidity and pollution may appear contradictory. But through an exploration of the materiality of waves, this paper illustrates the dialectical ways in which water and the sea relate to local identity and imaginative forms of creative subversity.

Becoming green; water as country in the Western Desert

Diana Young, UCL

Australian Aboriginal conceptions of landscape are often theorised as an objectification of static form, maintaining an idealised continuity since creation by the Ancestors during the ‘Dreamtime’. The surface of the land though – country - is always in the process of becoming, passing through sequences of colour and fecundity as well as becoming dust filled and dead. Rains re animate the land filling the dry creek beds, clay pans and water holes with life and quickly turning country green and odiferous. Rain though is by no means a certainty on the Pitjantjatjara Lands and when it does appear, water does not stay long on the surface, is shifting and unstable. This paper explores the nature of the land’s surface for Aboriginal people and discusses how its flux is an indicator of Ancestral presence. This flux is almost entirely reliant on water. The presence of water is conceived as an event that renews the power of sacred places and creates a temporarily visible ‘double’ world.

From placelessness to place: learning to know at sea

Martina Tyrrell, University of Aberdeen

The north-west coast of Hudson Bay in the Canadian territory of Nunavut is subject to dramatic seasonal change. Nine months of winter, with the sea frozen to depths of three metres or more, is followed by a brief but intense summer of open water. The sea is a part of community life throughout the year, in both its solid and fluid states. It is essential to economic life as well as leisure and travel pursuits.

In this paper I will examine the evolution in my own thinking concerning ideas of 'place'/'places' at sea. From an understanding of place that necessitated stability and constancy, through fieldwork I came to an entirely different understanding of place: one based on life-long observation and perception of the environment. Indeed I will argue, in this paper, that stability and constancy do not necessarily exist in the terrestrial 'landscape' either, and knowledge of place at sea or on the sea ice, or indeed in a fluid or inconstant environment, is not very far removed from knowledge of place on the land.

Substantial connections: water and identity in an English cultural landscape

Veronica Strang, Auckland University of Technology

As a material substance, essential to every organic process, water literally constitutes human ‘being’, providing a vital natural symbol of sociality and of human-environmental interdependence. Its particular qualities of fluidity and transmutability lend themselves to a stream of metaphors about flows and interconnections, and to the conceptualisation of ideas about change and transformation.

Moving constantly in and between internal and external environments, water facilitates a series of scheme transfers between models of physiological, social and ecological processes. As a central image of ‘proper’ flows and balances in each of these schemes, it is highly vulnerable to pollution at various levels, with concerns about the material pollution of water and individual health readily transferred to ideas about social and cultural disorder (and vice versa). In particular, images of water are central to discourses about individual and cultural identities and the maintenance – or breaching – of social boundaries.

Based on ethnographic research in Dorset, this paper explores these themes and considers the way that material and metaphorical engagements with water mediate individual, familial and wider collective identities within a shifting cultural ‘waterscape’ of social, spatial, economic and political relationships. It suggests that within a post-modern milieu, in which continuities in social connection and ‘location’ are radically disrupted by political and economic pressures for mobility, images of water and identity may have more utility than traditional ‘grounded’ metaphors of landscape and place. The analysis notes, however, that there is also an implicit moral discourse in formulations of identity, in which ‘those who belong’ are described with located domestic metaphors of culture and place, while ‘outsiders’ tend to be identified pejoratively with non-domestic images of water, nature and dis-location. Can fluid images sustain individual and cultural identities, or are they more often a way of ‘othering’ individuals and groups? The use of water-related metaphors to describe human sociality raises useful questions about the use of environmental metaphors to debate belonging, and the potential for fluidity in human constructions of identity.

Fishing inside the sea – an ethnography of underwater spear gun fishing in Palau, Micronesia

Yoshitaka Ota, University College London & University of Kent

Underwater spear gun fishing is one of the popular fishing methods currently used in indigenous inshore fishing in Palau, West Micronesia. Two major characteristics of this method are; firstly, the excessive physical hardship suffered by fishermen due to continuous free deep diving, and secondly, the opportunity offered to fishermen to enter and experience another sphere of the seascape, or the underwater world. Without any diving equipment, fishermen dive deep into coral reefs in order to shoot fish with hand made spear-guns. It is argued that the practice of this fishing method appeals to local fishermen because the technique emphasizes individual skill in fishing. Other fishing methods, such as barrier reef net fishing, emphasises collective labour rather than individual skills. Nevertheless, this interpretation fails to take account of actual practice of underwater spear fishing, or more specifically the underwater world in which it takes place. Here fishermen experience and interact with the sea at the level of their skin. In a different way from other fishing practices, which are mostly practised above water, the experience of underwater spear gun fishing constitutes different bodily senses in the visibility, hearing and physicality of fishermen. I argue that this transformation of senses entailed by being inside water plays an important role for the popularity of fishing. This is revealed when we hear fishermen in Palau saying that the underwater spear gun fishing is ‘a fair game’ between fish and (fisher)men as they commit themselves in the world of fish.

Substance, desire and control: water in the New Forest

Andrew Garner, Oxford Brookes University

Water, like much of the ‘land’-scape of the New Forest, is highly contested and subject to strongly oppositional discourses. Many of these oppositions are over rights of access and control of water resources in both in economic terms and in terms of social status. They are developed into a complex of arguments about whom the water in the Forest is for and what its significance is. This paper follows water as it flows in the landscape as streams and as it forms a key focus for visitors. It is then traced as it reappears in formal documents written by strategists and ecologists for organisations managing the environment, and again in court presentments primarily by Commoners (small scale farmers) at the Verderers Court – an ancient court still charged with overseeing aspects of the New Forest.

In these arenas water is elaborated as substance, as object of desire and as subject to attempts to control. Considerable work is going on in the forest to change the flow of water, to adjust its path and ‘hold it up’ in the Forest. This is elaborated in strategy documents as reversing past interventions, restoring rivers and increasing conservation values. This in turn has impacts on recreational use of the Forest and on grazing animals belonging to the Commoners. Water, as detailed in these debates, is a constructed as living and able to be vibrant or lifeless. Its substance becomes a means of describing the world as it should be, as mediating relationships between individual, local and global identities.

As a metaphor that mediates relationships, water is highly mobile, providing a wide range of metaphoric opportunities but with little apparent central consistency. Unlike trees or landscape, water, it seems, is either good or bad but rarely simply neutral.