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Substantial Connections: Water and Identity in an English Cultural Landscape

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image of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

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 ideas about spatio-temporal change and transformation. Moving constantly between internal and external environments, water facilitates scheme transfers between conceptual models of physiological, social and ecological processes. Representing "orderly" flows and balances in each of these, it is vulnerable to pollution at various levels, with concerns about material pollution readily transferred to ideas about social and cultural disorder. In particular, metaphors employing water imagery dominate discourses about individual and cultural identities and the maintenance—or dissolution—of social boundaries.

Based on ethnographic research in Dorset, this paper explores these themes and considers how human engagements with water—in the home, and through interaction with rivers and water supply infrastructure—mediate individual, familial and wider collective identities in a shifting cultural " fluidscape" of social, spatial, economic and political relationships. It suggests that, in a post-modern social milieu, images of water and identity vie with more grounded metaphors of landscape, place and location, assisting debates about the potential for fluidity in human constructions of identity.


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