Water, Struggle, and History

By Steven Rhue (Department of Anthropology)

In a time of great uncertainty that has upheaved life and research, the Worlds in Contention Conference offered a welcome moment of academic exchange. As students and faculty, we have found ourselves in a precarious space where many of our scholarly pursuits rest uneasily amid the circumstance of the pandemic. Conversation, assembly, and instruction have become risky actions to oneself and those around us, rendering the traditional conference format impractical and requiring an alternative format. I am thankful that as a university we have the necessary resources and support at our disposal to convene in a virtual space and continue our dialogue. However, I encourage all to be mindful and not take such a privilege for granted, as many have lacked and continue to lack access to technology and reliable internet. To varying extents, visible and hidden, known, and unknown, we have all been impacted by the pandemic. I believe it is imperative to recognize and admire the resilience demonstrated by being present and sharing with colleagues and strangers alike.

The Worlds in Contention Conference brought together a variety of scholars, disciplinary approaches, and geographical foci, which offered a critical moment for interdisciplinary discussion of power and social injustices. I particularly connected with those whose research concerned Latin America, as we shared as similar geographic focus. Yet, I appreciated the exposure to different theoretical and methodological approaches to human rights and social injustices across global spaces. My own research relies heavily on ethnographically documenting human variation in the moment. However, it was eye opening to consider the versatility and variety of historical documents that were used as primary sources. Government documents, pieces of propaganda, song, and other forms of historical text are not tools I commonly use. Thus, I was intrigued to see how such texts informed the work of our presenters and has made me consider how my own work could benefit from the use of historical pieces.

I identified with the papers that concerned resource insecurity as my own work concerns children’s lived experiences of household water insecurity in urban Brazil. Two papers that resonated with me were Claiming Resources, Claiming Concepts: Ethnic Formation and State Formation in Colombia’s Cauca Valley and Refusing the Violence of Resource Extraction in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec presented by Dr. Offner and Dr. Altamirano-Jimenez respectively. Dr. Offner’s discussion of the construction of the Salvajina dam was a wonderful blend of anthropology and history. The hydropower industry in Latin America came to symbolize elite control over water resources and the construction of dams often resulted in environmental destruction and discrimination against marginalized populations that produce water insecure situations. Dr. Altamirano-Jimenez’s research examined how the exploitation of natural resources becomes embodied by disadvantaged populations. Similar issues of embodiment are easily seen in water insecurity research, particularly where environmental exploitation impacts the local waterscapes. This results in both physical (pain, injury, violence, etc.) and emotional (shame, fear, anger, discrimination, etc.) distress which has profound consequences on human health and wellbeing.

A point of conversation that followed Dr. Offner’s presentation, which I found particularly relevant to me as an Anthropologist, was the role anthropological writings might play in recording historical events. We often think about writing for the present and it is easy to forget that as time passes texts become history. At some point an anthropologist’s observations of a population at a particular point in time and space become documents that serve as historical references. Add, it was interesting to consider how, from historians’ point of view, anthropological accounts hold their own bias that may obscure a historical analysis.

It was refreshing to listen to how other scholars approached social injustices. In academia, it is all too easy to become isolated and removed from other perspectives, despite working on the same issues. I find that our departmental and disciplinary training tends to stay within certain bounds, and these boundaries inform our research and approach. Opportunities such as the Worlds in Contention Conference help to push those boundaries and, as a result, we begin to redefine what scholarly training should look like. This is critical in training the next generation of scholars, and I look forward to further conferences and all they have to offer.

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