Exploring freshwater geographies: Approaches and prospects for engaged research methods

I arrived at Swansea University with a background in cultural geography and qualitative research methodologies and methods. In particular, I am very fond of using ethnographic research methods— including participant observation, interviewing, and photographic work to explore the lived, everyday worlds of research participants. I use in-depth observation and participation through ethnographic fieldwork to understand how individuals experience and understand their places and identities. Much of my previous research involved working with Indigenous communities in the circumpolar North and Australia and New Zealand. Check out our introductory blog post for more about the FIRE lab and our various research backgrounds and/or check out my personal webpage here.

This image was taken during my doctoral fieldwork in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut in July 2015. I am learning traditional beading and sewing practices from an Inuk (singular for Inuit) elder at the Nunavut Arts Festival.

My first project with the FIRE lab is to lead a literature review examining how scholars have framed research questions in the area of freshwater-society relations and interactions. This literature review served as a way for our team to come together and explore the theoretical and methodological tools that researchers use to engage with freshwater related questions centred on management practices and water governance, and how involved communities are with such applied freshwater activities. Some key topics covered in our literature search included river basin management, flooding events, dams and other built infrastructure, water scarcity, societal values of freshwater ecosystems, and water privatization.

We built this literature search from works in critical geography, political ecology, anthropology, and other related disciplines in the social and physical sciences to explore how scholars have engaged with community members in their research on freshwater geographies. The papers we read all started from a relational notion that water shapes human livelihoods, and in turn, humans affect freshwater systems. Many of the papers we reviewed highlighted that freshwater is not just a resource for people, but also is a substance that brings together many different areas of social life (Orlove & Canton 2010). Freshwater ecosystems have diverse social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and emotional meanings to people (Gibbs 2014). People use water places, such as rivers, as a way to articulate social connections and notions of belonging (see Strang 2008 for an excellent case study).

All of the papers that we engaged with saw freshwater ecosystems as political— affective sites of compromise, contestation, and change (see Griffiths 2014). Although the papers that we read spanned global case studies beyond our current home in Wales, the shared factor was the way in which researchers attempted to include community members living near or engaging with freshwater ecosystems as part of their research study. From this, I wanted to know why and how researchers engaged community members in their analyses. We are further exploring this direction with our review. 

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The Swansea Ramblers, a national charity focused on walking around natural areas, took these images of a popular walking path along the River Tawe. Photo credit: Swansea Ramblers.

We focused on articles that considered the socio-cultural relationships people had to water places and how researchers mapped and recorded these values, practices, attitudes, and stories about freshwater ecosystems. For example, Strang (2008) presented a comparative view of two groups living near a river in Queensland, Australia. Strang used long-term ethnographic research to examine how these two groups used different strategies to participate in the management and protection of local water ways. One community participated in a spiritually charged bi-annual water festival in order to care for and raise awareness about the river, and the other group created a political local catchment group. For Strang, her engagement with participants from two neighbouring communities revealed the multiple ways humans forge environmental relationships and care for local water systems. For one group a largely technical, political model (as a formally elected catchment group) was preferred, as the second group engaged in a deeply social, spiritual, and aesthetic interaction with the waterway through a festival. Strang’s comparative ethnography provides just one example of the diversity of ways people express their unique connections to freshwater environments. 

In our literature review, we have also paid attention to how scholars define a ‘community.’ Young (1986, 1) reminds us, “…there is no universally shared concept of community, but only particular articulations that overlap, compliment, or sit at obtuse angles to one another…I criticize the notion of community on both philosophical and practical grounds.”  Following the work of Young (and others such as Franklin, 2017; McLean et al. 2018), we searched within the papers to specify how researchers framed their research participants as a ‘community’. Specifically, we are asking, who is involved in this community? Who is excluded? How many people were spoken to? What sort of stories/data were recorded from these people? For example, did researchers engage with anglers, river users, government/managers, Indigenous land owners, stakeholders, more-than-humans, or private water companies? Further, how does the definition of community shape the stories being told through the research?

We then explored the various qualitative and quantitative methods that were used in studies. From oral histories, water diaries, photographs, literature and poetry analysis, interviews, surveys, and focus groups, researchers employed diverse range of research methods to explore how participants were using water ways. If we consider that the methods we use frame the data captured, certain methods will define an area of intervention and exclude others. We are also interested in better understanding what each method allows us to see about human-water relations.

A particularly interesting method I found through this literature search was the narrative analysis found in Griffiths (2014) that focused on a specific historical flood in North Wales. Griffiths analysed Welsh literature and poetry to seek out and explore the dimensions of water politics in Wales. Griffiths investigated how contemporary individuals (poets and songwriters) write about and remember this flooding event, and how their memories shape current political relations between England and Wales. Where a large amount of cultural geographical papers we read (see Sofoulis 2005 for a great example on water diaries as a method) chose to get individuals to express their individual stories about water places, Griffiths searched the texts of literature and poetry for cultural meanings weaving the past and the present together through poems and songs. I see the importance of Griffith’s work in recognizing the wider shared political and historical dimensions of how we enact and perform our socio-cultural identities across time and space.

Connections between people and water have received considerable attention in geographic and wider social science research (Gibbs 2014). Our literature review has raised our awareness about the different power relations, cross-cultural engagements, and water ethics that shape human-freshwater relations. The FIRE lab has found a range of ways researchers have included individual and ‘community’ voices, stories, attitudes, and values about water places in research findings. Our literature review will continue with the team considering the underlying research paradigms (worldview/ontologies) and spatio-temporal scales guiding the research process. We hope that this literature review will help us to identify the various research methods we want to use to explore the multiple knowledges that research participants have with the River Tawe here in South-West Wales. We welcome your thoughts on our literature review and stories about your own relationships with local water ways. If you want to follow our research journey, please get in touch via twitter (@FireLabTweets or @TaraCater) or email (t.i.cater@swansea.ac.uk).

The River Tawe is the focus of our lab’s fieldwork activities in spring 2019.

References

Franklin, C. (2017, July 12). Who’s(e) the Indigenous Community: Methodological Pitfalls in the Indigenous Research Space. Lecture presented at The Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) in Australia, Brisbane.

Gibbs, L. (2014). Freshwater geographies? Place, matter, practice, hope. New Zealand Geographer,70(1), 56-60. doi:10.1111/nzg.12040

Griffiths, H. M. (2013). Water under the bridge? Nature, memory and hydropolitics. Cultural Geographies,21(3), 449-474. doi:10.1177/1474474013510109

McLean, J., Lonsdale, A., Hammersley, L., O’Gorman, E., & Miller, F. (2018). Shadow waters: Making Australian water cultures visible. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers,43(4), 615-629. doi:10.1111/tran.12248

Orlove, B., & Caton, S. C. (2010). Water Sustainability: Anthropological Approaches and Prospects. Annual Review of Anthropology,39(1), 401-415. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105045

Sofoulis, Z. (2005). Big Water, Everyday Water: A Sociotechnical Perspective. Continuum- Journal of Media and Cultural Studies,19(4), 445-463. doi:10.1080/10304310500322685

Strang, V. (2008). Wellsprings of Belonging: Water and Community Regeneration in Queensland. Oceania,78(1), 30-45. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.2008.tb00026.x

Young, I.M. (1986). The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference. Social Theory and Practice,12(1), 195-204. doi:10.4135/9781446215272.n23

 

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