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A new open-access publication considers ways of learning about terrestrial life from a watery angle.

How would "normal life" look if seen from an unorthodox perspective? This is a core question in social and cultural anthropology. Some have argued that by learning about other social and cultural worlds, we can more clearly understand the problems in our own culture and society, and more effectively strive to solve them. More recently, especially anthropologists working with indigenous peoples in the Americas have suggested that we don't live in a "multicultural" world at all. Rather what we tend to call "cultural difference" may be a question of embodied perspective. All living beings share "culture", but their bodies differ, and therefore the world presents itself differently to them. What to a human may look like "blood" may look like "beer" to a puma. 

In a recently published essay, DELTA team researcher Franz argues that considering water-based livelihoods and people's relations with water can help bring about a change in perspective, and thereby can teach us something about our taken-for-granted, terrestrial life. This essay is an epilogue in a special issue of the Open Access journal Anthropological Notebooks. The special issue, edited by Benjamin Bowles (SOAS), Maarja Kaaristo (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Natasa Rogelja Caf (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts), is entitled Dwelling on and with water – materialities, (im)mobilities and meanings.

The articles collected in this special issue, all dealing with life in relation to water, be in reservoirs, canals or the shore, reminded Franz not only of the discussions about perspectivism, but also about a series of photographs by the artist and researcher Simon Read. In the series that he calls "Seamarks - Panoramic Camera", Read had fixed a camera to a boat, and took panoramic photographs that reflected the movement of the boat and viewer (see image above). The land, here, is not the solid and predictable place that we often pretend it is. Shifting our perspective to the water may therefore yield new ideas about life on the land. 

The essay, along with the others in the collection, can be downloaded for free.


Hydro-perspectivism: Terrestrial life from a watery angle


This essay introduces the idea of hydro-perspectivism in order to better understand what happens if anthropologists, alongside their research participants, comment on terrestrial life from a watery angle. Based on a close reading of the contributions to this special issue, it indicates how being afloat rather than grounded, shifts people’s points of reference around, even though their general cultural framework might remain the same. A perspectivist, rather than representational, approach to the juxtaposition of water- and land-based subject positions pays heed to the specific materialities of watery heterotopias and to the ways water may engender certain social and political forms. This also means that different waters and waterways produce different perspectives – a British canal fashions different points of view than an Atlantic beach or a Taiwanese drinking water reservoir. As a way of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, hydro-perspectivism can serve as a technique to afford a new look at our terrestrial assumptions and identify problems and blind spots in our received ways of thinking.