LONELY DRINKING FOUNTAINS AND COMFORTING COOLERS: Paradoxes of Water Value and Ironies of Water Use



This article focuses ethnographically on Americans and technologies of drinking water, as tokens of and vehicles for health, agency, and surprising kinds of community. Journalists and water scholars have argued that bottled water is a material concomitant of privatization and alienation in U.S. society. But, engaging Latour, this research shows that water technologies and the groups they assemble, are plural. Attention to everyday entwining of workplace lives with drinking fountains, single-serve bottles, and spring water coolers shows us several different quests, some individualized, some alienated, but some seeking health via public, collective care, acknowledgment of stakeholding, and community organizing. Focused on water practices on a college campus, in the roaring 1990s and increasingly sober 2000s in the context of earlier U.S. water histories of inclusion and exclusion, I draw on ethnographic research from the two years that led up to the recession and the presidential election of 2008. I argue for understanding of water value through attention to water use, focusing both on the social construction of water and the use of water for social construction. [water, water technologies, bottled water, drinking fountains, privatization, community organizing, Bruno Latour, publics, value]