New Directions in Cultural Research on Water

19 - 20 July

Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney
Parramatta Campus


Conference organiser Zoe Sofoulis with keynote speaker Elizabeth ShoveThe In the Pipeline Symposium, hosted by the Centre for Cultural Research, was held on July 19-20 on the Parramatta campus of the University of Western Sydney. The 85 attendees came from a number of Australian universities, government departments and other organisations (such as water utilities), and included three international speakers from the UK and one from South Africa, and a good mix of senior, mid-career, and early career researchers and postgraduates. The risks of holding a conference in the depths of winter became apparent as a few speakers made late withdrawals due to colds and flu, but despite fewer speakers there still didn’t seem to be enough time for all the discussions and questions people raised in sessions.

After a welcome from the Director of the Centre for Cultural Research, Prof. David Rowe, a lively opening address by Prof. Elizabeth Shove from Lancaster presented work by herself and collaborators Will Medd and Heather Chappells on ‘The Dynamics and Hydraulics of Everyday Life.’ She made the point that the conventional residential demand management focus on how to make ‘green’ the brand of choice for individual consumers was only touching the tip of the iceberg, and did not address background issues, such as the kinds and levels of consumption required for consumers to be ‘normal’ in society. Moreover a focus on figures of ‘average’ consumption per capita unhelpfully blurred differences in household practices. Rather than emphasise the characteristics of average consumers, her injunction was to “follow the pipe” and look at the diversity of practices taking place at the end of it.

Prof Elizabeth ShoveThere were intriguing points of connection between Prof. Shove’s keynote and the three plenary papers following it—especially on issues of relations to water infrastructure: Gay Hawkins examined what the fad for bottled water reveals about our “infrastructural imagination”; Zoë Wilson critiqued the emphasis on neo-liberalism and privatisation compared to issues around “who gets water and why”, and Sarah Bell analysed differences in how drought was constructed in the UK compared to understandings of it here in “the driest continent”.

For the rest of the Symposium there were 25 papers presented in two parallel sessions covering themes such as cultural differences in values and water management, design concerns, infrastructure and governance, and creative ways of engaging with communities around water issues. Some panels worked very well to bring together people with related concerns and inspire stimulating discussions. The final open plenary raised the important point that water research needs to be not just 'interdisciplinary' but also 'inter-sectoral' , and include input from cultural and social researchers in partnerships with relevant industries, appropriate government agencies, engineers, as well as different kinds of smaller or 'intermediary' organisations or businesses (e.g. horticultural industry groups, hardware chains, etc).

The team at workThere are a number of water conferences held annually in Australia by various scientific and professional groups, but feedback indicates that what made Pipeline particularly valued by participants was that it brought together a wide range of people enthusiastic to meet with others who shared concerns with the cultural, social and political dimensions of water issues.

Speakers are invited to send their papers to for uploading onto Pipeline website. There are plans to publish some papers in the September edition of the Australian Water Association journal Water, and possibilities are currently being explored for an edited collection with an international press. There is also the possibility of creating a network of water cultures researchers under the auspices of the AWA.

The event was generously sponsored by UWS’s Centre for Cultural Research (CCR), as well as the ARC Cultural Research Network, the Australian Academy of Humanities, and the Australian Water Association. The excellent work of administration staff at the CCR ensured the smooth running of the event.

For further inquiries please contact Zoë Sofoulis at or