Academic journal article Human Organization

Children's Perceived Water Futures in the United States Southwest

Academic journal article Human Organization

Children's Perceived Water Futures in the United States Southwest

Article excerpt


Anthropologists are becoming increasingly concerned with how our discipline can inform the growing "water crisis" (Orlove and Catón 2010; Wagner 2010). As the perils of human-induced declining snow packs, shrinking aquifer storages, distorted river flow regimes, and altered groundwater recharge sweep across the globe (Wagener et al. 2010), understanding how and why people perceive these changes has become a rising priority. The perspectives of children are a potentially intriguing aspect of environmental perceptions, given that they will be those most challenged with finding the solutions to the environmental dilemmas that are becoming more evident each day (Gunckel et al. 2012). With this in mind, we designed a study using child-focused methodologies to understand how schoolchildren imagine and understand the future of water.

Our focus in this paper is on the role of gender in shaping children's imagined water futures, such as their level of pessimism or optimism. Cross-culturally, gender socialization is one of the most influential sociological processes in human engagement with water (Coles and Wallace 2005; Ray 2007) . In the typical gendered division of labor around water, women take the lead in household and health-securing aspects of water use, while men take the lead in water management through community governance and economic institutions (UNDP 2006). This gendered division of labor has had a profound effect on how communities understand sustainability challenges and what kind of solutions they pursue (Fisher 2006; Wutich 2012). Despite long-standing efforts to reconceive water use and management in ways that supplant stereotypical gendered responsibilities (and the undesirable outcomes they produce), such reforms have been largely unsuccessful as water-related gender roles are extraordinarily robust to intervention (Narayan 1995; Prokopy 2004; Singh 2008) . Yet, in middle childhood, gender role socialization around water perceptions, uses, and management may be incomplete (McHale, Crouter, and Tucker 1999; Katz and Ksansnak 1994). Additionally, middle childhood is a time in which children's environmental perceptions are in flux, as formal schooling begins to moderate experiential learning (Wyndham 2010; Zent 1999), and interest in environmental issues wanes (Larson, Green, and Castleberry 2010). Middle childhood, then, may represent an opportunity to intercede and reconceptualize gendered water roles before they become fixed. With a focus on this age group, this study examines the extent to which gendered perceptions of water, which are well-documented in adults, have already become part of children's environmental worldview.

Our study was conducted in Arizona, a state in the desert southwest of the United States. This region presents an interesting and somewhat contradictory case, in that children live in a highly arid environment; yet, the water shortage issue in Arizona is not as pressing as in some other "greener" places due largely to the state's long-standing rights to Colorado River water (Gober 2005). The research was designed not only to examine children's gendered perceptions of water, but also to involve children in the data collection process and teachers in the dissemination of findings to inform children's understandings of water sustainability challenges.


Water features play an important role in children's mental models of their own environments. A number of studies have shown how major water bodies, such as rivers (May 1996; Wilson and Goodwin 1981) and watersheds (Dove, Everett, and Preece 1999), are central to children's understandings of local environments. Children, as a result of lived environmental experiences and formal schooling, can diagram and explain complex models of water cycles and hydrologic environments by middle childhood (Ben-Zvi Assaraf et al. 2012; Bowker 2007; Judson 2011). Beyond children's characterization of physical environments, a number of studies have examined children's perspectives on environmental challenges in a range of different settings and found they are often problem-focused, pessimistic, fear-ridden, and anxiety-provoking (Barraza 1999; Hutchinson 1997; Myers, Boyes, and Stanisstreet 1999; Shepardson et al. …

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