- I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis ed. Luke Eric Lassiter, Brian A. Hoey and Elizabeth Campbell
I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis presents experiences of the Elk River chemical spill that occurred in Charleston, West Virginia, on January 9, 2014, and left 300,000 people without usable drinking water. Luke Eric Lassiter describes collaborative ethnography as “the cointerpretation of ethnographic texts as they develop,” a “particular approach to ethnography, where collaboration is mobilized as both a research and writing strategy” (p. 77, emphasis in the original). Thus, book chapters are authored by students, business owners, researchers, educators, scientists, media producers, nonprofit directors, and professional writers who both experienced the spill and carried out cross-sectoral ethnographic oral history research.
The introduction models the approach of the book, interweaving oral history interviews, academic discourse, and activism. Readers meet interviewee Rebecca Roth, who was pregnant during the spill and had to find safe water for herself, her husband, and her 2-year-old child. Quoting Roth extensively, the editors illustrate the impact of the spill on residents’ daily lives as well as citizens’ trust in local and state water system governance. Similarly, in chapters 1 and 3, Lassiter blends scholarly inquiry with his own experience to describe how the project was conceived and implemented.
Brian Hoey’s review of scholarship on disaster in chapter 2 and in an interlude establishes a theoretical framework that connects the academic and oral history chapters. Hoey argues for a contextualized, process-oriented, and experiential approach to risk and disaster, as opposed to “reductionist approaches where the notion of risk is treated as effectively context free” (p. 65; emphasis in original). I’m Afraid of That Water is grounded primarily within the fields of anthropology and science and technology, especially trajectories exploring the embodied experience of disaster, how risk is manufactured or produced, and the intersections of toxicity, knowledge, and power.
Chapters 4 (by Trish Hatfield), 5 (by Jay Thomas), 6 (by Cat Pleska and Joshua Mills), 7 (by Emily Mayes), 8 and 11 (by Jim Hatfield), 9 (by Gabe Schwartzman), and 10 (by Laura Harbert Allen), and the afterword (by Angie Rosser) are “oral histories written by community activists” that were “meant to be written in close-up prose emphasizing experience first and foremost” (p. 12). Trish Hatfield reflects on the oral history project itself, drawing on several examples from the interview collection. The essays by Thomas, Pleska and Mills, and Mayes highlight differences between urban and rural experiences of place, stigmatized Appalachian identities, and the impact the water crisis had on their decisions about whether to continue to reside in West Virginia. Final chapters by Hatfield, Schwartzman, and Allen consider activism in response to the chemical spill. Jim Hatfield’s chapters discuss community activism following the spill, noting legal and regulatory changes that were achieved. Schwartz-man’s chapter recounts his involvement with the project while researching West Virginia’s water history for an interactive website. Allen’s chapter discusses the challenges and rewards of producing a collaborative audio documentary.
Despite drawing heavily on Hurricane Katrina research, the editors do not reference Carl Lindahl’s survivor-to-survivor model used for the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project and collection at the American Folklife Center, or Kate Parker Horigan’s Consuming Katrina: Public Disaster and Personal Narrative (2018). Similarly, folklorists may note the lack of reference to David Todd Lawrence and [End Page 365] Elaine J. Lawless’ When They Blew the Levee: Race, Politics, and Community in Pinhook, Missouri (2018), and the work of Mary Hufford and Betsy Taylor on reclamation practices in the Appalachian coalfields (see Practicing Anthropology, vol. 36, 2014). More broadly, the book does not address folklore’s contributions to researching...