An Ethnographic Perspective of ISU Students’ Decision to Drink Bottled Water: A College Drinking Problem

Maria Cristina Morales Munoz,
Johanna Haas*,
Illinois State University


This research used an ethnography to analyze the consumption practice of bottled water at Illinois State University. Students were surveyed, interviewed, and observed to better understand the cultural meaning behind branding bottled water. The data revealed habit, convenience, hyperindividualism, and health to be the most crucial reasons students at ISU consume bottled water. The purpose of this study is to support the decrease of bottled water consumption at collages by encouraging collegiate level institutions to educate students about their own consumption practices.


We usually picture anthropologists toughing it out in a distant country while studying the lives of indigenous people. Anthropology students find themselves thinking an ethnography done in their town or home country is boring or unimportant to the research community; however, this is not the case. Ethnography is a dynamic, introspective, and interdisciplinary area that allows the researcher and the group being studied to reflect on their respective realities. So, although my fieldwork lacks the exotic and foreign, it is an indigenous ethnography allowing me to question the ordinary and familiar. This article began with a stroll around campus watching other college students drink out of plastic bottles and canteens. It was then that I wondered why some of my peers chose expendable over reusable and why some preferred free water while others purchased water. Most college students are notoriously known for having little income and staying in perpetual debt. Yet many students, regardless of their low-income lifestyle, willingly buy and consume bottled water. This study sought explanations for a behavior I have observed but never questioned until recently: drinking bottled water. The purpose of this research is to encourage college level institutions to educate students about their own consumption practices through investigating bottled water as a commodity and understanding students’ perceptions of bottled water at ISU. This article discusses the methodology of this ethnography, moving to the process of commodification, which leads to alienability and hyperindividualism. Followed by a discussion of the misconceptions surrounding bottled water as well as the connection between privatization, brand preference, and sign value. Most importantly, this study revealed habit, convenience, hyperindividualism, and health to be the most crucial reasons students at ISU consume bottled water.


During the fall of 2009 I conducted an ethnography at Illinois State University to analyze consumption practices of bottled water. This study sought to further understand the cultural meaning behind bottled water as a commodity on campus. I compiled data utilizing a survey for 197 students in a college lecture hall, a set of six in-depth interviews, and participant observation at the dining halls. All students interviewed and surveyed were required to sign a consent form. The surveys took 5-10 minutes to complete, and interviews of randomly selected students on campus took 15-20 minutes. Microsoft Excel was used for analysis. Although this research was influenced by how bottled water is economically and environmentally detrimental for consumers, the main focus was to shine light on student’s social perception of bottled water and explore how it is integrated in our culture as a powerful commodity. This study uses ethnography to understand college student’s socio-behavioral decisions about drinking bottled water, regardless of its negative social and environmental effects.


Bottled water on campus is offered by impersonal vending machines and fast-food restaurants. For these reasons bottled water is considered a commodity, meaning it is a material that can be bought, sold, and owned—a process formally known as commodification. The retailer knows little about the water product, and the buyer is oblivious to the history of the product. Interviews revealed the majority of ISU students were unaware and indifferent about the origin of the bottled water they purchased. When asked about the source, they usually looked for information on their bottle or assumed “lakes” or “filtering plants.” The bottled water market keeps consumers ill-informed about the bottled water’s physical origin and obscures ethical issues inherent with procuring it. Together these factors form the concept of alienability, one of the principle elements of commodification. Alienability refers to a commodity being physically and ethically detached from its seller (Castree, 2003). For example, the Natural Waters of Fiji water company monopolized the Vatukalokos’ (indigenous Fijians) water source by taking ownership of their land, pumping their aquifer, and selling their drinking water for high profit (Kaplan, 2008). Another example of alienability is how consumers are unaware that the majority of bottled water produced and consumed in the United States is pumped from municipal water sources. After this alienation, consumers willingly pay for water in plastic bottles regardless of the existence of public drinking water paid for by our taxes (Royte, 2008). This behavior can also be attributed to the success of neoliberalism, an ideology based on the idea of free trade and freedom of business from state controls (Castree & Braun, 2001).

The neoliberal system gives companies the ability to label, sell, and patent nature; this allows businesses to benefit as the middleman between the individual and natural resources. In other words, neoliberalism allows industrial capitalism to “produce nature” and ultimately profit from it (Castree & Braun, 2001). Nature that has been produced, such as water in bottles, is brought firmly within the commodification process and becomes a “pure” commodity. A pure commodity loses its naturalness and becomes subject to requirements of production (Castree, 2003).  It is through this ideology that bottled water companies can advertise their water as being safer and better than municipal water. Although drinking water is currently provided by tax dollars through the natural environment, many students chose brand name water as their primary drinking water. From the survey of 197 students, 85 (43%) students preferred drinking from bottled water, and 112 (57%) preferred tap water. This was not always the case; those growing up in the 70s can still recall that water in a bottle was once considered an unusual product to buy, reserved only for emergencies such as natural disasters (Opel, 1999). My interviews showed that students looked down on the town’s public water, deeming it distasteful and unhealthy. ISU students who chose bottled water associated clean, tasty, dependable water with a plastic bottle and label. Today, buying, drinking, and discarding bottled water is a cultural norm—one deeply imbedded within our capitalist culture. This cultural norm encourages the idea of water as a commodity and strengthens the movement of water privatization.

Privatization refers to the shift in ownership from the public to the private sector (Bakker, 2003). Privatization succeeds when individuals distrust the government and consumers become dependent on businesses for resources such as water, soil, and fire. Consequently, privatized water comes from businesses and is promoted to consumers as being “better water” than local tap water available from the government. Such an outlook on the local drinking water worried and confused me and ultimately caused me to visit my town’s water department. According to the Normal, Illinois Drinking Water Quality report, our water surpasses all federal and state drinking water standards (Town of Normal Water Department, 2009). Therefore it seems individuals who prefer bottled water to public drinking water prefer placing their money into corporate purity, supporting the commodification of water and succumbing to neoliberalism (Opel, 1999). However, commodification and privatization are not the only factors playing into bottled water’s success in college students’ lives. This study showed four main reasons that the Illinois State University’s student population purchased bottled water: health, hyperindividuality, convenience, and habit.


Health and wellness are important ideas used by the consumer packaged-goods industry. Consumer agencies inform Americans they should strive to be healthier, and to be healthy you must buy healthy products. Multinational drink distributers promote water as being the right and better choice for a drink, causing individuals to view bottled water as more virtuous than alcohol or soft drinks (Kaplan, 2008). The average college student has two concerns: the first would be seeking higher education and the second is sexual appeal. In order to achieve the latter most would agree that achieving health is important. Students often resort to calorie free water because of thirst and a health conscious attitude. Advertising for bottled water pushes the idea that drinking bottled water correlates with healthy and beauty. This is a perfect example of how advertising conveys values and meaning of how a product fits in a social context (Opel, 1999). So, encouraged by public health messages concerning obesity, bottled water sales shot from $115 million to $4 billion between 1990-97 (Ryote, 2008). Such advertising added a symbolic value of health to bottled water that helped companies increase their sales and boost their bottled water market segment. Furthermore, most students are unaware of what is in their bottled water and usually assume it is healthy and therefore safe. My survey revealed that forty-three percent of students consider bottled water to be safer than Normal’s tap water. What’s more, because they paid for it, they expect bottled water to be safer than municipal water and of better quality. One of my interviewees pointedly said, “Bottled water would be safer, hopefully, cause I’m paying money for it.”

Advertising campaigns spend billions trying to make us question public water, often for health-based reasons. Most of us do not know who regulates our water, let alone what is regulated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates water delivered by public water systems and establishes rigorous water standards for quality. Meanwhile, bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does not possess nearly as strict regulations as the EPA (NRDC, 2010). Bottled water companies are not required to disclose the origins of their water or notify the public of contaminants (NRDC, 2010). Because the FDA standards are more lax, citizens should not assume that bottled water is healthier than tap water. In 1998, the Natural Resource Defense Council looked at 103 brands of bottled water and found many exceeded healthy levels of arsenic, bromine, and coliform (Ryote, 2008). Buying commodities such as bottled water causes us to take health risks of which we may not be aware.


Hyperindividualism is a movement toward personal enhancement and away from solidarity; it is the second factor affecting students’ decision on purchasing bottled water. In other words, advertising and name-brands encourage us to believe that products will make us feel satisfied and connected, but this satisfaction ends with the point of sale and in turn causes us to lose a community-defined identity for the sake of relying on product identity (McKibben, 2007). Hyperindividualism is closely connected to commodity fetishism, which occurs in market-based societies; fetishism is when people rely on material possessions for gratification. This reliance is not making us content nor is it helping us attain individualism. Instead it is making us depend on companies for happiness, encouraging us to mass consume the same products, and helping us hyperconsume. The hyperindividualistic need for a particular bottled water brand helps create more waste and solidifies bottle water as a powerful commodity. Hyperindividualistic tendencies from students can be seen in my student interviews and surveys. In the survey, students not only preferred bottled water to municipal water, they also had a brand preference. Looking at Figure 1, Ice Mountain is preferred most with 28% of students choosing it as their favorite. Meanwhile 36% of students do not care what type of brand they buy. Furthermore, students’ brand preference goes deeper than just enjoying the taste of a company’s water. Many of us, including students, converse and compare preferences for cars, cigarettes or alcohol brands. In a similar manner I have observed and joined in on conversations where student bottled water drinkers argue over which brand of water is best. These conversations usually come down to agreeing with those who drink the brand you do, personal taste, and disagreeing and belittling the brand of those who disagree. It is through these discussions that bottled water makes itself important in a social context, as a commodity through fetishization and by creating hyperindividualism. 

Figure 1. ISU Student Bottled Water Brand Preference

Hyperindividualism is attributed to fetishization through brand preference and sign value. Brand preference emerges from students identifying with brands and trying to show their individuality by buying the bottled water commodity. Marx defined commodity as adding social and economic value to a raw material, and having a use value and an exchange value of that good (Marx, 1976). Baudrillard later expanded Marx’s definition by adding sign exchange value. The sign value can be seen as a symbol representing a particular company, values imbedded in these symbols are said to determine the value of the commodity (Opel, 1999). For instance, two different sign values are the mountains behind the Nestle Ice Mountain brand representing pure, glacial water from wintery mountains compared to Fiji water’s exotic floral pictures and expensive looking bottle. Sign values allow students to show their individual preference by the type of water they choose. Sign values show a number of desirable qualities such as popularity and monetary worth. The success of the bottled water commodity shows us how important individuality is for students as well as how our society has embraced hyperindividualism and idealized bottled water as being superior to tap water.


Convenience, while beneficial, can have a negative effect on a person, such as the case for bottled water. As a product it is a useful, practical, portable, and an exceptionally accessible commodity easily nestling itself into student lives and in turn having a negative impact unseen by many.  Observing students as they purchase and effortlessly dispose of bottled water solidifies the fact that students do not consider their own behavior abnormal. During my observation at one of ISU’s college dining centers, I noted one hundred students buying dinner by swiping their cards at the entrance of the dining hall. Of the 100 students, 68 chose bottled drinks (26 of whom chose bottled water). Out of 32 fountain drinkers, 4 students chose the free water option (3 of whom had reusable drinking vessels). This is a perfect example of instantaneous gratification; instead of pouring oneself a drink few students did little to resist the convenience of buying bottled water. One of my interview questions asked the interviewee if buying bottled water was important to them and why. Most did not know what to say while others sounded confused and unsure of the question because they consider bottled water convenient rather than important. One student, for example, said, “Yes. It’s convenient.” Another said, “I guess, it’s just easier.” Students are easily purchasing bottled water and just as easily tossing the used bottles, adding to those 80 million plastic bottles that are thrown away every day in the U.S (McKibben, 2009). During the interviews students had difficulty explaining their preference for bottled over tap water, and half of the interviewees did not or could not remember if they recycled their bottles. It is a possibility that some students do not recycle bottles and purchase bottled water because they observe others behave in such a manner and are accept this behavior as a norm. Repeating and accepting such a behavior could be perpetuating this cycle of thoughtless bottle water consumption. Sadly, few students view bottled water as reusable and are only concerned with its convenient portability. Bottled water consumption at ISU does not occur solely because of its convenience, hyperindividualism, or misguided health concerns. In fact, many students buy bottled water out of habit, a behavior that is acquired in two ways: from home or at school. Another three interviewees agreed that they drink bottled water but that they came from tap water drinking homes. This means these students acquired their bottled drinking habit from an environment other than home. The second environment could be college—where students become habitual bottled water drinkers from being exposed to others who regularly consume it. Therefore, it could be that frequent bottled water drinking comes from becoming acculturated to college life and being exposed to other’s habits. 


Habitual practices are things that are conducted frequently, considered normal by those doing it, and usually go unnoticed by those engaged in them.  Students in particular have a regular routine, such as going to class or eating meals at certain hours. For many students, grabbing a bottle of water from home or buying it elsewhere has become part of their daily routine, as trivial as brushing teeth or grabbing coffee. More specifically, some students are habitual bottled water consumers because of their constant need to be on the go. Students with parents that are bottled water drinkers will most likely be bottled water drinkers after leaving home. From my interviews, three students mentioned drinking bottled water at home and therefore at school. It is in this way that consumer goods considered necessities, such as bottled water, take on an increased significance because of their prevalence in people’s lives (Opel, 1999).


Like many commodities of our time, bottled water is overbought and overvalued. Although it seems like a trivial thing, it is a powerful brand-name commodity that undergoes a process of commodification once poured, contained, and branded.  As a commodity it has created cultural, economic, and social changes across the world. At Illinois State University, the student population chooses to purchase bottled water in various ways. Some students buy it out of habit acquired from home or through college friendships, while others purchase it because of convenience. Hyperindividualism also contributes to student preference of bottled water as well as decreases their sense of solidarity as community. Finally, Illinois State University students have health issues with the town of Normal’s water and mistrust the community’s care of tap water, thus supporting neoliberalism.

Bottling water is a significant example of how marketable material culture can lead to the destruction of our environment. Furthermore, commodifying and presenting bottled water as a cultural norm desensitizes young people about our world’s water crisis. Fortunately, not all young people are uninterested and desensitized by the negative issues attached to bottled water. Washington University in St. Louis, for example, led the way for other colleges by ending the sales of bottled water on its campus. Other colleges such as Brown University, Cornell University, and Seattle University are also on their way to remove bottled water sales (Schemer, 2010). Less drastic methods for reducing bottled water consumption could be installing bottle-filling stations around campus and encouraging students to use reusable containers.

This study used ethnography to analyze the consumption practice of bottled water at Illinois State University by studying the student population to better understand the cultural meaning behind branded bottled water. The findings suggest that students consume bottled water out of health, hyperindividuality, convenience, and habit. All four factors are the cause of bottled water’s success among students of Illinois State University. In order to produce well-informed consumers, colleges must encourage or enforce better consumption practices as well as educate students about the environmental effects of popular commodities such as bottled water. Banning bottled water from campuses has proven to be an effective change for certain colleges and could show a trend for schools to increase sustainability practices. This study supported the decrease of bottled water consumption at colleges by encouraging college level institutions to educate students about their own consumption practices. Changes like these could create positive social and behavioral adjustments for future colligate generations.


Note: The Research and Sponsored Programs office at Illinois State University has approved the use of human subjects in this research.  The research complied with all informed consent, confidentiality, and other policies.



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