Environment, labour and capitalism at sea

‘Working the ground’ in Scotland

Penny McCall Howard
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Ethnographies of labour at sea must examine the experience of that labour, rather than contemplate the commodities that are produced, or resort to trite metaphors about watery 'flow' and 'immersion' This book takes up a labour-centred Marxist approach to human-environment relations, place and language, human-machine relations, technique and technology, political economy and violence. It explores how fishers make the sea productive through their labour, using technologies ranging from wooden boats to digital GPS plotters to create familiar places in a seemingly hostile environment. While most analyses of navigation assume that its purpose is orientation, virtually all navigation devices are used in techniques to solve the problem of relative position. Fishers frequently have to make impossible choices between safe seamanship and staying afloat economically, and the book describes the human impact of the high rate of deaths in the fishing industry. The lives of fishermen are affected by capitalist forces in the markets they sell to, forces that shape even the relations between fishers on the same boat. The book also discusses techniques people used to extend their bodies and perceptual abilities, the importance of controlling and delicately manipulating these extensions and the caring relationships of maintenance boats and machines required. A 'new anthropology of labour' and a 'decolonised anthropology dispenses with the disciplinary emphasis on the "outside" of capitalism and encompasses the dynamism and interconnections of global society'.

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Winner of the American Anthropological Association's Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Prize, 2018


‘As Howard makes clear capital and its drive to profit must be challenged—this book is a weapon in that fight.'
Sarah Ensor
International Socialism, A quarterly review of socialist theory

‘How do the fishers relate to each other, their boats, their technologies, the sea, their catches? In this deeply researched book, written with an intimate feel for fishing and the sea, Penny McCall Howard answers these questions. Based on the Scottish industry, this important book shows how class relations continue to shape labour, working relationships, environments and at times life and death. Few researchers hold both a 100-ton captain's licence from the US Merchant Marine and a doctoral degree; few are as at home on a fishing boat's deck as they are in a library. Penny McCall Howard brings a unique blend of abilities to this compelling account of work and has produced an argument for rethinking how we understand the nature of labour in any industry and in all places.'
Professor Bradon Ellem, University of Sydney Business School

‘It has been a pleasure to read this book, and I highly recommend it to everyone.'
Journal of agrarian change

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