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‘Working the ground’ in Scotland

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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Penny McCall Howard

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book first traces the connections and ruptures in the experience of people, mostly men, mostly Scottish, as they work in the prawn and other fisheries on the west coast of Scotland. The author's research centred on human-environment relations at sea, which made the best use of his own skills and experience as a professional seafarer, and provided a wealth of rich opportunities for participant observation. The book then traces the development of fishing grounds and other places at sea, people's use of tools and machines to extend their bodily senses and capabilities into the sea, and techniques for orienting themselves and navigating at sea. The book further shows how political economy structures these experiences and histories and has created a situation of unacknowledged structural violence for people working in the fishing industry.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
Penny McCall Howard

This chapter offers a detailed description of how fishermen on the west coast of Scotland worked their fishing grounds and developed their productivity. The historical development of fishing techniques and fishing gear significantly affected what ground was considered 'workable'. James Gibson's and Tim Ingold's analyses of affordances offer a useful way of understanding the development of fishing grounds, and more broadly, how humans perceive, experience and transform the environments they find themselves in, in every moment of their lives. Anthropological studies of the role of human labour in human-environment relations have generally taken place outside industrial capitalist settings and are quite distinct from anthropological studies of waged labour and capitalism. Capitalism itself can be seen as a project to redefine what counts as productive activity, how productivity is assessed, and in particular, to re-shape people's 'own purpose' in their activities.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
Naming places at sea
Penny McCall Howard

This chapter examines both the phenomenological experience of places and how these experiences have been affected by changing seafood markets, ecological, social and language change, and militarisation of the coast. Wullie's Peak is one of many places that are part of trawler fishermen's working practices and everyday conversations yet are completely invisible from the sea's surface and not related to any place on shore. The Peak became Wullie's through his work there, and through the 'good craic' and playful radio conversations he shared with other trawl skippers working in the area. Places could also incorporate global social and military history, for example, 'The Burma', a tow located north of Wullie's Peak. The naming and discussion of The Burma was good craic. The Burma reflects the international work experience of many people living in the Highlands, usually either as soldiers or working on cargo ships.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
Penny McCall Howard

This chapter examines the techniques people used to extend their bodies and perceptual abilities deep into the sea. It presents the importance of controlling and delicately manipulating these extensions and the caring relationships of maintenance boats and machines required. Fishermen developed techniques for extending their bodily perception and effectiveness that incorporated boats, engines, fishing gear and electronic navigation tools to work in and develop the affordances of fishing grounds. The chapter describes how the relationships to boats and machines are affected by class and social relations of ownership. It explores the ways in which 'new' high technology devices are embedded in broader techniques and forms of social organisation that attempt to solve 'old' problems at sea. The chapter discusses how people's experience of such devices are embedded in and deeply affected by social, class and market relations.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
Rethinking navigation
Penny McCall Howard

This chapter applies a labour-centred approach to challenge received views about Western navigation and its technologies, and to put forward an alternate analysis centred on people's skills, intentions and techniques. European navigation practices are typically portrayed as highly planned and abstracted in contrast to the responsive and sensitive environmental perception of the Micronesians and others. Thomas Gladwin's ethnography of Micronesian navigation refers to his own sailing experience and is not an ethnography of Western navigation. The chapter also applies 'orientation' to describe the general and comfortable sense of one's position in the world. This is distinct from the challenge of finding 'relative position' to specific affordances or obstacles. While most analyses of navigation assume that its purpose is orientation ('where am I?'), the chapter demonstrates that virtually all navigation devices are used in techniques to solve the problem of relative position ('where is that?').

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
The difference political economy makes
Penny McCall Howard

This chapter explores the organising effects: how sea creatures like crabs and prawns were made into tradeable commodities, and how commodity relations affected ownership of boats and gear and the distribution of the fishing surplus among owners and crew. The development of the live whole prawn market with 'a better price' was crucial to the revival of the prawn creel fishery, a more labour-intensive method of fishing which could not otherwise compete with the trawlers on price. The chapter demonstrates the understanding that political economy can bring to anthropological and fishing studies, and also in understanding 'why things are this way'. Fisheries anthropologist Charles Menzies argues that an understanding of the pressures of capitalist commodity production, and the social relations it requires, are important to understanding fisheries. Fisheries are frequently described as if their existence was a natural fact that simply reflects the presence of fish.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
Penny McCall Howard

The structural violence present in contemporary ecological systems, and in the capitalist relations that currently produce them, is made visible in Scottish fishing wrecks. Structural violence experienced through work, over the course of a person's life, can build to an increasingly traumatic 'state of emergency' that people must 'get used to' in order to maintain their livelihood. Fishermen and seafarers who did confront the constant danger posed by the impossible contradictions they had to cope with usually left the industry, or carried on in a jittery traumatised state. The contradictions between the logics of the market and of seamanship were most vividly illustrated in how it affected fishermen's judgement of the weather. In the case of fishermen, the mainstream ideology of nature subordinates their health and well-being not only to their seafood 'products', but to the whole environment they work in and have made productive.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea
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Labour, class, environments and anthropology
Penny McCall Howard

This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The 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. The relationship between humans, their labour and their environments is a practical and historical question, 'not an abstract philosophical puzzle'. This should contribute to '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'. An understanding of the processes of production and reproduction can provide considerable insight into social organisation, technologies, and environments. The book discusses the situation of structural violence that arose for people who were not able to exert the machine control.

in Environment, labour and capitalism at sea