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Anthropology Dissertation Defense:
Moving Worlds: Maritime Work and Life on the Social Ocean
My doctoral dissertation is an anthropological study of the maritime world as a social and political world and of the people, such as seafarers and coastguards, who make and shape this world through their everyday work. With ninety percent of the world’s goods traveling by sea, the maritime industry is central to our global society and economy. Yet, despite this importance, it has remained largely invisible in the social sciences’ discussions of the global.
Based on ethnographic research with maritime workers onboard ships and ashore, and with key maritime institutions of governance, my dissertation brings to light the invisible and hidden maritime worlds and life-worlds that make up the backbones of global trade. I show how this infrastructural maritime world of mobility is dependent on an ethnically stratified and unequally positioned labor force. Onboard contemporary cargo ships, colonial relationships of inequality are reproduced, even reinforced, as contracts and conditions of work are closely tied to seafarers’ nationalities and the relative position of their countries in the global economy.
By exploring social relations onboard ships, global maritime labor politics, and challenges of maritime governance, I show the enormous amount of work that is required for the global circulation of goods to appear as smooth and friction-free. This work involves not just logistical labor, but also the social labor of working with, and living alongside, people from different backgrounds who share the same limited and intimate physical space, but under vastly different conditions of work, and in highly unequal positions of power.