Accepted paper:

Denationalized ships, multicultural crews and the "race to the bottom" in the global maritime industry


Johanna Markkula (University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

Based on research onboard a cargo-ship with mixed Swedish-Filipino crew, this paper explores how the specificity of the modern cargo-ship as a physical, social and political environment shapes the everyday lives of contemporary seafarers in terms of isolation, mobility, nationality and belonging.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the contradictory social, political and legal dynamics of the life-world of a contemporary cargo-ship and its crew. Based on fieldwork onboard a freighter with Swedish-Filipino crew, I look at the ship as 1) a specific physical technology and living environment of which seafarers are an integral part, 2) as a social environment with complex and contradictory dynamics shaped by both internal and external forces, and 3) as an ambiguous political unit, simultaneously outside national boundaries and deeply embedded in the nation-state system; a situation which shipping companies make instrumental use of through practices such as Flags of Convenience. The paper begins by considering some of the key ways in which ships have been conceptualized, including ships as prisonlike, isolated total social institutions; ships as microcosms of cultural diversity, global villages or heterotopias; and ships as mobile technological links of connection that are vehicles of globalization. The second part of the paper is ethnographical and looks at the ship as a living environment with its own life course whose specific physical characteristics influences the lives of the people working onboard. It explores how seafarers think about the ship, feel part of the ship, and the practices of belonging and place making through which they take ownership of their vessel. As detached floating sites in which people both work and live, ships blur the boundaries of home and away, work and leisure, dwelling and travelling. The paper concludes by proposing an alternative way of conceptualizing the contemporary cargo-ship.

panel P23
Humanity at sea: hybridity and seafaring