Performing possibilities for community in small-scale fisheries

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In a 2019 review of the natural and social sciences peer-reviewed literature on small-scale fisheries (SSF), Smith and Basurto (2019) argue that contemporary interest in SSF—their contribution to global employment, food and nutritional security, etc.—invites scrutiny of SSF definitions. If SSF are a distinct category of activity, to be assessed and ultimately managed as such, on what basis are distinctions made? Although Smith and Basurto (2019, 4) identify a range of SSF attributes, “including the size and type of boat, engine horse power, equipment type, time commitment, catch rates and disposal, environmental knowledge, significance of fishing as a livelihood, and marginality, among others,” their review of the SSF literature over six decades finds definitions focus on attributes of “fishing gear” (58% of publications) and boat type (51% of publications, 60% of which specify boat length). In a review of national policies for SSF in 140 countries, Chuenpagdee et al. (2006) also find boat length dominates definitions (in 65% of policies). Governments and fisheries scientists, it seems, are compelled by a technological distinction.

This distinction stands in stark contrast to that made by Jentoft (2020) in this issue. Although recognizing the struggle to define such a globally diverse sector, Jentoft asserts that SSF can be distinguished by the shared attribute of their links to community. Although he does not address directly the inadequacies of the technology-focused definitions, critique is implied: “small-scale fishers depend on their communities as much as they depend on the fish, their boats and gear” (Jentoft 2020, article abstract). In imagining the future for SSF and related research, Jentoft re-directs our gaze away from what is happening on or below the water, to what is happening in the community. He also inverts the presumed importance of SSF to coastal communities, asking instead about the importance of coastal communities to SSF. There is much of interest in the essay, but I focus on the term community, and specifically Jentoft’s assertion that “the social sciences of fisheries examine the community as a unit of analysis” (Jentoft 2020, article abstract). The assertion struck me in two ways, described below.

The first relates to Jentoft’s (2020) unabashed centering of community for the social sciences of fisheries. My response to this centering relates to my own efforts to understand community in the mid-1990s, while conducting my PhD research on wildlife conservation policy and practice. At the time, many conservation organizations were enthusiastic about the potential for community-based conservation and I was researching a reasonably successful case (Campbell 1998; Campbell et al. 2007). However, by the time I finished my PhD, enthusiasm for community-based conservation was already waning. The problem, according to several influential publications (e.g., Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Kellert et al. 2000), was community, a concept that was oversimplified and romanticized. The argument was more detailed and complex, but the result for me—a (then) young researcher trying to communicate with conservation practitioners—was that I felt the need to always use scare quotes with “community,” lest I was accused of being naïve.

I am still taken off-guard and a little bit thrilled when I read the social sciences of fisheries, in which authors like Jentoft (1999, 2000) and St. Martin (2001; 2005a, b) argue that we need to talk more rather than less about community, and to look for and identify communities in places we do not normally expect to find them (e.g., at sea). More importantly, their work (along with work by Mansfield (2004), Holm and Nielsen (2007), and others) speaks to the politics of negating or obscuring community in favor of assumptions about individual fishers acting in their self-interest. When we create policies that reflect these assumptions, we simultaneously create the conditions (e.g., rules, but also data collection and monitoring protocols) under which they are likely to be confirmed. This is a performative view of policy making, in which policy is not just a response to reality but co-constitutive of it (MacKenzie et al. 2007). In this view, recognizing community becomes key to creating possibilities for community (Gibson-Graham 2008).

The second way the assertion struck me is that, as part of this centering, Jentoft (2020) identifies the community as the unit of analysis. Unit of analysis implies more than a topic or a theme of interest, but the entity being analyzed, the thing about which we want to be able to say something. At first read, this suggests that communities can be defined by measurable attributes: e.g., location and boundaries, community composition (populations by age, gender, race, length of residency), household structure, formal and informal institutions, or the economic activities of residents. Indeed, Jentoft (2020) lists similar attributes when he describes the type of research a social scientist might do. But communities are more than combinations of attributes and Jentoft directs our attention to complex social relations mediated by gender, morality, freedom, and embeddedness. Seen this way, community is not “a thing,” but sets of relations. In Jentoft’s words: “communities are more than aggregates of individuals that happen to reside in a particular place... They are social and moral systems where people relate and interact in ways that are important for their well-being, security, and identity” (Jentoft 2020, 6th page).

In this light, the unit of analysis—that which we seek to understand—is relations and interactions. I agree with this understanding of community, but it raises some important questions. How do we research and analyze relations and interactions such that results are meaningful beyond the specific case, particularly for policy makers and resource managers interested in SSF? Should we even try to accomplish this? I return to Smith and Basurto (2019), who are critical of the dominant definitions of SSF in part because they focus attention exclusively on harvest activities; they share Jentoft’s concern to connect SSF to the shore. But their broader argument is that the definition matters because it is key to making SSF legible (Scott 1998) to policy makers and resource managers seeking to act on SSF.

I would go further, to embed this concern about definition in the larger context of shifts in governance towards metrological regimes, where governance is pursued via goals; standards, benchmarks, or targets to reach those goals; and indicators to measure progress towards them. This “measurementality” is seen in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Campbell et al. 2014). It is increasingly evident in FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (FAO 2015), for which FAO and partners are discussing how progress will be defined, measured, and monitored ( Although there is much to criticize with measurementality (Turnhout et al. 2014), there is a danger in refusing to engage with it; in a review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Jacob (2017) found a significant relationship between a high-quality performance measurement system (e.g., existence of indicators, availability of data) and performance success; goals were more likely to be achieved if they were measurable. One explanation for this is that governing by goals encourages investment in areas where progress can be measured and reported; achievement is a function of pursuit. Thus, the lack of a high-quality performance measurement system for a particular goal may mean the goal is not pursued.

So, I restate the question. If SSF are defined by links to community rather than boat length, and community is sets of relations mediated by gender, morality, freedom, and embeddedness, can these be made legible and actionable for policy makers? And, in a way that retains their meaning to researchers? I do not have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced they exist. But the power of measurementality in governance demands that we at least reflect on them. And a performative understanding of policy making suggests there is always possibility.


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Campbell, L.M. Performing possibilities for community in small-scale fisheries. Maritime Studies 19, 399–401 (2020).

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