Category Archives: seafood ethnography

Review: Eating the Ocean

Eating the Ocean. Elspeth Probyn. Duke University Press, 2016.

L. G. Brown (Indiana University)

In, Eating the Ocean, Elspeth Probyn contributes to an anthropology of food in two ways. First, the book offers a feminist and queer perspective on fisheries anthropology. Second, the book endeavors a unique ethnographic exploration into the food politics of fisheries. She says, “My message is simple: There is no place in which to escape the food politics of human-fish entanglement” (Pg. 5). This message is three-fold. First, it reminds consumers that we are all in some way responsible for the depletion of our world’s oceans, and all of the terrible things that happen in the fishing industry, including human slavery. Second, the crisis we see within our oceans is structural, related to the crisis of social class in our food system, namely differential access to food choice based on wealth and poverty. As she states in the introduction, “The idea that you can solve such intricate and complicated human-fish relations by voting with your fork is deluded narcissism” (Pg. 10). And third, that while considering the ethology[1] of more-than-human relations, humans have to remember that we are in a position of power, which means that, despite our best efforts to effectively communicate, we are often speaking on behalf of non-humans, usually without their permission.

This book is like a breath of fresh sea air, cool, briny, and gently laced with the scent of dead things. Much like the dead things in a marine environment, fisheries research is rejuvenating itself, providing space and nutrients for new life forms. Probyn is a Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She reflects on her positionality as a queer, feminist scholar transitioning into fisheries and seafood research throughout the book. On the one hand, she worries that scientists, her university, and her peers would question her interest in fisheries, finding it trivial, perhaps even punishing her for ‘changing’ her presumed research identity (Pg. 17). On the other hand, she can see that this gendered gaze in the sciences represents a larger dis-engagement from women involved with fisheries in any capacity, whether through research or practice (she dedicates Chapter four to a discussion about gender and fish). In the words of Barbara Neis, “Gender relations permeate fisheries at every level” (Neis, 2005, p. 7). The very identity markers—female, queer, gender studies professor—that make Probyn a ‘fish out of water’ in doing fisheries research are the same attributes that make her voice in the field so valuable.

‘Queering’ human-fish relations is Probyn’s touchstone, one that she very effectively articulates throughout the book. She expands on Stefan Helmreich’s notion of ‘athwart’ theory, which he develops in Alien Oceans as, “an empirical itinerary of associations and relations, a travelogue which, to draw on the nautical meaning of athwart, moves sideways, tracing contingent, drifting and bobbing, real-time, and often unexpected connections of which social action is constituted, which mixes up things and their descriptions” (Helmreich, 2009, p. 23). She adds, “To Helmreich’s use of the nautical sense of ‘athwart’… Eve Sedgwick’s understanding that the word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root –twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), and Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart… a continuing movement, recurrent, eddying, and troublant” (Sedgwick, 1993, p. 12). Probyn’s ‘athwart’ theory describes the epistemological ‘turbulence’ emerging from human-fish encounters.

Probyn incorporates this ‘athwart’ theory into her methodology. From Australia to Scotland, California to Peru, her fieldwork is dispersive. Likewise, she collects data from a wide variety of sources including poetry, film, ethnographic records, and government documents. Some readers may call the book an auto-ethnography about fisheries politics using seafood consumption as an entry point. She calls herself a ‘wet’ ethnographer (Pg. 14). “As a wet ethnographer—wet in the doubled sense of being a soft ethnographer who dredges ocean tales—I tease out connections and relate them” (Pg. 14). I assume that Probyn is referring to ‘soft’ here also in a double sense—to compare her qualitative methodology to a more quantitative, or ‘hard’ science approach, and to draw out a gendered binary between the two types of data analysis. Much of the author’s fieldwork is based on participant observation and interviews, and she sticks to a qualitative data analysis.

Probyn also refers to her ethnographic methodology as a ‘rhizo-ethology,’ “a dialogic and embodied practice” (Pg. 14; Deleuze, 1992). She notes that her reference to the rhizome as a signifier for interconnectedness is likely familiar to many terrestrial scholars (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). However, fewer scholars apply this concept to the ocean and its many progenitive marine spaces. Therefore, Probyn challenges a public and scientific discourse which ‘simplifies the sea’ as a solitary cultural milieu (Pg. 24). Crediting Deleuze, she says, “… I follow multiple entryways into the entanglement of humans and non-humans, into our vexed encounters within different ecosystems” (pg. 25). More explicitly, she focuses on the complex relationships humans build with fish as food (aside from her foray into mermaid lore in Chapter 4). This enables her to, “think about ways to develop a reflexive ethics of taste and place” (back cover).

Chapter One describes oceans as ‘affective habitus,’ problematizing seafood choice as a one size fits all solution to an environmental crisis, and sustainability as a ‘heteronormative end goal’ (Pg. 47).  The chapter gives a good overview of seafood politics, feminist critiques of sustainability. She gives a general overview of fisheries politics and research from the last one hundred years or so. She also proffers a unique analysis about seafood documentaries, including The End of the Line, which focuses on depleting fish stocks around the world, and its rejoinder Drawing the Line, which focuses on fishers’ responses to marine conservation efforts. At the end of the chapter, she makes an interesting argument for temporality and caring, asking how we come to care about the ocean and its many inhabitants, and how we sustain that sense of moral obligation. She uses this question of attachment to the sea as a segue way for her next chapter on taste, and other sensualities.

Chapter Two is all about oysters, where Probyn moves to a more direct engagement with taste, embodiment, and briefly, class inequality. For those readers interested in taste and the senses, Probyn offers a useful literature review on the topic here, and applies it well to the context of fisheries politics and seafood consumption. Riffing on Annmarie Mol (Mol, 2008, p. 28), she says, “I eat an oyster… the oyster eats me” (pg. 52). She uses this phrase as an entryway into questions about subjectivity in eating. Then she talks about oysters and sex—the ways that oysters reproduce, “Oysters are very queer” (Pg. 53), and the ways that humans interpret oyster materialities in variously impassioned ways (see Lewis Carroll’s, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” poem and discussion on Pg. 56). She retells M.F.K. Fisher’s autobiographical story, “The First Oyster,” which is about so much more than oysters, as you may have guessed. “The delightful taste of oyster in my mouth, my new-born gourmandise, sent me toward an unknown rather than a known sensuality” (Pg. 54; Fisher, 1990, p. 376). The rest of the chapter is about her fieldwork in Scotland, eating oysters, and visiting an oyster farm, which doubles as a community revitalization project.

Chapter Three is about tuna fishing, ranching, and Individual Transferable Quotas. In it, she tells a fascinating tale about a handful of Croatian-Australian men and one German-Australian man who forever changed the Bluefin tuna industry. Probyn derives much of the narrative content in this section from her own interviews and participant observation with these industry professionals, perhaps more so than in any other chapter in the book. Though the book is technically outside the purview of anthropology, she makes a few friendly references to some well-known anthropologists who study fish and fisheries including Agnar Helgason and Gisli Pálsson, Icelandic fisheries experts (Pálsson & Helgason, 1995); Theodor Bestor, Tsukiji fish market extraordinaire (Bestor, 2004); as well as a lesser-known, though equally important anthropologist, Kate Barclay, who studies transnational tuna fishing, industry, and trade (Barclay, 2008).

Chapter Four is about gender in fisheries. She starts the chapter with an anecdote about her experience researching the subject. A male marine biologist apparently assumed that she was researching mermaids when she got in touch with him about this book. A seemingly innocuous assumption, I can empathize with her sentiment that she felt like, “[her] passion for fish-human ways of being was demeaned, reduced to a little girl’s whimsy” (Pg. 101). She winds up writing extensively on mermaids in this chapter as a result. The rest of the chapter she dedicates to a breakdown about the fisheries industry and social inequality in terms of gender. She starts with a feminist critique of sustainability narratives that assume women are better at sustainability because they are closer to nature. Yet, in countless fisheries examples, women have held special knowledge about shifts in fish stocks, materialities, and ecosystems but no one bothered to ask them what they knew. Their voices simply count for less than male voices.

Chapter Five is about little fish. In this chapter, Probyn talks about her love of sardines, and the fisheries in Peru who produce anchovies for fishmeal to feed animals, and fish oils to sell as dietary supplements to the wealthy. The chapter includes the story of a female activist in Peru, Patricia Maljuf, who set out to make anchovies edible again (Majluf, 2013). Majluf works with fishers, processors, and chefs to market anchovies as a delicate and tasty tinned treat, like sardines, only different. She also discusses multitrophic polyculture, and visits an algae lab. She ends the chapter with a discussion about fish relatedness, and ‘metabolic intimacy,’ a concept she borrows from Annemarie Mol and John Law (Law & Mol, 2008), and builds on through the chapter. She says, “As a concept, it directs us to think about the multiple trophic and structural levels through which we (fish, humans, animals) are related” (Pg. 148). Probyn uses this concept in addition to Jane Bennetat’s conceptualization of ‘vibrant materiality’ (Pg. 136; Bennett, 2009, p. 39), and Ana Tsing’s notion about, “the arts of noticing the entwined relations of humans and other species across non-nesting scales,” which Probyn first develops at the end of chapter four (Pg. 126; Tsing, 2014, p. 237).

Through these chapters, Probyn moves easily between fisheries research references from the social sciences to a more novel discussion about literary narratives and pop culture references, including a brief discussion about the humans who pose naked with tuna, and other seafood. This theme, weaving together science and folklore, imbricating fiction with non-fiction, the myriad forms of visual, written and oral history is something that Probyn plays with throughout the book. To me, this is the book’s greatest strength. It lends her an authorial edge in the genre. ‘Queering’ fisheries research in this way, Probyn invites a whole new generation of trans-disciplinary scholars to the field. I would guess that graduate students will find the book refreshing, and undergraduates, more challenging.  In my experience, students love to learn about seafood. And this book provides a unique, and exciting overview of the topic. Meanwhile, it makes meaningful change to the politics of human-fish relations, and of gender in the social sciences more generally. Readers may also find the book an accessible introduction to fisheries research in the humanities, and to more-than-human ethologies in the social sciences.

However, I felt the author could do more to untangle the relationship between social class and sustainability, including a more thorough discussion of race (she does expound a bit on race and in the context of gender studies in Chapter 4). Given her strong message about structural inequality at the beginning of the book, I hoped she might spend more time deconstructing the interplay of seafood, sustainability, and social class throughout. She does argue that middle-class consumers who identify with ‘localism’ in seafood consumption often perpetuate ideals about racial and moral purity (Pg. 3, 107). She does talk about the struggle for capital among fishers, especially in chapter two, oyster farmers in this case, as well as the many folks who work other jobs in the fisheries industry, namely women, which she covers well in chapter four. In contrast, in chapter three, she focuses on a group of billionaires who hold large quantities of Blue Fin tuna quotas, an important reminder that not all who make their living on fisheries production are poor. She speaks more directly to global inequalities in fish consumption in chapter five when she discusses fish oils as problematic dietary supplements for the wealthy, not to mention the additional double-bind for pregnant women who have to balance methyl-mercury risks with Omega-3 Fatty Acid intake (Mansfield, 2012). Though her fieldwork on the topic of structural inequality between consumers in human-fish relations is lacking.

While the book does so much to further social inquiry into the relationship between humans and fish, I wanted to hear more about structural inequality among humans, especially as consumers. How can we come together to confront seafood politics and sustainability across our class divides? From what I understand, her intent with this book is to move the discourses of sustainability and seafood politics away from the same old moral directives which privilege white, upper-middle-class, heteronormative, cis-males, and the reproductive structures that pattern social inequality in our everyday lives. The same class politics that are inherent to consumerism also play out in human-fish relations, reproducing structural inequality between humans, fish, and the ocean. When researchers frame the oceanic crisis within the ‘Anthropocene,’ they often reproduce this collective politics, or social inequality in discourses on sustainability and seafood consumption (Pgs. 12).

In her conclusion, she says that we all need to pay more attention to seafood politics and try to build closer relationships with fish, fishers, and the ocean as consumers. More specifically, she recommends eating more little fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and oysters. Her argument is that these smaller fish are more readily available, and underappreciated. It remains unclear to me who this message is for. Is the message the same for low and high-income consumers? Are sardines, anchovies, and oysters affordable seafood options for most consumers? Are consumers at Long John Silver’s responsible for shifting cultural tastes in the same way that consumers at Nobu are? Notwithstanding, this book is important for what it does do: bring together a queer and feminist perspective on seafood politics with fisheries research in the social sciences. Perhaps the relationship between social class and seafood sustainability is something that Elspeth Probyn will explore in more depth in another book, one that I will be sure to read.




Barclay, K. (2008). A Japanese joint venture in the Pacific: Foreign bodies in tinned Tuna. Routledge.

Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Bestor, T. (2004). Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Ethology: Spinoza and us. Incorporations, 625–633.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. London: Continuum.

Fisher, M. F. K. (1990). The Art of Eating. New York: Hungry Minds.

Helmreich, S. (2009). Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbial seas. Univ of California Press.

Law, J., & Mol, A. (2008). Globalisation in practice: On the politics of boiling pigswill. Geoforum, 39(1), 133–143.

Majluf, P. (2013). The Very Elusive Win-Win-Win (A Story of Greed, Overfishing, Perceptions, Luck, and Hopefully a Happy Ending). (Paper presented at the Changing Coastlines Symposium). Sydney Australia.

Mansfield, B. (2012). Environmental Health as Biosecurity: “Seafood Choices,” Risk , and the Pregnant Woman as Threshold. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, (October), 37–41.

Mol, A. (2008). The logic of care: Health and the problem of patient choice. Routledge.

Neis, B. (2005). “Introduction.” In M. Binkley, S. Gerrard, M. C. Maneschy, & B. Neis (Eds.), Changing tides: gender, fisheries, and globalization (pp. 1–13). Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) Fernwood Pub.

Pálsson, G., & Helgason, A. (1995). Figuring fish and measuring men: the individual transferable quota system in the Icelandic cod fishery. Ocean & Coastal Management, 28(1–3), 117–146.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1993). Tendencies. Duke University Press.

Tsing, A. L. (2014). Strathern beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(2–3), 221–241.


[1] The study of animal behavior, including humans, from a biological perspective.



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