Jennifer Lee Johnson

Graduate Student
Environmental History + Anthropology
Intellectual Biography: 

I first traveled to Uganda in 2007 to begin studying the Lake Victoria’s Nile perch fishery – one of the best (or rather, most) studied fisheries in the world. I soon realized that if I was to “discover” anything new about this lake and its fisheries, I had to step away from ideas about this lake that I had learned from scientific journals, policy documents, news articles, and documentary films. And instead, to try and understand these fisheries from the perspectives of women and men who actually work with fish in Uganda.

My dissertation, Fishwork in Uganda: A Multispecies Ethnohistory of Fish, People, and Ideas about Fish and People, develops concepts of littoral politics and vernacular practice to retheorize the intersection of gender, fish, and the sustainability of freshwater ecosystems. By foregrounding women’s work with diverse species and forms of fish – both indigenous and introduced – alongside linked social and ecological transformations, Fishwork in Uganda challenges received wisdoms about the nature of social and ecological change in Africa’s largest lake.

Known to English speakers as Lake Victoria, this lake has long been a crucible for transformative social dynamics characterized by the littoral, or the shoreline. It is a place of heightened prospects for actual and economic mobility, alternative moralities of sexual and economic exchange, and competing valuation of space and resources for leisure, protein, and politically strategic purposes. Lake Victoria is represented in popular culture as a system in constant crisis – a “sick giant” still “in the heart of darkness.” My research offers a very different account.

Vernacular fisheries practices refer to fisheries-related activities that are conducted in relation to the cosmopolitan cultural ecology of the littoral, rather than in accordance with relatively static managerial understandings of what a fishery is and should be, though the vernacular can also be found in the creation and application of managerial conceptions of fisheries. Vernacular practices are difficult to calculate, control, and predict, because like the littoral, they are always on the move. These include buying fresh fish to process at night by the handful, rather than by the kilogram in the light of day, selling fish to neighbors rather than to wholesalers at formal markets, and upholding practical operational categories of “reasonably-sized” fish that may be formally illegal, but nonetheless usually permissible. They also include the maintenance of profitable business and conjugal ties between a husband and wife who own boats individually, but share ownership of a transport vessel supplying intercontinental markets, paying tribute to ancestral spirits at family shrines, and the forging of friendships with key individuals involved in the formally illegal fisheries trade who provide access to fish, processing techniques, buyers, and information to evade enforcement efforts.

Much of the research on this topic suggests that women have either played a marginal role in the historical development of Uganda’s fisheries, or that they have been marginalized by the subsequent globalization and industrialization of these same fisheries. My own previous studies followed in this tradition, relying on quantitative research designs and survey methodologies. Though these provide a rich empirical basis for my work, and resulted in my first two peer-reviewed publications, the new research questions that emerged required different theoretical frameworks and methodological tools.

In response, I developed specialized interdisciplinary training in environmental anthropology, critical management studies, and eco-feminist approaches to my work, as well as regional expertise in African environmental, economic, and social history. With support from the National Science Foundation and Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropology, I conducted an additional sixteen months of ethnographic research in Uganda focusing on the movements, material forms, and meanings generated within this lake’s diverse fisheries-related economies.

Contrary to the received wisdoms noted above, this phase of research demonstrated that women were and still are doing vital work to sustain and innovate local, regional, and intercontinental fisheries-related trades. Though, much of their work remains formally illegal within scientific, policy, and legal frameworks that prioritize the export of frozen Nile perch fish fillets over the production of forms and species of fish that Ugandans prefer to work with and consume. Currently, species of fish – long thought to be rendered extinct by the introduction and proliferation of the invasive Nile perch – are reappearing in fishermen’s nets and at women’s market stalls. And with them, new possibilities are emerging for fisheries that meet the needs of Ugandan producers and consumers first, and the needs of global markets a distant second.

My second major project will examine gender differentiated fisheries practices, scientific research and historical and contemporary sustainability debates between the North American Great Lakes and the Great Lakes of Africa. Both contexts share oral traditions associating women with the founding of the lakes, and legacies of colonialism, intentional and accidental introductions of invasive species, relatively rapid industrial development, and histories of scientific study and managerial interventions towards sustainability.

This will be the first study of its kind to explore the potential insights that emerge from studying the Great Lakes across continents and against African exceptionalism. It considers the Comaroffs’ (2012, 1) recent proposition that “it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large.” In addition to examining how scientific theories and managerial interventions across contexts shape and are shaped by transformations in aquatic ecologies and conceptions of sustainability, this project applies design and methodological approaches advanced in my first project. Specifically, that conducting oral and work history interviews with women (and men), archival research, content analysis of news articles and policy documents, and participant observation in fisheries activities and analyzing these transcripts, documents, and fieldnotes, reveals the gendered nature of places and practices assumed to be almost exclusively in male domains.

An anti-apocalyptic politics runs throughout my work. That is, I focus analytic attention on emergence and not emergency, on persistence and transformation rather than collapse and extinction. For me, this is the most productive way to envision a sustainable future that is informed by histories of social and ecological change, but not limited by the same problematic assumptions and conceptual frameworks that have catalyzed the social and ecological challenges – even crises – that have motivated the need for environmental management in the first place.

Presentation Title: 
Fishwork: What Local Fish Reveal about Global Fisheries, or What Local Fish Reveal about the Global Political Economy of Protein
Illich, Ivan. 1999. “The Shadow Our Future Throws.” New Perspectives Quarterly 16 (2): 14–18. Latour, Bruno. 2010. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Duke University Press Durham. (Especially Chapter One). Raffles, Hugh. 2008. “‘Local Theory’: Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place.” Cultural Anthropology 14 (3): 323–60.
Small workshops on big topics have been the most energizing, generative, and satisfying events I have ever had the pleasure of attending. I would absolutely love to participate in this one.