In the summer
of 1998, our work on the Bay began as a study of the social and
cultural dimensions of Pfiesteria
piscicida, which captured significant media and scientific attention
in the summer of 1997. We
initiated the project because we felt that studying the cultural
knowledge and values underlying peoples' responses to Pfiesteria
was key to understanding the widespread "hysteria over
We also believed that such a study could help improve dialogue
on scientific and policy issues among the Bay's environmental stakeholder
our work broadened to examine different groups' knowledge and values
regarding the environment and pollution of Maryland's Chesapeake
Bay. Our work has involved
watermen, natural resource managers, policymakers, farmers, non-governmental
conservationists, and scientists who live, work and/or conduct research
in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. To date, most of our fieldwork has been conducted on Maryland's
Lower Eastern Shore.
there are some key concepts and techniques that we use to do our
work. Two very important
and related concepts are cultural
relativism and holism. Anthropologists believe that different cultures and lifestyles
can only be understood in relation to their own respective values
and behaviors. Therefore,
the values and behaviors of one group cannot be judged according
to the those of another group – this is cultural relativism.
Anthropologists also look at people and culture holistically,
meaning we view human behavior within the big picture and examine
how parts of a culture are connected.
example of how these concepts are applied to our work on the Chesapeake
Bay. In order to better
understand people's knowledge of the environment and pollution,
we need to consider questions like: what knowledge and values do
different groups have regarding the environment and pollution?
How is that knowledge shaped by their involvement in social
institutions like universities, churches, environmental organizations? What kinds of traditions and practices are influenced by and
influence their knowledge and behaviors?
We look at the answers to these questions for each group
and how they compare without judging whether a group is "better"
or "worse," "right" or "wrong" – the
goal is to better understand each culture's values, practices and
knowledge by their own standards, and not judge them based on our
own or any other culture's standards.
Of course, this is usually easier said than done!
use certain techniques to answer questions.
Fieldwork is the
core technique of anthropology.
It can take many forms, but fieldwork generally involves
the anthropologist observing and interacting with people where they
live and work on a regular basis for an extended period of time.
For us, fieldwork involves helping a waterman cull crabs
on his work boat, attending public hearings, interviewing environmentalists,
conducting surveys, visiting with farmers and their families in
their homes. It can take a lot of time and effort to understand aspects
of another culture from an insider's perspective.
But the benefits of doing fieldwork, both professional and
personal, make it all worthwhile.
phase of our work on the Bay is a study of women's roles in the
peeler and soft crab industry (discussed in detail in this month's
Gazette), and a project to conduct collaborative learning workshops
involving Maryland watermen, natural resource managers and scientists
this Fall and Winter. We
are conducting these workshops in response to the current controversy
over the ecological and economic status of the blue crab fishery.
Yield and population indicators have led marine scientists
and natural resource managers to believe that the blue crab population
is at dangerously low levels and that reductions in commercial harvesting
is key to protecting the blue crab.
Watermen agree that the blue crab fishery is under pressure
and see a role for science and regulations in helping to sustain
the fishery and their livelihoods, but they question the scientific
knowledge and are critical of the governmental regulations. Our goal is to act as a neutral third party and use the workshops
as catalysts for mutual learning and constructive dialogue – that
goes deeper than common discussions about specific issues, and exposes
new insights about underlying issues – to improve relations between