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Volume 2, Number 3
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Anthropology Close to Home

Erve Chambers and Michael Paolisso

0nce anthropology brought us glimpses into cultures far away and very unlike our own. Now anthropologists also study groups and behaviors closer to home and more familiar - anthropology today is often studying not "them" but "us."

Anthropologists carry out their investigations in the field of human endeavor, in this case working with watermen on their boats, speaking with them, conducting intensive interviews. Like researchers in other disciplines, Michael Paolisso and his colleagues have developed a tool kit of analytical methods and techniques to evaluate the data they collect. For the most part, those data are derived from recorded language and the ideas that language represents. For example, Paolisso and his team use a computer program (called Atlas.ti) that allows the researcher to search and code transcribed interviews for key terms and phrases and other important language patterns - patterns that may reveal base assumptions or underlying beliefs.

While field studies undertaken by Paolisso and his academic colleagues may result in scholarly articles in such journals as Human Organization and American Anthropologist, as applied anthropologists their aim is also to form a deep connection with the communities they study.

"There is a debate among anthropologists," says Erve Chambers, past president of the Society for Applied Anthropology and chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Maryland. "In fact you could say it divides the discipline." That divide separates those who hold that anthropologists should record their observations at a distance from those who want to become more engaged. The first group argues that anthropologists should, like their colleagues in the physical and biological sciences, be careful not to affect the outcomes of their objective experiments. The second group holds that human communities are, finally, human, and involvement is not only inevitable but desirable. Paolisso and Chambers describe themselves as belonging squarely in this second camp - among those who work closely with their subjects and want their work to be relevant to pertinent issues, issues such as blue crab management in the Chesapeake Bay.

As has often been said, fisheries management is less about managing fish than it is about managing people. The challenge facing resource managers in the Chesapeake Bay remains how to use the knowledge of both scientists and watermen to assure a sustainable blue crab spawning stock. Work by anthropologists is helping to suggest ways in which these groups - managers, scientists and watermen - might work more closely together to break through historical barriers and find new ways to achieve their common goal of a thriving blue crab population in the Chesapeake.

Paolisso's work follows on other anthropological studies of fishing communities, such as James M. Acheson's The Lobster Gangs of Maine (1988) and Bonnie McKay's study of the oyster fishery in Oyster Wars and the Public Trust (1998). As Acheson noted in his study of lobstermen, his education as a social anthropologist helped him "to look at my own state as any anthropologist looks at a society to be studied." Acheson spent years studying the lobster fishery, and found communities of lobstermen very hierarchical, with a kingpin or "king" often "running things" in any given harbor. Paolisso's work seems to find less hierarchy and more individualism, the kind of individualism suggested in lyrical and insightful descriptions of watermen by such writers as William Warner in Beautiful Swimmers (1976) and Tom Horton in An Island Out of Time (1996).

What separates Paolisso's work from other writings about Chesapeake crabbers is the analytical framework he brings to the subject and the cultural models he is trying to construct to describe how, for watermen, the world works.

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