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Construire les savoirs dans l’action

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Marie-Claude Mahias

Extended vision. Finding fish like South Indian fishermen

Une vision élargie: trouver des poissons à la manière des pêcheurs du Sud de l’Inde

Götz Hoeppe

Résumé

Ce texte examine les pratiques mises en œuvre par les pêcheurs artisanaux de l’État du Kerala (Sud-Ouest de l’Inde) pour localiser les ressources halieutiques. La distribution éphémère des poissons dans l’océan les conduit à utiliser et à co-créer un environnement constitué d’acteurs mutuellement responsables, qui leur sert de base interprétative. Cet environnement comprend, entre autres, différents équipages en compétition, des chalutiers, mais aussi les goélands qu’ils voient plonger dans l’océan.
M’étant concentré sur un équipage, je considère la manière dont sa perception est organisée socialement, et j’analyse comment ses membres utilisent un ensemble de modèles culturels et heuristiques dans leur pratique de la pêche. Ces modèles comprennent des idées sur « la manière d’être des poissons », sur « la manière d’être des autres équipages », et sur « la façon dont les chaluts affectent les poissons et l’océan ». Ce sont des méthodes heuristiques qui les aident à décider lequel, parmi les différents bancs aperçus au cours d’une sortie en mer, ils doivent essayer de capturer. Au large, les hommes utilisent ces modèles culturels pour interpréter la manière dont les interventions des divers acteurs du monde marin marquent la localisation des poissons dans l’océan. Ces modèles affectent donc les performances de l’équipage ici considéré, dont les actions influent en retour sur les autres acteurs qui peuvent les voir. C’est en ce sens que la vision des pêcheurs est qualifiée ici de vision élargie.

Texte intégral

Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.
John Berger,
Ways of Seeing.

Introduction

  • 1 In Kerala, women are excluded from participating in marine fishing.
  • 2 In this text, important Malayalam words are written in italics and transliterated following the Lib (...)

1Unlike artisans who make an artefact in a workshop, and, in doing so, may exert a fairly comprehensive control over the conditions of manufacture, many fishers work in an ever-changing world, and have to generate knowledge in the course of each trip into the sea. This is particularly true in the fishery of species that move in the “pelagic”, i.e. near the surface (as opposed to the catch of bottom-dwelling species, which may reside near specific submarine reefs). The marine fishery near Chamakkala, a village in central Kerala (South India), is an example of such highly variable conditions. I have studied this village’s fisherfolk, Hindu and Muslim, during fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in 1999/2000 and 2002.1 The sea bottom off the coast of this village is sandy and as such lacks structure. It does not provide an underwater topography of reefs or the like that would determine the location of fish and thus aid the fishermen in their work. Most of the fish economically important locally, notably sardines and mackerel, occur in shoals (called pelappu or kūṭṭaṃ in Malayalam, the local vernacular2) whose movement in the sea is notoriously uncertain. Says Kunhiraman, an old fisherman: “These are the fish. It is not their habit to build a house and live in it. So they may travel from one side to another.” If this is the case, fishing in Chamakkala must be an endeavour of active knowledge making in which visual skills may be crucial. The men cannot rehearse fixed routines. But if not, then what do they do? Which kind of knowledge do they generate in order to operate successfully? How do they generate it? How is their knowledge making embedded in, and linked to, the specifics of their environment?

  • 3 Many anthropologists tie the term “cultural model” to language use (cf. Holland & Quinn 1987). In t (...)

2In this text I attempt to demonstrate that Chamakkala fishermen make knowledge of the transient distribution of fish in the sea by interpretively using, and co-creating an environment of mutually responsive actors. This environment includes, among others, competing teams of fishers, trawling boats, as well as sea gulls seen plunging into the water. Focusing on one team, I consider their social organization of perception, and analyze how they use a set of cultural models and heuristics in their performance of fishing. The models include ideas of “what fish are like”, “what other teams are like” and “how trawlers affect fish and the sea.”3 Heuristics help the men in deciding which of the shoals they see in the course of a fishing trip they should try to catch. While in the sea, the men interpret how the interventions of the diverse actors seen in the marine world affect the location of fish in the sea, and would influence the performance of the team considered here, whose actions likewise influences the other actors who can see them. In this sense, I claim, the fishermen’s vision is extended.

  • 4 For descriptions of ring seine fishing, see Brandt (1984); Rajan (1993); D’Cruz (1998).

3Anthropologists agree that the activities of place-making and the making of environmental knowledge are often concurrent, being achieved by people moving around (cf. Kwon 1998; Aporta 2004; Ingold 2007). Their work has focused mostly on the perception of individuals in rural settings on land. Lacking a shared knowledge of specific places in the sea, Chamakkala fishermen make a space known largely by moving around in the sea. I shall call this space a regional world. Some of the village’s fishermen do fish individually—such as those who fish from the beach with cast nets (vīśu vala) or those who lay out gill nets into the sea from small canoes, wait for two hours, and then collect the net and remove fish entangled therein. However, in regard to the principal mode of fishing at the time of my fieldwork, the task of finding fish was not faced by individuals, but by teams of men. Large boats, called taṅṅu vaḷḷaṃ-s or simply vaḷḷaṃ-s, were the dominant fishing craft in Chamakkala, both in terms of catch and the number of fishermen involved in their operation (Fig. 1). With a design that is probably of Arabian origin, vaḷḷaṃ-s are boats made of wooden planks (sing. palaka), which are attached to a wooden frame built up on the keel. The boats are up to twenty metres long. Two or three outboard motors, each of up to 40 horse power and fuelled with kerosene, are attached to their hull for propulsion. Operating with encircling nets (called taṅṅu vala from taṅṅuka, to float, and vala, net, or ring vala, from the English word ring), these boats are suited for the catch of fast-moving, pelagic shoaling fish in calm surf conditions. This is an active fishing technique in which shoals are searched for and caught with surrounding nets, as opposed to (passive) fishing with gill nets as mentioned above. In operating an encircling net, fishers detect shoals of fish by sight. Then they lay the net around it swiftly, close it and pull it on board with manual labour or by means of a motorised winch (see Fig. 2).4 In a vaḷḷaṃ unit, about 20 to 40 men are involved in this task. Operating these units involves perceptual skills not of independent, individual men, but of men organized in teams which operate in an environment that consists of elements which are invariant (such as the shoreline and the sea bottom’s gradual fall off towards the west) and those which are transient (such as other boats and ships moving in the sea, the crews of some of these possibly aiming to catch the same species), in addition to being subjected to varying constraints (for instance, recent fish auction rates and expenses of fuel). In the conduct of a trip, the men’s recent and experiences are important as well.

1. A vaḷḷaṃ on the beach in Chamakkala.

(Photogr. G. Hoeppe)

  • 5 In this text I am not concerned with the theory of rational choice and its benefits and shortcoming (...)
  • 6 SIMON’s (1956) work was among the first in defining what came to be known as “bounded rationality” (...)

4In the morning of a given day, the men of a team do not know where fish may be present in the sea. Making such knowledge is their everyday task. Would they go out into the sea and move along random paths while looking for visible signs of shoals of fish? This is a scenario to which ethnographic material can be compared. Let us consider, with this aim, Herbert A. Simon’s classic paper “Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment” (1956).5 With the purpose of constraining the efficiency of decision-making, Simon developed a mathematical model that describes an organism which, being equipped with a certain range of vision, searches visually for heaps of food that are distributed randomly in an environment. Given that the organism under consideration needs to find sufficient food before starving, the model yields that it is unlikely to follow an optimal path, but will rather pursue a “satisficing” path that procures its needs in exceeding a minimal aspiration level (ibid.: 136). Although the organism is assumed to be unable to perceive a discernible structure in the environment, this does not mean that the environment is indeed structure-less, for Simon considers even a smooth distribution as a structure, which may lack a discernible pattern. Describing the behaviour of an individual in search of food that is located at fixed places in the environment, Simon’s model differs from the situation encountered in the fisheries of Chamakkala, where individual men rarely fish alone, and where fish are understood to keep moving “from one side to the other”, as Kunhiraman insisted. Furthermore, while the animal in Simon’s model behaves independently of other animals, this may not be the case with teams of fishermen in marine fishing. More fundamentally, Simon’s model is naturalistic in that it does not discriminate between foraging humans and non-humans. It is uninformed by specifically cultural ways of perceiving the environment, including place and space.6

2. Sketch of the operation of the ring seine net (ring vala), modified after D’Cruz (1998: 31)
After spotting a shoal and approaching it, the fishing operation begins when the “jumping man” (
caṭṭukkāran ; here depicted as a filled grey circle) enters the water, holding one end of the net (a). Subsequently, it is rapidly laid around the shoal (b). Once the “jumping man” is reached again, both ends of the net are brought on board and it is closed by pulling the net’s bottom rope (either manually or with a winch). Eventually, the net is pulled on board (c).

5From the outside, a vaḷḷaṃ moving in the sea may be perceived as a unit that is bounded by the boat’s mechanical structure. Inside, it is differentiated and—as I shall show below—perceptual tasks are assigned to men subjected to a specific hierarchy. This situation resembles that encountered in studies of socially shared and distributed cognition in various contexts (Resnick et al.1991; Hutchins 1995; Wilson 2004). In particular, Hutchins (1995) understands “distributed cognition” as cognitive processes that extend beyond the individual and manifest themselves in inter-personal and person-artefact relations, thus becoming available to ethnographic observation. Studying ship navigation, he conceives of the “team as a flexible organic tissue that keeps the information moving across the tools of the task” (ibid.: 224) and considers a thinker in this world as a “special medium that can provide coordination among many structured media—some internal, some external, some embodied in artefacts, some in ideas and some in social relationships’ (ibid.: 316). Hutchins understands cognition primarily as a computational process in which a “representational state” is propagated across different media of representation (ibid.: 117-119). He claims that observers are able to “step into the cognitive system and observe its inter-personal dynamics” (ibid.: 128). In this text, I am not adopting such a deeply cognitivist stance. Rather, I am interested in the social organization of perception, cultural models of the environment, heuristics, and their use in a team’s performance of fishing.

6This text is arranged as follows. In the next section I locate the fishermen as observing subjects in local society. Then I describe and define the physical environment in which Chamakkala fishermen exert their perceptual skills. I continue with a brief sketch of the signs of fish as humans are supposedly able to perceive them, and consider the limits of describing these in propositional form. Turning next to a team of artisanal fishermen, I describe the distribution of cognitive labour on a vaḷḷaṃ unit, the dominant mode of fishing in Kerala’s artisanal fisheries at the time of my fieldwork. In the next three sections I consider a typical fishing trip in detail and analyse the variety of constraints imposed during its conduct as well the organisation of the fishermen’s perceptual labour and their ways of making inferences from what they see. Finally, I draw conclusions about the role of different perceptual skills, and cultural heuristics, in perceiving the environment. In an Appendix, I consider how my findings apply to the mode of fishing that was dominant in the previous century.

Local ideas on perception

7Before considering how the fishermen’s skilled vision is embedded in their environment, let me review how perceptual skill is assessed in local society. Most of the fishermen in Chamakkala (106 out of 120 at the time of my fieldwork) are Hindus of the Araya caste. Marine fishing is their “lineage work” (kula toḻil), that is, their traditional caste occupation. In coastal Kerala there is a saying: “To see a fish [and get excited] is like an Araya” (mīn kandāl arayan pōle). Understanding this as a derogatory saying, I expected Chamakkala fishermen to oppose this claim. After all, I supposed, it portrays Araya fishermen (negatively) as emotionally hot, short-tempered people. But the men I asked about this thought otherwise and rather argued that this figurative “heat” hints at a raised attentiveness regarded (positively) as necessary for success in fishing. Note that this is an inversion of the Brahman ideal of physiological and emotional “coolness” (Osella & Osella 1996). It may seem suggestive to associate this observation with the placement of the Araya caste on the opposite end to Brahmans in hierarchical accounts of Kerala’s caste system (cf. Padmanabha Menon [1924] 1993: 24-26). However, in this figurative sense, “heat” does have ambivalent associations for fishermen as well, who evaluate it differently depending on the context. When a skipper searches for fish, his mind should be of a “hot”, short-tempered quickness of perception, while at other times, his emotional coolness may be called for in mediating conflict.

  • 7 This transformation of the fishermen’s emotional and perceptual state may remind one the “transform (...)
  • 8 Elsewhere (Hoeppe 2007: chap. 5) I have elaborated on how fishing is evaluated in Araya ideology; u (...)

8Many fishermen claim to experience a raised awareness on entering the sea. On touching the seawater, they say, their mind changes (inf. parivarttikkuka), becoming more attentive.7 Some men emphasize the particular excitement (āvēśaṃ), enthusiasm (jyaraṃ) or appetite (vāsana) for fishing and the linkage (āśaṃ) to the seashore as motivation to become a fisherman. This may derive from the independent character of fishing as temporarily free from commanding superiors, the skilful performance necessary for success in its conduct, the uncertainty and danger which it entails, but also the possibility of sudden and immense catches. It hints at the men’s sense of belonging to this marine world. The courage, “good guts” (nallu tandētaṃ) or courage (dhairyaṃ) which are emphasized as being necessary for fishing far away from the coast in the outer sea (puṟaṃ kaṭal) adds to the self-image of fishing in which male autonomy, skill and independence are highly valued. Fishing is said to resemble hunting (nāyāṭṭu): in both activities prey is often pursued in an active manner; there is a profound element of uncertainty, chance and potential failure. And both aim at the killing of life. This, again, stands in contrast to a Brahmin ideal, that of non-violence towards living beings (ahimsa), and raises questions on how Araya conceive of ritual pollution.8

9When, in 1975, representatives of Kerala’s Hindu fishing castes formed a joint caste organisation, they named it dīvara sabha. This can be translated into English as “assembly of the smart fishermen” or “assembly of the well-sighted fishermen”, with the Sanskrit root referring both to “thinking” as well as notions of “insight”, “vision” and “seeing” (Gonda 1963: chap. 2). As such these representatives have appropriated a notion that is widely associated with the Vedic scriptures which formed part of (high-status) Brahmin ritual practice (Fuller 1992: 26-28).

Setting the stage: a regional world

10The fishermen’s skill develops, and is utilised, in a specific spatiotemporal environment, a regional world. Its permanent shape is laid out by the beach which roughly stretches in a north-south direction, dividing east and west. In the fishermen’s colloquial speech, the “west” (paṭiññāṟu) is the Arabian Sea (arabi kaṭal), their environment for work. The east (kiḻakku) is the inland. Nearby regions in these directions are referred to as the “outside in the east” (kiḷakkuppuṟaṃ) and the “outside in the west” (paṭiññāṟuppuṟaṃ), the beach, the suffix puṟaṃ denoting an “outside”. The unnamed “inside”, the fishermen’s area of residence, is in between. Men commonly refer to fishing as the “work of the west” (paṭiññātu pani).

  • 9 Astronomically, this is due to the proximity of Kerala to the equator.

11Notably, many older men believe that the sea literally rises towards the west, an understanding that is reflected by their use of the Malayalam verbs kayaṟuka ( “to enter, rise, increase, mount”) and iṟaṅṅuka ( “to descend, alight, ebb, become less”) in referring to the westward and eastward motion, respectively, of fish and boats in the sea. This rise is mirrored in the eastern inland by the Western Ghat mountains, whose sight is useful in visually navigating in daytime, as it gives a clue about one’s distance from the shore. The outline of trees standing along the coastline helps returning to a specific beach. In the night-time, the stars are useful for orientation. Their movement is known to occur in a strictly regular manner, with the stars rising almost vertically in the east and setting almost vertically in the west.9 This aids navigating in the sea, as do a few lighthouses along the shoreline and the lights of nearby cities visible in the night sky as feeble, diffuse glows.

12This, then, is the invariant environment framing the fishermen’s experiences. Importantly, the fishermen’s life-world borders on that of the fish. The beach is not only part of the men’s workspace (this is where they do mechanical repair work, mend the nets and hold meetings). It is also a place for leisure (this is where they play cards and find the freedom to discuss private matters). All these activities happen in sight of the sea, and thus, by being present on the beach, men inevitably learn about changing conditions of the sea and the weather. They draw inferences from watching other boats move in the sea. In all its apparent passivity, sitting on the beach and watching the sea, or rather: being in the sea’s presence, is considered a useful, and even necessary, practice by older men. Occasionally, the signs of shoal of fish are visible from the beach itself. Thus observing variations in the environment contributes positively to future success in fishing and helps “educating the attention” (Gibson 1979) of novice fishermen. When older fishermen get angry at the younger ones for not spending time at the beach but rather escaping to the kiḻakkuppuṟaṃ, the eastern inland with its movie cinemas and shops of imported foreign goods, they often mention that in doing so these younger fishermen end up lacking necessary knowledge about fishing. Indeed, if they miss out entering into social relationships with the sea, they miss out on constituting themselves as fishermen (cf. Hoeppe 2007: 183).

13In the sea, the contiguity of the fishermen’s life-world and that of fish is more apparent. While the fishermen scan the surface for the fishes’ indexical signs attentively, they know that fishes have perceptual skills to do the same, and may escape when scared by noise (śabdaṃ) or excess heat (see below).

Signs of fish

14By “sign of fish” I understand the perceptible (visible, auditory and olfactory) clues to the presence of fish in the sea. Chamakkala fishermen refer to these with the Malayalam words lakṣyaṃ (sign) or aṭayālaṃ (mark, symbol, signal). In the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, these are indexical signs, being linked to the object of signification (fish) by contiguity. The fishermen’s mode of inference is abductive, that is, sense perceptions lead them to hypotheses which are verified or falsified by successive deductions and inductions (Liszka 1996), as I shall demonstrate in my description of a typical fishing trip below.

  • 10 For a biologist’s account of the visible signs of the Indian oil sardine, see Balan (1961).

15In daytime fishing, the pattern of ripples caused by fish moving near the water surface is characteristic, as are moving patches that appear darker or coloured (see Fig. 3).10 Descriptions of these signs vary. While most men agreed that a shoal of Indian oil sardines (Sardinella longiceps Val.; in Malayalam: cāla) is visible as a bluish or violet patch, shoals of mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta; ayila) were described to me as a mixture of green and blue or as brown. It is known from experience that these colours are not the colours of the fish themselves. Rather, as an old fisherman explains, the visible colour is affected by the “constitution (prakṛti) of the water through which the fish are seen”. Likewise, the changing illumination of the sea surface is known to affect the visibility of a shoal. Inevitably then, the lakṣyaṃ-s are context-dependent.

3. A shoal of sardine seen in the sea from a vaḷḷaṃ. In this photograph, the shoal is visible as a darker horizontal patch towards two small boats near the horizon.

3. A shoal of sardine seen in the sea from a vaḷḷaṃ. In this photograph, the shoal is visible as a darker horizontal patch towards two small boats near the horizon.

16A streak of brownish water may also hint at a shoal of fish. Such streaks are said to be due to fish stirring up the mud (mīn marikkunna, lit. “[the] fish [is] turning [the mud]”) while moving along the sea bottom. One may look for fish following it to the end, where it is dispersed less, supposedly hinting at its recent origin. One may also watch the behaviour of seagulls at the water surface, as they possibly feed on fish moving under the surface. Older men remember seeing whales (kaṭal āna, lit. “sea elephant”) as hinting at the presence of sardines—and possibly that of sharks, since both whales and sharks are said to feed on sardines.

  • 11 Biologists attribute the fluorescent glow of kamaru to bioluminescence by the bacterium Vibrio spp.

17Fishing at night is common around the new moon, particularly during the pre-monsoonal hot season. Dark nights around the new moon are needed to scan the sea for kamaru, a greenish light of varying intensity that is seen at the beach where the waves break and where fish are present in the sea.11 To the fishermen it seems that the fishes themselves glow in a green light, which some men ascribe to salt on the fishes’ scales. The shape, movement and intensity of the glow may hint at the kind of fish seen and the size of a shoal. Prawns (cemmīn) are recognised by wave-like movements in the kamaru, which are said to be caused by the motion of the prawns’ legs. Shoals of mackerel are recognized by light shining in a circular form. The kamaru attributed to Indian oil sardines is less specific, but usually regarded as fainter than that which is thought to be due to mackerel. Besides, there are variations in the visibility of kamaru which are ascribed to season, specific currents or the saltiness of the seawater.

18These visible signs are not only complex themselves, but are seen in diverse contexts (season, time of day, heat, illumination of the sea’s surface, location and so on), which provide the frame to judge a specific observation. It is impossible to produce complete, all-encompassing propositional statements about the visible signs of fish. The answer to the question “What does a shoal of fish worthy of being caught look like?” is context-dependent and pursued in a non-linguistic way. Do the fishermen access a model of what constitutes “a shoal of fish worthy of being caught”? As I shall show below, such a notion is bound to depend on the species making up the shoal and its size, as well as the current auction rates of fish, and the time of the day. The particular visible signs would then need to be interpreted according to the context, just like the Zafimaniry farmers of Madagascar studied by Maurice Bloch look for “what a good swidden is” without being willing or able to list all of its visible signs (Bloch 1998: 16). In fact, even more than in the case of the swidden, the fishermen need to access their conceptualisation of a “good shoal” quickly and process their sense perceptions rapidly in order to be able to act thereupon with success. If “a good shoal” is highly context-dependent, the notions of “what fish are like”, “what other teams are like”, and “how trawlers affect fish and the sea” are much more stable, and are more aptly described as cultural models.

Dividing cognitive labour

  • 12 The Malayalam word “Ponnonam” may be translated into English as “golden Onam”, Onam being the most (...)
  • 13 Formally, the shareholders are joint owners of boats and gear, but in most teams, much of the de fa (...)

19In this and the following four sections, I shall consider the Chamakkala vaḷḷaṃ unit “Ponnonam.”12 At the time of my fieldwork it was a fairly typical example of the larger units then dominating Kerala’s artisanal fisheries. One may regard it as a social, economic and cognitive organization; both aspects are crucial in the performance of fishing. About fifty-three men were associated with it, fifteen of whom as its shareholders.13 Team members were between seventeen years and sixty-eight years old. Usually the team would use a main net boat (vala vaḷḷaṃ) for fishing, and a carrier boat (dinky vaḷḷaṃ) for delivering the catch to the auction place.

20While the team’s men emphasize their egalitarian status on the beach, embarking on a fishing trip means to subjugate themselves to a hierarchy whose structure is known to all participants implicitly, but may be defined explicitly before a trip when the usual task distribution is deviated from. All men I inquired about it hold this hierarchy to be necessary for success. “If [in the sea] everybody says his opinion, no fish will be caught”, explains the skipper of a Chamakkala vaḷḷaṃ. When travelling in the sea, the mechanical structure of the boat not only precipitates a distinction between what is, for them, “inside” and “outside”. It also enforces an individual’s actions becoming consequential for the entire group. Cooperation is mandatory.

  • 14 The skipper typically receives 1 ½ or 2 times the share of a “net man” at the division of money aft (...)
  • 15 In the 1980s and 1990s the role of the skipper in artisanal fisheries was the focus of a debate amo (...)

21Most men described their work onboard as “pulling the net” (vala vali [kkuka]) and collectively call themselves “net men” (valakkāran-s). Like launching the large boats into the sea to embark on a fishing trip and returning them to the beach thereafter, they do manual work (pani). Few team members need to be particularly skilled to operate a ring seine unit, but these dominate the hierarchy onboard. An experienced skipper (aryakkāran) decides whether to embark on a fishing trip. Selected and hired by the shareholders, he guides the craft, spots the fish and directs the fishing operation, but is also a key person in the unit’s planning of investments in craft and gear. There is also an engine coordinator (sranku) and the engine and winch operators. The youngest man on board is the “jumping man” (caṭṭukkāran), whose duty is to jump into the water with one end of the ring seine net at the beginning of the fishing operation proper (see below). Moving from “jumping man” to “net man” to engine operator to engine coordinator to skipper means to move to more skilled activities as well as upward in social hierarchy and remuneration.14 If members of the unit are defined as those men who receive a share of the financial income, the ritual specialist (mantravādi) and even the deities propitiated by him must be included. When I asked fishermen in Chamakkala “What makes a good skipper?”, their answers were stereotypical. A skipper is said to need the innate desire for fishing, be clever (yuktiyulla), able to make a sound judgement about the day’s weather conditions and be courageous to make a bold decision and act decidedly, needs sharp vision to spot fish in the sea, he needs to be able to conduct the fishing trip, gain the trust of the crew, retain this trust when there may be no catch for days and make the team members be punctual and reliable in their conduct.15 What is often remembered of a skipper’s conduct is his behaviour in moments of crisis, both on the sea and on land, circumspection and determination being called for. Joseph, Ponnonam unit’s principal skipper, is a Christian who was recruited from south Kerala where he had gathered experience on vaḷḷaṃ-s before these were introduced in Thrissur District. Abdu, who usually takes Joseph’s place when the latter is absent, was trained locally. He had prior experience in guiding vañci-s, dugout canoes which dominated the fisheries in Chamakkala before the vaḷḷaṃ-s were introduced.

22For outsiders it may seem that a team’s conduct is the skipper’s conduct writ large (and this is suggested, for instance, by his horoscope being held to be fateful for the team’s performance). However, the “net men” are well aware that success is not entirely due to the skipper’s skill, but to their own skill as well. Not only do all men on board participate in searching for the signs of fish, some men even join the skipper in his decision-making. In this way information and advice is funnelled to a central decider. In addition, the team members’ skill in timing critical activities may be decisive. For instance, if in the attempt to catch a shoal of fish a skipper calls the “jumping man” to jump too early, the “net men” in the back of the boat may ask this young man to delay executing this command. Given that this timing is crucial to a unit’s success, so is these men’s temporal coordination of action.

A fishing trip on the Ponnonam vaḷḷaṃ

  • 16 I have used the commercial hand-held instrument GPS300 of the company Magellan (San Dimas, Californ (...)

23Let us now consider a fishing trip of the Ponnonam vaḷḷaṃ unit in some detail. Though altogether fairly typical for the fishing trips which I witnessed during my fieldwork, I picked this trip for a detailed description as it exhibits a wide spectrum of the clues from the environment which the fishermen take into account, both on the beach and in the sea. On that day, 1 February 2000, a man called Abdu was Ponnonam’s skipper, and Anthony the engine coordinator. On the previous day, the team had made a good catch of sardines 20 kilometres south of Chamakkala. I joined the net boat (vala vaḷḷaṃ) as a participant-observer, measuring its position in the sea by using a portable GPS satellite receiver.16 Some important stages of this trip are depicted schematically in Figure 4, the complete path is shown on a nautical map in Figure 5.

24At 6.00 a.m., Abdu and some other men are gathered at the beach. They seem undecided. There is a slight breeze from the east, but the sea is calm. The sky is clear, with a few scattered clouds over the inland. Abdu and some other men discuss whether the sea would be hot (cūṭu) or cold (tanuppu) and in which way the wind would affect the sea’s “heat” (wind from the east is generally believed to heat the sea). Abdu waits. At 7.30 the Sudarsanam vaḷḷaṃ, a team of similar size, is seen entering the sea from the neighbouring village’s beach. Abdu decides to follow suit and gives the command to enter the boats. Twenty-one men enter the net boat (which had been anchored 200 metres off the coast) and four men the carrier boat.

4. Four important stages of the fishing trip described in the text.
While GPS satellite positions have been used to plot the movement of the net boat
(vala vaḷḷaṃ) of the Ponnonam unit (black solid line, the locations of other boats and trawlers is depicted schematically. Arrows indicate the direction of movement. Only features which have affected decision-making on board are shown, these typically being located within a radius of about five kilometres around the vaḷḷaṃ.
a) At 8.27 a.m. Ponnonam, moving to the south-west, has passed a number of trawlers which move along the coast towards the south.
b) At 8.40 a.m. the
vaḷḷaṃ steers toward a few sea gulls which are seen plunging into the sea—a hint at the location of fish in the water beneath.
c) At 10.58 a.m. it has passed a front of trawlers which move southward, and meets a
vaḷḷaṃ unit on a north-bound course. The latter’s carrier boat (dinky vaḷḷaṃ) is empty, suggesting a lack of fish in the South.
d) At 11.28 a.m. Ponnonam’s net boat has advanced in front of the trawlers and spotted a shoal of sardines (grey patch). This is being caught.

25Being the skipper, Abdu stands in the front (aniyaṃ) whenever the boat is moving. This elevated position (his head is about four metres above the water level) extends his view of the sea surface. He is not alone: three men join him, all of them known for their good sight (one of them is aspiring to become a skipper himself). Anthony, the engine coordinator, sits in the rear end (amaraṃ).

26At 8.17, Abdu has taken the helm and directs the boats to move toward the south-west. A few minutes later we are surrounded by more than fifty trawling boats (Fig. 4a). Some operate their nets. In moving, the carrier boat stays to the left of the net boat, respectively. Men from both boats watch out for the signs of fish on the water surface, the searched area of the sea thus being enlarged.

27At 8.40, land is barely visible any more (Fig. 4b). Abdu directs the boat to slow down and come to a stand still. At a distance, two seagulls (kaṭal kākka, lit. “sea crow”) are seen splashing into the water. Getting closer, ripples on the surface hint at the motion of a small shoal of fish.

  • 17 Altogether, these pointing gestures and verbal exchanges can be said to define that which is seen b (...)

28As in successive decision-making, Abdu and the other men standing in the helm gaze at the sea attentively, pointing at this shoal and potential lakṣyaṃ-s of others, their gazing at the sea intermitted by mutual gazes at the others’ faces, facial expressions of agreement and disagreement being exchanged, their words restricted to mention the names of fish species found likely to constitute the shoal ( “cāla”, Indian oil sardine; “ayila”, mackerel), its suspected size and brief characterisations of its possible movement, again guided by pointing gestures.17

29Three minutes later the shoal has disappeared. Abdu decides to turn around and move towards the east. None of the trawlers or other vaḷḷaṃ units is in our immediate vicinity now. After a few hundred metres we stop again, everybody continues scanning the sea for signs (sing. lakṣyaṃ) of fish. Then Abdu directs the crew to let the boat turn towards the north-west and increase the speed. On seeing signs of a shoal, he gives directions to approach it slowly. When it is seen on the left side, Abdu slowly raises his left arm and then pulls it down quickly. This is the signal for the “jumping man” to hop into the water with one end of the net (at 8.49). The boat speeds up to surround the shoal quickly in an anti-clockwise motion. Throughout the operation, the skipper (Abdu) directs the srānku (Anthony), by moving his hand according to a specific code—signalling to speed up, slow down, turn left or right. While the ring seine net runs into the water, the “net men” pay attention for it to run smoothly over the boat’s side (viḷḷu). Then the winch, powered by a diesel truck engine, is being started. Three minutes later, the shoal has been encircled. The boat returns to the “jumping man” and takes him on board.

  • 18 The extent to which work songs increase the efficiency of agricultural labourers by synchronising t (...)

30Both ends of the net’s bottom rope (kamba) are now pulled onboard by using the winch, closing the bottom of the net. Once completed, the winches’ engine is stopped. Meanwhile the men stand along the entire left side of the boat and start to pull (inf. valikkuka) the net on board. Some sardines jump out across the net. To prevent fish from escaping under the boat, the “jumping man” and another young team member keep jumping into the water. This is meant to scare the fish back into the net. While pulling the net on board, the men sing work songs.18

31After about forty-five minutes, the men have hauled the catch onto the carrier boat. It is a mix of anchovies (cūta), small prawns (cemmīn), some shells from the sea bottom and a plastic shopping bag. A sea snake (kaṭal pāmbu) that was caught is thrown back into the sea. The carrier boat of another unit passes by to take a look at our catch. At 9.56 the net is back in the rear of the boat. Some holes in it are mended. When Abdu gives the signal to proceed, one outboard motor fails. It is fixed after thirty minutes of repair work.

32Meanwhile, both boats are surrounded by a number of trawlers, which move towards the south. After the engine has been fixed, both boats roughly follow these trawlers towards the south-west, speeding up to move in front of them. When a few seagulls are seen over one spot in the water, Abdu gives the signal to slow down and approach it gently. At first, the men watch for fish in vain. However, after proceeding towards the east, a small shoal of anchovies (cūta) is seen. It is now 10.55. Inside this shoal a bustling motion is noticeable, as if waves were propagating through it, one side of it being loosely defined, the other side like a sharp edge. Whenever the wave of motion arrives at this edge, some fish jump out of the water, and become visible briefly. The men watch it with tense concentration. Everybody is on his position now, but Abdu seems undecided. In the north, the trawlers are getting closer. At 10.58, a net boat with its empty carrier boat passes by from the south [hinting at the lack of fish in that direction] (Fig. 4c). The two crews do not exchange visual signs.

33Abdu calls the “jumping man” to get ready to jump. But then he decides not to catch this shoal but to proceed further. After moving towards the west and passing two groups of trawlers, a shoal of small sardines (kuṭṭicāla) is discovered. After discussing the sight of this shoal with two other fishermen at the helm, Abdu decides to catch it. At 11.28 the “jumping man” jumps into the water (Fig. 4d). The fishing procedure described above ensues. The catch is taken to the auction place at the beach by the carrier boat. There the catch is auctioned by the unit’s moneylender-and-auctioneer (tarakan).

34At 13.30 the boats begin returning to Chamakkala. Some net mending work is done along the way. At 15.00 the net boat is anchored in the near-shore water off Chamakkala. At 15.30 the carrier boat is landed on the beach.

35The day’s catch was auctioned for 4,000 rupees. Each man receives 50 rupees (about 1.30 euro). Figure 5 shows the track of Ponnonam’s net boat as measured with the portable gps satellite position device.

5. Route of Ponnonam’s net boat on 1st February 2000 as measured with a portable GPS satellite receiver, shown on Nautical Map DHI 1565 . (Deutsches Hydrographisches Institut, Hamburg)
The depth is in metres. A: first ring seine fishing operation (8.49 a.m. to 9.56 a.m.). B: second ring seine fishing operation (11.28 a.m. to 1.00 p.m.).

Constraining action

36In this fishing trip, and several others I witnessed, the team’s performance (as guided by the skipper) unfolded under constraints imposed by environmental and market conditions as well as limits of material resources (fuel, engine speed, properties of the net), time and knowledge. It was Abdu’s task as the skipper to integrate information (or hypotheses) about diverse constraints into a single path. Notably though, it is clear that Abdu was not alone in his observing and decision-making. Team member passed hints at the presence of fish on to him. Not only did he engage in discussions with his fellow team mates in the morning when deciding whether or not to embark on the trip, but even on board he discussed at decisions with the team mates who joined him in the front.

37Let us consider the constraints that have emerged in this and other fishing trips that I observed in turn:

  • 19 While one may first think that such a statement would prove the meaninglessness of asking local inf (...)

38Climatic conditions. A fishing trip can commence and continue only when weather and surf conditions are favourable. Initially I had expected, perhaps naively, that decisions to embark on a fishing trip would be made overwhelmingly or even solely upon the judgement of local climatic and marine conditions. But this is not at all the case. One man told me that his vaḷḷaṃ would go out fishing on the next day if there were a southern current (which he associated with nutrient-rich water attractive for fish). I asked him what they would do if there were a northern current instead. “Then we will go anyway”, he replied. I take this as hinting towards alternative heuristics being available to the men, allowing them to shift to a mode of decision-making that promises the better outcome.19 Indeed, given the many factors affecting the decision of whether or not to go fishing it seems like a caricature that one could make a decision on the ground of one simple rule alone. Rules and propositional schemata seem better suited for instructing apprentices than to account for what experienced persons do.

39Topography of the sea bottom. In the trip described above, both fishing operations occurred at places where the water was about 20 metres deep (see Fig. 5). Ponnonam’s ring seine net can be operated at depths of at least 10 metres and is best used at depths of less than 50 metres, but can be used almost anywhere in the sea typically reached by the vaḷḷaṃ-s. Thus, the depth of the water column constrains decision-making in fishing only weakly.

40Market conditions. The primary incentive for embarking on a fishing trip is the market auction rate for the catch. This is known to vary with the seasons as well as over periods of weeks, days and hours. Typically, auction rates dwindle in the course of the days on which several teams operate.

41Time. In one sense, the constraint of time passing during the fishing operation is related to the fact that auction rates tend to dwindle in the course of a day. In another sense, searching for fish longer implies an increase in the cumulative cost of kerosene in the course of the trip. Budgeting time becomes explicitly relevant when deciding whether to catch a specific shoal. Abdu knows that such a decision commits the team to at least one hour of work in the operation of spreading the net, drawing it together and pulling it back on board. Since shoals move and disperse rapidly, he rarely attempts to return to a shoal that has been inspected previously.

42Operating under these constraints, in both of the fishing operations of the trip described above, Abdu chose to catch the last of a number of inspected shoals—he did not attempt to return to a shoal he had seen earlier, even though it was clear that some of the shoals were bigger than the ones that he eventually settled for. Thus, Abdu used a heuristic of the kind “Take the last” or “Take the second-last”, after a minimal “aspiration level” had been reached (cf. Gigerenzer & Selten 2002). He has not “optimized” but “satisficed” in the sense of Simon (1956).

Inferring intentionality

43In guiding the fishing trip, Abdu was looking for signs of fish, but in addition to that—and indeed, prior to it—he observed what other vaḷḷaṃ units did, knowing that these have similar technical means and the same goal: finding auctionable fish in the near-surface waters. Even his call to embark on the trip at all was made after seeing the Sudarsanam vaḷḷaṃ embark from the neighbouring beach. When moving in the sea, Abdu steered the boat in front of trawlers, anticipating that these boats would chase fish towards Ponnonam. Though unable to tell whether any fish would be present there, his decision-making was based on assuming that fish were present. Implicit in his action was a set of expectations concerning fish behaviour, which may be called a cultural model.

44Abdu agrees with other Chamakkala fishermen that fish are living things or beings (pl. jīva jālaṅṅaḷ) sharing behavioral and anatomical traits with humans (head, mouth, eyes and spine). All fish are considered to have similar perceptual skills and emotional preferences. They are capable of hearing, sight, taste and sensing hotness and coldness. These capacities and preferences are unequally distributed among fish species. For instance, ribbonfish (valamuri) is said to be unable to bear the heat and therefore prefers to stay in the mud at the sea bottom, mackerel (ayila) has better sight than white sardine (cūṭa), and Indian oil sardine (cāla) is considered smart while white sardine is regarded as stupid. Fish may be happy or afraid and most prefer other fishes’ company instead of remaining alone. They prefer calm surroundings rather than a turbulent sea (which is considered, figuratively, as hot). A fisherman has to know that fish are sensitive to sound or noise (śabdaṃ). This can be used to chase (inf. celluka) the fish by beating on the boats with wooden sticks, as was done on the vañci-s (see below). Ship or boat engines are not only noisy, but also considered to heat the water. Both effects are thought to be uncomfortable to fish.

45Knowledge about fish and their behaviour is inferential, being mostly derived from the practice of fishing and inspecting the catch. Many situations in the process of fishing invite speculations about fish behaviour: the composition of a catch may indicate different species to live in the same space, the place and time of the catch of a certain species hints at its migratory patterns and the visible behaviour of near-surface schools can be watched directly. The above examples suggest that Chamakkala fishermen conceive of fish behaviour in terms of how human capacities and preferences are understood. Some fish are born from eggs (muṭṭu), but others are born as children (pl. kuṭṭikaḷ). That they gather and travel in schools (pelappu or kūṭṭaṃ) confirms their nature as social beings. Such ideas of “what fish are like” (and what specific fish species are like) can be understood as cultural models.

Knowing who knows what

46Early in the morning, when Abdu stood on the beach with his team-mates, trying to decide whether or not to embark on a fishing trip, knowledge about the preferences of fish was not of any immediate use to him. At that moment, the sea was empty of boats and, thus, the marine environment was as yet lacking a structure from which he could draw inferences. He did make inferences from watching a sea gull plunging into the water, but only later during the trip.

47From the beach, a vaḷḷaṃ-s can be spotted when up to seven kilometres away in the sea, trawlers (which are larger) are seen even farther away. Many vaḷḷaṃ units, including Ponnonam and Sudarsanam have their boats equipped with coloured flags (Ponnonam: blue, Sudarsanam: green), helping to identify them in the sea. Seeing the Sudarsanam vaḷḷaṃ depart gave Abdu a first clue that it may be worth embarking oneself. After all, he knew that Sudarsanam was a capable, successful team with a skilful skipper, equipped with a cell phone on board and a moneylender-cum-auctioneer-of-fish (tarakan) with well-established trading connections. Anticipating the Sudarsanam team to have a superior knowledge of the day’s fishing conditions, Abdu followed suit immediately. On other days, when conditions seem less favourable for success, one may wait to see how other boats fare. Abdu explains:

When three or five vaḷḷaṃ-s are seen moving [in the sea] and one vaḷḷaṃ is making a sudden turn that we can be sure that they saw some fish. If a boat is turning it usually means that they have seen some fish, then we also join them.

48Thus, the fishermen see the marine environment from a specific path and they see others moving in the same environment, knowing that these are on a path of their own, scanning the sea for the signs of fish like themselves (as the crews of other vaḷḷaṃ-s do), their means and goals being similar to ones own—or that they influence fish in specific ways through the noise and (figurative) “heat” (because of churning the water) of their engines (as the trawlers do). This extends ones own perception far beyond the vicinity of one’s boat—and reminds one of Gibson’s (1979: 147) concept of direct perception, where organisms moving in the environment mutually draw inferences about what other organisms afford. As documented in the above trip, much of the cognitive work consists of making inferences about what others know. Like Sudarsanam, Ponnonam is known as a successive vaḷḷaṃ unit. It is equipped with a cell phone as well, as known among other teams from the area. In the trip described above, other boats embarked into the sea after Ponnonam had done so. Joseph comments:

After receiving the telephone call we should move to that side. Then the other people who do not have a [mobile] phone will think that Ponnonam is moving according to [the information received with] their phone. Then they follow us.

49Not surprisingly, Joseph alludes to a level of inference in which the fishermen make assumptions about what others are likely to know or believe about one’s own team. Unlike the incidences documented among Newfoundland deep-sea trawlers (Anderson 1972), Maine lobster fishermen (Palmer 1990) or Icelandic cod fishermen (Durrenberger & Pálsson 1986), I have not come across a case in which a team cheated others by pretending a “false move”. Perhaps the relatively small area of the near-coastal waters in which Chamakkala fishing occurs prevents such behaviour as not being technically feasible or socially acceptable. Yet there remains the choice not to communicate any signs actively, and this is also practiced, as during Ponnonam’s encounter with the other vaḷḷaṃ unit at 10.58 in the trip described above.

50The presence of cell phones on board raises the question of whether there are information-sharing groups, known from fisheries elsewhere (e.g. Gatewood 1984 on Alaskan salmon seiners). It turns out that permanent information-sharing groups are rare in Chamakkala, and even though several teams may deliver their catch to one and the same auctioneer (tarakan), this does not mean that he shares his information with all of them immediately. Dasan, another skipper, comments:

The auctioneers do not reveal the [presence of] fish to others. But if the truck drivers at the beach receive a phone call they should inform all other vaḷḷaṃ people. That is because if so much fish is coming to that area [then] all truck drivers will get full loads. In between themselves, the vaḷḷaṃ people do not inform each other. They are not informing others because they want to get fish for themselves only. If the others are getting fish they are getting envious.

51But even seeing the Sudarsanam vaḷḷaṃ depart did not give Abdu a precise clue about the structure of the marine environment as if it would hint at, or affect, the location of fish. This changed when the trawlers arrived in the sea, structuring the environment in a way that enabled Abdu to apply his model of fish behaviour and infer the direction to which the fish may have been drawn. He decided to move in front of the trawlers, counting on fish being chased that way by the engines’ noise.

52That the fishermen seem to benefit from the trawlers was a surprise to me, given the intense protest that Kerala fishermen have raised since the 1970s for a ban on trawling and purse-seining, which allegedly pose a threat on marine resources traditionally accessed by artisanal fishermen (cf. Baviskar et al. 2006). Abdu, in contrast, insisted that the trawlers could not generally be considered harmful:

[The trawlers] catch the fish that we won’t get. Only during the monsoon will we feel [i.e. be affected negatively by] the trawling. But even then there is no problem. If we demand them to go away they will do so.

53While vaḷḷaṃ-s aim to catch near-surface (pelagic) fish, trawlers are believed to catch solely the bottom-dwelling (demersal) fish. Nevertheless, trawlers are deemed to affect fishing negatively as well, for fishes may be assumed to be dispersed not only in one particular direction. When shoals are dispersed, fish may move to greater depths, at which artisanal fishermen cannot catch them. If trawlers operate in the outer sea (puṟaṃ kaṭal) far away from the coast, they are assumed to benefit the artisanal fishermen by driving the fish towards the coast. Joseph explains:

Trawling is not always a problem (dōśaṃ). It is not a problem when it is done in the outer sea (puṟaṃkaṭal). If they fish (vali) there, the fishes come to the coast (lit. “step down to the east”, mīn kiḻakkōṭṭu iraṅṅuka). They may not come to within 20 kilometres [from the coast], if they come to the east closer than that then we [the artisanal fishermen] will not get anything, that can be a problem.

54Just as easily may the trawlers’ noise chase fish away from the coast to the outer sea, where artisanal fishermen cannot catch them. In so doing they contribute to the sea having become “restless” (svastatayilla, lit. “not peaceful”); an effect of the ever-growing number of boats, trawlers and ships. As one man says: “The convenience (saukaryaṃ) is not provided for the fish to come here [i.e. to the near-shore waters] any more”.

Discussion

55I wish to discuss three aspects of this fishing trip: the style of the fishermen’s knowledge making, which understanding of the environment is implied by the men’s practices, and whether the notion of “distributed cognition” applies to such a case and is useful in conceiving of it anthropologically.

56The description of the trip reveals knowledge making as an ongoing process in which a spatiotemporal trajectory is laid out by the team. In its course, the men proceed by making hypothesis about the presence of shoals of fish (of certain species and size). They spot purportedly indexical signs at certain places in the sea and evaluate them by approaching them gently. Hauling the net onboard and inspecting the catch means to test a hypothesis made initially. The acoustic structuring of the fishes’ marine life-world by trawlers, purse-seine boats and other vaḷḷaṃ-s is an intervention from which the skipper and his team make inferences by applying their model-like understanding of the fishes’ senses and their behavioural preferences. Engine-driven vessels were introduced a few decades ago. However, while such acoustic interventions in the sea may be new in scale, they are not so in kind, having been common in fishing from dugout canoes for many decades or centuries, as I argue in the Appendix. All such structuring activity is local. There never is a panoptic birds’ eye view of where shoals of fish are in the sea. Seeing other agents (fishing vessels, shark, whales, sea gulls) move in the marine environment makes only a small part of the sea transparent to the fishermen. Most of it remains opaque to their knowing.

  • 20 See Hoeppe (2007: chap. 5) for a more detailed consideration of human-environment relations in Cham (...)

57In order to understand which view of the environment is precipitated by the fishermen’s practices, I shall consider two alternatives: the view taken by the ecologist Jakob von Uexküll (1957) and that of the psychologist James J. Gibson (1979). Considering the environment of an animal, von Uexküll noted that its Umwelt (a German term which Ingold, 1992: 41, translates as “subjective universe”) is constituted within its individual life project. Any constituent of this Umwelt may have a specific quality for the animal. For example, a tree may be a shelter, a source of food, a landmark for orientation and so on. These qualities are not innate in the constituents, von Uexküll claims, but are precipitated by the relationships between the animal and these constituents. As Ingold remarks, in von Uexküll’s view, “far from fitting into a given corner of the world (a niche), it is the organism that fits the world to itself, by ascribing functions to the objects it encounters and thereby integrating them into a coherent system of its own” (ibid.). Thus, meaning is projected from the animal onto the outside world. Without the animal, there would be no Umwelt and the world would consist of unrelated, neutral objects. Gibson takes a different viewpoint. As mentioned above, he shifts the location of the qualities to the constituents of the environment themselves and considers what these afford, i.e. what they offer or provide to an animal in whatever sense (Gibson 1979: 127-143). He considers these so-called affordances as innate properties of the constituents. Therefore, while in von Uexküll’s view each animal produces its own, unique environment, in Gibson’s view all animals live in the same, shared environment. Chamakkala fishermen insist on sharing sensorical capacities and behavioural preferences with fish, and are mutually responsive in their behaviour. This precipitates a shared environment, and makes Gibson’s view seem more apposite in the present case. With its uniform structure, the local sea lacks stable material assemblages which would provide niches in which animals may live in specific ways, as von Uexküll’s view would assume.20

  • 21 Note that, in a later text, Hutchins (1999: 127) considers even natural structures as cognitive art (...)
  • 22 This distinction matches TURNBULL’s (2000: chap. 1) characterisation of “local knowledge” as not be (...)

58Does Hutchins’ (1995) notion of “distributed cognition” help in conceptualizing the fishing process described here? It does in the sense that it reminds one of the embedded character of the fishermen’s perception. However, in the literal sense of his definition it does not apply. Since these men do not, in their usual conduct, make use of cognitive artefacts on board (as “distributed cognition” would require), one may rather speak of socially shared cognition (Resnick et al. 1991).21Usually, commands or information are passed on within the team only, and are as such bounded by the set of (two or three) boats in operation at a given time. If the cognitive system is defined as being computational and is as such bounded by the limits of where “representational state” is propagated, as Hutchins proposed, it usually coincides with the physical space defined by the unit’s boats, as far as signals can be transmitted visually amongst them. Exceptions to this, in which “representational state” propagates intentionally from outside in, are visible clues from other boats or calls received by the cell phone. Even though other actors in the local marine space (e.g. crew members of trawlers, who do not compete for the same species) may communicate signs of fish, these are not part of the team’s formal social structure. Socially shared cognition would be ill-defined if these were included. Useful as Hutchins’ concepts may be in characterising the team as a cognitive or perceptual unit, it does not take note of the specific local or regional context to which the fishermen’s perception is tied. However, when considering the sea in the morning, watching other boats, or interpreting the movements of a shoal of fish: the skill involved cannot be shifted arbitrarily to another location. Each man onboard a vaḷḷaṃ is enskilled into this particular environment wherein each man’s attention has been educated and developed accordingly. In this respect, these fishermen’s skill contrasts with the de-localized navigational techniques of the navigators studied by Hutchins, who use nautical maps and global standards in setting their ship’s course.22

Conclusions

59On every trip in the sea, the fishermen on their boats carve out a trajectory in an environment consisting of both invariant and variable elements. The men see others, humans and non-humans (fish, birds, other artisanal teams, trawlers), moving in this shared environment, knowing that these develop trajectories of their own and affect each other’s decision-making. Focusing on the operation of one vaḷḷaṃ team, I find that the vision of Chamakkala fishermen is “extended” in two regards. First, many, if not all, men on board participate in scanning the sea for the signs of fish, passing possible detections on to the skipper and, in doing so, extending his range of the visible world. A few men who join the skipper in the boat’s helm partake in interpreting what is seen and define with him what that which is seen means for continuing the fishing trip. However, the responsibility for the decision made remains mostly with the skipper. Secondly, a team’s members take up a variety of visual clues, from watching other boats and trawlers move in the sea and an empty carrier boat passing by to seagulls plunging into the sea at specific locations. These can be seen from a distance of several kilometres. In contrast, indexical signs of fish can be seen directly at most from a distance of a few hundred metres. For the fishermen, these visible clues may be called the “affordances” (Gibson) provided by their marine environment. The invariant environment provides further affordances. Making sense of these requires an understanding of fish behaviour, that is, knowledge of the fishes’ preferences and dislikes, as well as their likely reaction to specific stimuli. In addition, for the operation of the ring seine, knowledge of how fast shoals of different species are, and whether (and in which way) they may disperse upon being disturbed, is needed. Prior knowledge is essential, and a set of cultural models and heuristics seems to provide a toolbox which men can often access successfully during their performance of fishing.

Acknowledgements

60I am much indebted to Marie-Claude Mahias, Tim Ingold and Michael J. Casimir for commenting on earlier drafts of this text. The financial support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant Lu-528/7-1) is gratefully acknowledged.

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Annexes

Appendix: seeing the sea in the “old times”

I have argued that much of the fishermen’s skill in finding shoals of fish rests on their watching other boats moving in the sea and them being able to draw inferences from these. Other visible signs are important as well, such as watching sea gulls plunging into the sea’s surface. Trawlers and purse-seine boats are relatively new agents in the regional world, while the motorization of artisanal craft (and its subsequent development of design) has increased this very same world for Chamakkala fishermen. Since the 1990s, cell phones have affected decision-making as described above. Despite these profound changes I argue that the basic elements of Chamakkala fishing—drawing inferences from others and influencing fish movement by structuring the marine world with noise—were already common in the operation of the vañci-s. These wooden dugouts were the dominant craft for more than a century prior to the introduction of the vaḷḷaṃ-s.

People along central Kerala’s coast commonly associate vañci-s with the “old times” (pl. paḻaya kālaṅṅaḷ), an epoch contrasted with the “time of progress” (purōgamicckālaṃ, lit. “progressed time”) which the vaḷḷaṃ-s stand for, a period ambiguously defined by prospects of upward social and economic mobility as well as a decline in people’s moral conduct. Staffed by five men who propelled a vañci by rowing (occasionally aided by placing a sail), one could venture less far into the sea, and rarely went further than about eight kilometres to the west. And obviously one could react less quickly to a shoal’s erratic movements. Nevertheless, encircling nets were used locally (see Hornell 1937: 50-61), even though fishing with the kolli vala (literally, “killer net”) was more common. Prior to the introduction of the ring seine, this net was used by half of Kerala’s fishermen population (ibid.: 58-61). It was shaped like a bag with extended wings (see Fig. 6 for a simplified sketch) and could be operated as a boat seine with two vañci-s (who pulled the net along towards shoals of fish). More commonly, it was used in cooperation with six or seven other vañci-s. In this case, two boats spun the net open, facing a shoal of pelagic fish (usually sardines or mackerel). Floaters and sinkers held the net in a shape that resembled a huge mouth (vāya) with lips (cuntu) at its top and its bottom. The other vañci-s were on the shoal’s opposite side. Once the kolli vala had been brought into a suitable position, the two vañci-s holding the net and the other vañci-s approached each other. On the latter, people beat the boats with wooden sticks to make noise and thus scare (inf. cāttikkuka) the fish and chase (inf. celluka) them into the net. While getting into position previously, the men on board the vañci-s had to refrain from talking in order not to alert fish of their presence. Typically, a kolli vala was owned by a group of eight to ten vañci-s, called a set. In the 1970s, there were approximately 27 vañci-s in Chamakkala operating three kolli vala-s.

6. Schematic sketch of the operation of the odaṃ vala, resembling the kolli vala, taken from Hornell (1937: 52). Here only two dugout canoes are shown, pulling the net and keeping it open. The canoes which generate noise in order to chase fish into the net are not depicted.

Not only was noise commonly used in influencing the fishes’ motion, inferences about the movements of other boats were made as well; and sometimes whistles were blown to assemble the boats of one set together quickly after the men on board had discovered a shoal which they then aim to catch.

Notes

1 In Kerala, women are excluded from participating in marine fishing.

2 In this text, important Malayalam words are written in italics and transliterated following the Library of Congress notation; see Hoeppe (2007) for details. Place names and personal names are not transcribed. Unless otherwise noted I write the plurals of Malayalam words with the singular word, added by “-s”. I do so because of the complications of using the Malayalam plural construction.

3 Many anthropologists tie the term “cultural model” to language use (cf. Holland & Quinn 1987). In this text I shall adopt BLOCH’s (1998) broader view of considering models which are not entirely propositional. Although these can be accessed “in part through language,” they are “partly visual, partly sensual, partly linked to performance” (ibid.: 26). I agree with Bloch that in many ways they are accessible to attentive participant observation.

4 For descriptions of ring seine fishing, see Brandt (1984); Rajan (1993); D’Cruz (1998).

5 In this text I am not concerned with the theory of rational choice and its benefits and shortcomings (for an anthropologist’s critique, see Douglas 1986). From what follows it will be clear that a pure rational choice approach does not apply in my case because of the interdependence of the actors due to the fishermen’s knowledge of other units and their skippers. I shall use Simon’s model to serve as a contrast to my ethnographic material.

6 SIMON’s (1956) work was among the first in defining what came to be known as “bounded rationality” (cf. Gigerenzer & Selten 2002). Simon (1990: 7) illustrates its essence by describing human rational behaviour as being shaped by “scissors whose two blades are the structure of the task environments and the computational capabilities of the actors.” Following Tversky & Kahnemann (1974), research has focused on both blades of the scissors, investigating both task environments and the use of a variety of specific heuristics in approaching them, one insight being that specific heuristics are adapted to specific environments (Gigerenzer & Selten 2002). The latter work includes a discussion of the role of culture in bounded rationality.

7 This transformation of the fishermen’s emotional and perceptual state may remind one the “transformatory fury” experienced by practitioners of kalāripayyaṭṭu, a ritualised martial art of Kerala (Zarrilli 1998).

8 Elsewhere (Hoeppe 2007: chap. 5) I have elaborated on how fishing is evaluated in Araya ideology; unsurprisingly, this view differs much from Brahmin ideas. In conversation, many fishermen contrast their practices and values with those known or imagined of Brahmins.

9 Astronomically, this is due to the proximity of Kerala to the equator.

10 For a biologist’s account of the visible signs of the Indian oil sardine, see Balan (1961).

11 Biologists attribute the fluorescent glow of kamaru to bioluminescence by the bacterium Vibrio spp.

12 The Malayalam word “Ponnonam” may be translated into English as “golden Onam”, Onam being the most elaborate annual festival in Kerala (see Osella & Osella 1996). Marking the end of the south-west monsoon it commemorates the annual return of Mahabali, the mythical ruler of Kerala in a period of prosperity.

13 Formally, the shareholders are joint owners of boats and gear, but in most teams, much of the de facto ownership rests with their tarakan-s (moneylenders-cum-auctioneers).

14 The skipper typically receives 1 ½ or 2 times the share of a “net man” at the division of money after a unit’s catch has been auctioned.

15 In the 1980s and 1990s the role of the skipper in artisanal fisheries was the focus of a debate among anthropologists, who argued for or against the notion that his individual skill has a significant differential effect on the outcome of a fishing trip (see the references in Pálsson 1991; Russell & Alexander 1996).

16 I have used the commercial hand-held instrument GPS300 of the company Magellan (San Dimas, California, USA).

17 Altogether, these pointing gestures and verbal exchanges can be said to define that which is seen by these men, in the sense of Amann & Knorr-CETINA’s (1988) study of molecular biologists who jointly consider photographic film exposed in a scientific apparatus. Prior to the scientists’ interaction, the visible is ambiguous. Various interpretations are possible. In their progressing verbal exchange, one of these interpretations ends up being preferred over the others. What has, eventually, fixated the visual “evidence” is not the film, which remains as fuzzy as it has been in the beginning, but the dialogue between the scientists. An important difference to the case of Chamakkala fishermen is that, in the present case, the shoal of fish is seen moving. Abductive inference is therefore aided by a continuing inflow of signs (hinting at the movement, size and constitution of the shoal) which provide support or evidence against hypotheses previously made by the fishermen. If a shoal of the expected size is actually caught, a hypothesis made in the abductive process has been verified.

18 The extent to which work songs increase the efficiency of agricultural labourers by synchronising their performance and increasing their well-being has been recognized by Richards (1993).

19 While one may first think that such a statement would prove the meaninglessness of asking local informants to provide cultural “rules”, much like Bourdieu’s “fallacy of the rule” (cf. Bourdieu 1977: 2 ff.).

20 See Hoeppe (2007: chap. 5) for a more detailed consideration of human-environment relations in Chamakkala.

21 Note that, in a later text, Hutchins (1999: 127) considers even natural structures as cognitive artifacts, an example being constellations in the night sky as they were used by Micronesian navigators.

22 This distinction matches TURNBULL’s (2000: chap. 1) characterisation of “local knowledge” as not being transferable from one context to another, distinguishing it from “scientific knowledge”.

Table des illustrations

Légende 1. A vaḷḷaṃ on the beach in Chamakkala.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 33k
Légende 2. Sketch of the operation of the ring seine net (ring vala), modified after D’Cruz (1998: 31)After spotting a shoal and approaching it, the fishing operation begins when the “jumping man” (caṭṭukkāran ; here depicted as a filled grey circle) enters the water, holding one end of the net (a). Subsequently, it is rapidly laid around the shoal (b). Once the “jumping man” is reached again, both ends of the net are brought on board and it is closed by pulling the net’s bottom rope (either manually or with a winch). Eventually, the net is pulled on board (c).
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Titre 3. A shoal of sardine seen in the sea from a vaḷḷaṃ. In this photograph, the shoal is visible as a darker horizontal patch towards two small boats near the horizon.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k
Légende 4. Four important stages of the fishing trip described in the text.While GPS satellite positions have been used to plot the movement of the net boat (vala vaḷḷaṃ) of the Ponnonam unit (black solid line, the locations of other boats and trawlers is depicted schematically. Arrows indicate the direction of movement. Only features which have affected decision-making on board are shown, these typically being located within a radius of about five kilometres around the vaḷḷaṃ.a) At 8.27 a.m. Ponnonam, moving to the south-west, has passed a number of trawlers which move along the coast towards the south.b) At 8.40 a.m. the vaḷḷaṃ steers toward a few sea gulls which are seen plunging into the sea—a hint at the location of fish in the water beneath.c) At 10.58 a.m. it has passed a front of trawlers which move southward, and meets a vaḷḷaṃ unit on a north-bound course. The latter’s carrier boat (dinky vaḷḷaṃ) is empty, suggesting a lack of fish in the South.d) At 11.28 a.m. Ponnonam’s net boat has advanced in front of the trawlers and spotted a shoal of sardines (grey patch). This is being caught.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 31k
Légende 5. Route of Ponnonam’s net boat on 1st February 2000 as measured with a portable GPS satellite receiver, shown on Nautical Map DHI 1565 . (Deutsches Hydrographisches Institut, Hamburg)The depth is in metres. A: first ring seine fishing operation (8.49 a.m. to 9.56 a.m.). B: second ring seine fishing operation (11.28 a.m. to 1.00 p.m.).
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Légende 6. Schematic sketch of the operation of the odaṃ vala, resembling the kolli vala, taken from Hornell (1937: 52). Here only two dugout canoes are shown, pulling the net and keeping it open. The canoes which generate noise in order to chase fish into the net are not depicted.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsehess/docannexe/image/22156/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 45k

Auteur

He is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (USA). He focuses on the anthropology of science and environmental anthropology.

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