Amphibious anthropology: engaging with maritime worlds in Indonesia

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This thesis explores how people live amphibiously in dynamic land-sea environments. It is based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork (2011 – 2013) in the Makassar Strait maritime region in Indonesia: a complex and amphibious land-sea interface. In Western science little attention is given to how people live at sea. There is a general land bias, by which people are seen as primarily belonging to the land. Yet people do live at sea, or rather: in these dynamic land-sea environments. Engaging with these mobile and sea-based ways of life of maritime people provides not only a fuller understanding of how people relate to their environment, but , essentially, it also enables a critical reflection of land-biased assumptions in science and society.

Anthropology, with its qualitative research methods is particularly suitable to do such in-depth and long-term engagement with other worlds. The research on which the thesis is based was carried out as a mobile ethnography, following people seawards, travelling with them for days to visit close family on faraway islands or joining them on their fishing and diving trips, including illegal fishers using bombs and cyanide poison on coral reefs. Also followed were the practices of marine conservation staff, as they organised field trips to fishing communities. These travels – described in the thesis – show how islands and marine spaces that are remote from the land, turn out to be regional hubs of oversees trade and family relations. From a sea-based perspective the Makassar Strait is a continuity of relations and movements flanked by land masses. This inverts the land-based perspective of the sea as an extension of the land by putting the sea centre stage.

The Makassar Strait figures in this thesis as an active and moving world – or worlds – of human-marine relations to learn from and theorise about the notion of ontological flow: fluidity of being and moving in relation. Flow is both movement as a pattern of activity – the flowing – and that what flows; elements, matter and meaning in motion. The notion of worlds in flow has infused recent ontological debates in anthropological theory in which reality is assumed contingent, fluid and multiple – thereby revitalising the philosophical work of earlier thinkers, among whom Michel Serres and Gilles Deleuze. This way of thinking complexity and ontological fluidity is central to literature that has emerged out of the cross-fertilisation of Science and Technology Studies (STS), anthropology and philosophy. Despite differences, these studies share the objective to follow, engage with and translate how, in practice, material and semiotic realities come to be and matter – instead of developing a way to ‘access reality better’.

The concept of ‘amphibiousness’ is mobilised to refer to living in and moving between different worlds that can intermingle but that cannot be reduced to each other. The concept is used to describe the human capacity to live in different worlds at the same time. This amphibious capacity is further elaborated 1) in terms of living in a hybrid land-water interface, 2) in terms of being able to move along with different understandings of the world, of reality, and 3) It refers to the methodology of the anthropologist who also needs to move in these worlds bodily and cognitively, to develop a sensitivity to and understanding of these different worlds. Amphibiousness captures the anthropological engagement with flow, multiplicity and otherness by way of moving between worlds in order to explore the moving interface between worlds, realities or ways of life that partly interact. The research question: How to grasp flow – the fluctuations of and between bodies, things or worlds in the making - conceptually and methodologically without reducing its vital mobility and fluidity? is elaborated in a methodological Chapter 2, and three research chapters (Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5) that each focus from a different angle on human-marine relations.

The research exposes fundamentally different, and sometimes conflicting, ways in which people understand and experience their relation to the sea. These were not just different perspectives on one maritime reality, or world. These were inherently different understandings of reality, and different ways in which this reality is put into practice, in which worlds – plural – are being created and sustained. In anthropology we speak of ontological difference, because it concerns with (radically) different notions of wat exists, what is real, what matters and what entities participate in the reproduction of the world.

Although these worlds are different – they cannot be reduced to each another - they are also not separated in any clear-cut way. They do flow into each other, as people, objects and ideas can amphibiously move in between. It is argued in this thesis that such amphibious translation is essential for more effective and equal collaboration in marine conservation. International environmental organisations insufficiently acknowledge (radically) different ways of doing and thinking human-marine relations. Disregarding these undermines the viability of conservation programs as it repeatedly leads to clashes between different ways in which maritime worlds are understood and organised in practice. To be effective, marine conservation needs to become amphibious; attentive to fundamentally different ways of understanding and experiencing the relationship between people and the sea, as well as the mobile practices of trade, fishing, travel and family affiliations through which these worlds are shaped beyond the borders of marine reserves.

Chapter 2 intends to answer the question how to grasp environmental otherness – radically different ways of understanding and experiencing human-marine relations – in and through ethnography. Chapter 3 serves to provide some empirical grounding to show the relevancy and urgency of a paradigmatic shift in conservation thinking, finding ways to engaging mobile maritime people like the Bajau. The solution to the ‘participation problem’ in conservation will not lie in developing ways to make local people participate more in Western conservation schemes. What is needed is an ontological shift in conservation thinking itself. Chapter 4 describes a conservation outreach project that attempts to educate and convert local people into coral protectors. Both coral and the sea-dwelling Bajau people appear to be amphibious beings, moving between a changeable land-water interface, and between different, fluidly interwoven ontological constellations. Failure of conservation organisations to recognise the ontologically ambiguous nature of ‘coral’ and ‘people’ translates to a breakdown of outreach goals. Chapter 5 provides a case study of a dangerous and destructive fishing practice (cyanide fishing) by which fishers dive beyond the limits of what their body can take – and spirits allow, a practice that generates feeling of both fear and enjoyment as they experience a process of becoming permeable to fluids, spirits and currents penetrating or leaking out of their bodies. This chapter exposes how cyanide fishing sustains as a way of life, involving and producing affective relations.

In Chapter 6 it is concluded how ontological multiplicity is of a heuristic and political relevance to social science, and anthropology in particular because it allows us to engage with radical difference – or the real on different terms – instead of explaining it away in our own terms. Engaging with such radical different is important because it allows to see the realities that systematically escape (scholarly) attention, yet affect the world nonetheless. This requires translation – the practice of relating different worlds, reals, repertoires or ways of life and bringing them into interaction – which is a process of, and a condition for, dialogue. The notion of amphibiousness has practical and political value, in particular for reconsidering conservation and development outreach and how it may be reframed as a process involving ontological dialogue. Providing room for ambiguity, thinking with amphibiousness furthermore encourages suspension of the (Western) tendency to explain the Other, to fix what does not add up.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Visser, Leontine, Promotor
  • Verschoor, Gerard, Co-promotor
Award date5 Apr 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463430654
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • cum laude


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