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Department of Social Sciences
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
+44 (0)1865 484011
Jennifer Diggins joined Oxford Brookes in 2015 from the University of Sussex, where she had graduated with a PhD in Social Anthropology the previous year. Her ethnographic research focuses on fishing communities in coastal Sierra Leone. Jennifer's work explores how intimate social relationships have been shaped through histories of migration and economic change, and asks how fishermen and women struggle to navigate precarious livelihoods through contexts of extreme poverty, insecurity, and environmental decline.
KEY WORDS: West Africa, Livelihoods, Fishing, Gender, Economic Anthropology, Maternal Health, Ebola
My formative ethnographic fieldwork was based in Tissana: a multi-ethnic frontier fishing town in Southern Sierra Leone. In this research, I traced the story of the successive waves of young migrants who, for several decades, have been arriving on the coast from rural areas seeking an alternative to the indentured labour conditions of a farming economy still shaped by the legacy of domestic slavery. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing post-war economy, and in an ecological context in which fish stocks are in treacherous decline, I explore the intersection between people’s everyday struggles for economic survival and their taken-for-granted knowledge of the substance of the world within which those fragile livelihoods play out.
More recently, I have been working with colleagues in Sierra Leone and at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on research examining the role of men and boys in activist movements for gender equality. I also co-authored a policy paper reflecting on the gendered dimensions of the Ebola crisis, and have an emerging research interest in the political economy of infant and maternal health in the post-Ebola context.
Against the backdrop of a threadbare post-war state and a global marine ecology in treacherous decline, Jennifer Diggins offers a dynamic account of post-war Sierra Leone, through the examination of a precarious frontier economy and those who depend on it. The book traces how understandings of intimacy, interdependence, and exploitation have been shaped through a history of indentured labour, violence, and gendered migration; and how these relationships are being renegotiated once more in a context of deepening economic uncertainty. At its core, this is about the material substance of human relationships. One can go a long way towards mapping the town's shifting networks of friendship, love, and obligation simply by watching the vast daily traffic in gifts of fish exchanging hands on the wharf. However, these mundane social and economic strategies are often inflected through a cultural dynamic of 'secrecy', and a shared sense of the unseen forces understood to inhabit the material world.--Provided by publisher.
This article explores the economic negotiations between Sierra Leonean fishermen and the women who compete to buy their fish; tracing how relationships of gendered intimacy and interdependence are being reconfigured in a context of deepening economic precarity. Fish stocks in Sierra Leone are in crisis. Fisherfolk look back with nostalgia to a past in which bountiful harvests had made it possible for transactions of fish to be simple and impersonal. Today, by contrast, it is almost impossible for women to access fish without working to develop strong personal relationships with fishermen: deploying gifts of food, loans of money, and even secret ‘medicines’ to secure the loyalty of potential customers. I analyze how men and women reflect on their growing impoverishment through discourses that emphasize their moral ambivalence at being drawn back into webs of interpersonal dependency and argue that these anxieties need to be understood in the context of Sierra Leone’s history of domestic slavery.
As a result of the autopsy of Sierra Leone's civil war, we have become familiar with a rather dystopian vision of ‘traditional’ economic life in that region. Combatants often described their family villages as spaces where profound inequalities were hidden within households; where labour exploitation was woven through kinship relations. This article follows several young men who fled conditions of bonded labour in their rural homes: not to join the war but to seek a new life in the commercial fishing economy. Elsewhere across the postcolonial world, there is a rich ethnographic literature illustrating that people on the fringes of the global capitalist order respond with profound unease as their economic lives become ever more strongly regulated by impersonal market forces. Less often acknowledged is the possibility that, for some people, in some contexts, severing social relations might be exactly what they want, and that therein lies the greatest appeal of an economic life characterized by market transactions. For the young men described in this article, commercial fishing appeared to offer a level of personal ‘freedom’ unimaginable within the patron–client structures of village life. However, most find themselves drawn rapidly back into new forms of extractive relationships.