Research on ports financed by the EU

Elisabeth Schober has received a prestigious research grant from the EU to ethnographically explore how global capitalism plays out in four key ports across the world.

Almost all goods that surround us have reached us by ship. This journey involves ports. In the newly financed EU-project, PORTS, social anthropologists will explore the port as an economic frontier between the city and the global ocean and capitalism.

Portrait of Elisabeth Schober, female in her thirties, with blonde hair. Photo: UiO
Elisabeth Schober. Photo: UiO

- Because maritime trade is so central to the functioning of the world economy, ports are actually great sites to investigate, if one is interested in the shift of the centre of gravity from the West to the East. We know precious little about the social, political and cultural changes that come with these economic transformations that have occurred over the last few decades, says associate professor Elisabeth Schober at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Schober has been awarded a “Starting Grant” from the European Research Council (ERC) for the project. These grants are given to talented early-career scholars who have already produced excellent research and who show promise of becoming leading figures in their field. 

Will research global competition and automation

Ports used to be located in the centre of towns. This has changed. In cities such as Rotterdam and Singapore, ports for cargo have been moved to the outskirts of town, together with their communities of maritime workers. In PORTS, researchers will explore the effects of these shifts for local populations.

Industrial port with container ship and cargo. Photo: Colourbox
Photo: Tawan Boonnak, Colourbox

While maritime cities are local sites, they also constitute nodes in a network of commodity circulation that spans the globe. Both the local and the global stand in focus in PORTS. Schober and her team of researchers will investigate the everyday human and technological processes that sustain this vital flow of goods. In addition, Schober will explore how maritime workers experience global trade and these economic transformations.

- How is overseas competition in this extremely globalized world of work viewed? Do the workers perceive automation as a threat or an opportunity? What aspects of work in and around ports will remain in the hands of humans, and why, Schober asks.

UiO as a centre for maritime anthropology

Elisabeth Schober has already established herself as a maritime anthropologist with a focus on the global economy. She is presently running a multi-year project funded by the Norwegian Research Council where she, together with colleagues Camelia Dewan and Johanna Markkula, follows the life cycle of container ships from construction, through maintenance to destruction. With the ERC funds she will continue to build on this research, and strengthen existing initiatives at the Department of Social Anthropology.

- We hope to contribute to making the University a center for maritime anthropology and other social scientists interested in the sea, she says.

Rune Flikke is head of the Department for Social Anthropology. He considers this an achievable ambition. 

- The PORTS project gives the department a great opportunity to continue to build a strong international research centre on global economy and maritime studies, Flikke says.

- A pioneering research field

The PORTS-researchers will conduct fieldwork in four of the world’s most significant port cities, namely Singapore, Pusan (South Korea), Rotterdam (Holland), and Piraeus (Greece). By using the ethnographic method, the project will shed a new light on global, economic processes, Flikke emphasises.

-    Behind this award, there is a great talent, hard work and a pioneering research field. Schober contributes strongly to a field that has been in lack of empirical research. 

Containership at sea. Photo: Colourbox
PORTS will build on the research conducted in the project Container Ships. Photo: Colourbox

“PORTS” is the short title for «Between Sea and City: Ethnographic explorations of infrastructure, work, and place around leading urban container ports». The project period will be five years, and is planned to begin in 2020.

Apart from Elisabeth Schober herself, three other researchers will work on the project. The grant from the ERC will finance two post. doc. -positons as well as a Ph.D.

By Marit Eline Lervik Christensen
Published Sep. 5, 2019 11:03 AM