"Container Ships: Life Cycles, Chains of Value, and Labor in Maritime Logistics"
In this article published in the Oxford Research Encycopedia of Anthropology, Elisabeth Schober, Camelia Dewan and Johanna Markkula propose an ethnographic "life-cycle" approach to the study of container ships.
Goods moved on board container ships constitute 70 percent of all world cargo by economic value, which makes container ships vital things in the broader agglomeration of contemporary global capitalism. These vessels are in themselves also containers of other forms of value: they on occasion store, move, and disperse noneconomic forms of social worth.
Building on the insights of critical logistics studies and coupling them with anthropological insights on value, Elisabeth Schober, Camelia Dewan and Johanna Markkula propose an ethnographic “life-cycle” approach to the study of container ships that broadens maritime anthropology to encompass contemporary forms of seaborne capitalism. With the container vessel functioning as a connecting device between different “sited” fieldwork experiences in shipbuilding, shipping, and shipbreaking, such a collaborative effort can bring the larger system of maritime transportation into focus.
Furthermore, when viewed through the value-within-life-cycle prism, the container ship may present itself not as an object that has a singular form but rather one that is made up of a multitude of ships that come in and out of being. By describing it as a gestalt—a dynamic material assemblage that is more than the sum of its parts—attention is paid here to how highly dependent the container ship is on geographical and social context, on ever-shifting layers of value attributed to it, and on the multifarious meaning-making among the workers laboring around it.
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