Derick Fay interviews the 2013 Rappaport Prize winner, Heather Swanson

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Derick Fay interviews Heather Swanson about her research and writing on salmon fisheries and comparison in Hokkaido, Japan.

The 2013 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Heather Swanson.  Heather recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and  is currently Assistant Professor, Aarhus University and Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA).  Her prize-winning paper, “Fishy Comparisons: Similarity, difference, and the making of salmon populations,” probes how (human) comparative practices shape the making of multispecies landscapes.  Focusing on salmon fisheries management in Hokkaido, Japan, she demonstrates that neither the island’s watershed ecologies nor its fish population structures can be understood without attention to comparison-making.  Since the mid-19th century, natural resources management in northern Japan has been profoundly shaped by how people both within and beyond Japan have compared Hokkaido’s landscapes and fish to those in other parts of the world.

Derick: In your paper you had mentioned you had previously worked in salmon hatcheries and fisheries research in the Northwest – could you talk about the trajectory that led you to anthropology?

Heather: I grew up in a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River, a small place called Astoria.  Salmon were everywhere there – including on my dinner plate. From the time I was a kid, it was clear to me that fish and fisheries really mattered. Our local high school even offered a three-year program in salmon biology.  Normally, it was for boys who were going to go into fisheries-related careers, but I was very passionate about science, and I wanted to take every science class that was offered.  I had no idea that I was going to fall completely in love with the fish, but I did.  As part of this class, I worked at our school’s on-site fish hatchery, and the experience of caring for the fish was transformative. It’s weird to think you can fall in love with slimy fish, but I really did – so much so that it changed my life.

Heather Swanson

After growing up in a rural area, I went to college at Princeton University, which was a huge culture shock for me. I didn’t come from an “intellectual” background at all.  I went from a high school with a fish hatchery and no AP courses to Princeton.  When I got there, I had no idea what planet I had landed on. Nothing made any sense to me. I had no idea how I could still be in the same country, speaking the same language, yet I couldn’t understand anything. Based in part on my interest in salmon, I was planning to go into some sort of scientific discipline. My first semester, I took physics, chemistry, and calculus, along with an anthropology class that fulfilled a writing requirement.  It was an incredible course that helped me develop ways of thinking about the world that were incredibly helpful in dealing with the cultural differences between small-town Oregon and an Ivy League school. Anthropology resonated with me so much that I decided to completely change my trajectory and major in it.

However, at the same time that I came to be deeply passionate about anthropology and my new academic life at Princeton, I still felt profoundly connected to my hometown and its fish. There was a giant wall map of the United States in one of the hallways at Princeton. I would often sit on a bench in front of it and contemplate the cognitive, the emotional and physical distance between New Jersey and Oregon. They were totally different worlds for me, yet I also yearned to bring them together in some way. In an attempt to do so, I wrote an anthropology bachelor’s thesis on salmon-human relations along the Columbia River.

Derick: How did this early experience growing up in a fishing community in Oregon shape your fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: It drew me into all kinds of comparisons in Japan. As soon as they heard about my background, everyone in Japanese fisheries wanted me to make comparisons between the salmon fishing and management practices I knew from the U.S. and those I encountered in Japan. My experiences growing up in a fishing community elicited comparisons. I became an opportunity for the fishing industry people with whom I worked to engage in and enrich their own comparative practices. While my embodied presence as a white American elicited all kinds of comparative conversations in general, my experiences with salmon led to more specific salmon-focused comparisons.

My experience of growing up in a fishing community also shaped my research in Japan by inspiring it in an unusual way. I never contemplated studying in Japan until my second year of graduate school at UCSC, when I opened up a newly-published book called The Atlas of Pacific Salmon. For the first time, I saw salmon mapped in a trans-Pacific perspective as a species ranging from California to Japan. I had studied salmon quite a bit in high school, and after I finished my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked at a salmon-related non-profit for three years. But until I opened that book, I had never even known that there were salmon in Japan. It had been possible to be seriously involved in salmon management in the U.S. without even knowing that Japanese salmon existed. When I encountered these maps, it was this moment of double reflection: I became intensely curious both about the salmon in Japan and about how I had managed to not know about them. What were the structures and power relations that allowed me not to know such a basic thing when I was pretty enmeshed in fisheries issues? I tried to find some English-language sources about salmon in Japan, but I found surprisingly little, which piqued my interest even more.

I’d never been to Japan, and my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “tsunami” and “sushi,” but somehow it seemed like an utterly reasonable idea for me to study salmon in Hokkaido. I felt that I needed to know about salmon from a place other than the region in which I grew up – and that I needed to know the salmon world in which I grew up by going somewhere else. I had to take two years off from the regular graduate school trajectory to learn Japanese.  It was at once a crazy and wonderful idea, and I am so happy that my dissertation committee encouraged me to do it.

Derick: Your paper on Hokkaido develops some really interesting ideas about comparison – that salmon bodies are constituted through comparison, and that as anthropologists we should attend to our informants’ practices of comparison. Could you talk about how these ideas grew out of that fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: When I arrived in Japan, I was almost physically struck by comparison. It was everywhere. You can’t order breakfast in Japan without being asked to choose between a “Western” and a “Japanese” breakfast. But comparison became even more important when I began living with the vice president of a fisheries cooperative and his family. They were constantly making all kinds of comparisons in which “modernity” mattered (or, one might say, in which “modernity” emerged). For example, they were constantly comparing their business practices to those of the U.S. and Russia, comparing their lives as fishermen to those they might have had in Tokyo, or comparing their own pasts and presents. Comparison and the ability to “compare well” were so important to them that it became a real theme for my fieldwork.  I also started tracing landscape histories while I was doing this ethnographic fieldwork with the fishermen’s cooperative, and I realized that I couldn’t understand either Meiji-era Japanese history or the actual changes in salmon bodies without understanding the same kinds of practices of comparison toward which the fishermen were pointing me. My Rappaport panel paper focuses largely on historical comparisons, but my attention to comparison primarily emerged from my work with the fishermen’s cooperative.

salmon from Swanson paper

Oncorhynchus keta, a species often referred to in English as “chum salmon,” just after being harvested by a fishing cooperative along Hokkaido’s northern coast.

Derick: That leads nicely to the question of how this article fits into the larger dissertation project.

Heather: Comparison is what structures the dissertation as a whole. This article is a version of a chapter that comes near the beginning of the dissertation.  While this article focuses largely on relations between Hokkaido and the Columbia River, the other chapters explore comparisons that connect the island and its fish with other places. For example, in another chapter I look at comparisons that Japanese officials and scientists make between Hokkaido and Chile. From the 1960s to the early 80s, the Japanese government was interested in both developing international aid programs and in expanding their access to salmon. At that time, Japan was losing access to high seas salmon fishing as new international laws and treaties came into effect. I trace how people from Hokkaido travelled to southern Chile, and the comparisons they made there as they helped to build a salmon farming industry. Other chapters look at comparison in the context of conservation and science, and in the context of Ainu indigeneity, all in relation to salmon.

Derick: You’re currently at Aarhus University in Denmark, on a project that’s headed by Anna Tsing.  Could you talk about the aims of the project and the work you’re doing some more?

Heather: I’m very fortunate to be part of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project, or AURA. The Anthropocene is a term that is cropping up everywhere right now, and different people are doing different things with it.  The AURA project explores the Anthropocene by focusing on the jointly natural and cultural histories of anthropogenic landscapes. We bring together environmental history, anthropology, and the natural sciences. Our project team is interdisciplinary, with scholars from those fields and more, and we focus a lot on collaborative practices.  Instead of starting with questions of epistemological difference, we try to focus on cultivating common curiosities. Our assumption is that everyone on our team, whether a biologist or an anthropologist, is curious about landscape in some way. So one of our methods is to go out and walk through a landscape together, asking each other questions about how we’re seeing and thinking about the landscape and about what’s interesting and exciting to each of us. Our hope is that starting with the curiosity and working slowly will allow us to build long-term conversations. We often lament how natural scientists call up an environmental anthropologist after a project is basically already designed to add the “social perspective.” Similarly, in the social sciences, we’ve too often either turned scientists and their work into objects of study, or we take snippets of their data as background “facts” in our own projects. But here, in the AURA project, we’re trying to build meaningful collaboration where we can be in dialogue from the start so that we are shaping the very ways that we conceptualize and design our research. The project is still in its beginning phase – it just started in September 2013 – but I am incredibly excited about how it’s developing.

Derick: Following up the paper, are there ways that your interest in comparison is travelling with you to this new setting in Denmark?

Heather: I certainly notice when and how I do comparison in a way that I didn’t before I started my dissertation work. This is the case both in academic contexts and in everyday life. On the most mundane level, the challenges of trying to build a life in a new country have certainly led me to make all kinds of comparisons! I’ve tried to pay attention to them. One thing I have noticed is that there is undoubtedly something very different about comparison-making in Denmark versus Japan. Living in Denmark has convinced me even more that being situated in Europe or being situated in Japan makes a difference that matters when it comes to one’s practices of comparison.

In addition, Japanese comparisons are also still with me in Denmark. This summer, I’m planning to return to Japan to continue working on questions of comparison and landscape-making in Hokkaido.

 

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