Give an Ethnographer a Fish

The social anatomy of debt is explored in a Dominican fishing town.

In the dim light of dusk, people gather on the Monte Cristi beach to greet fisherman..
The welcome committee at Monte Cristi’s fishermen’s wharf at dusk. Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

“Fish are gold here,” the diver fisherman whispered to me as we stood above the wharf, watching the theater of arrival below. As boats come into port in Monte Cristi—a historic Dominican fishing town—crowds of friends, colleagues and fishmongers gather to greet them, either hoping to score a few pounds of conch, lobster, and fish, or—in the case of fishmongers—attempting to make sure the entire boatload isn’t gifted away. “You fished in the shallows!” one diver joked as his colleague walked away with a five-pound grouper hanging from his hand, given to him by one of the fishermen. The man held up the brown-striped fish, following the current of jest by giving a lesson in the anatomy of debt. Pointing to different cuts of the large fish starting from the tale, he narrated, “This is for Julio… this belongs to the fishmonger… this part goes to my mechanic… and the head I’ll give to my mother.”

A fisherman wearing a red Adidas t-shirt holds a large fish.
An off-duty fisherman shows off a fish given to him by colleagues returning from the sea. Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

Give a man a fish in Monte Cristi, and you enter into complicated and crucial sets of socio-financial relations with him, and with the community at large. As I conducted field research among diver fishermen in this community, my interlocutors showered me with fish, giving me grouper after their multi-day trips, snapper from the nearshore reefs, octopus when the water was cold, and lobster when I accompanied them out to sea and underwater with my own speargun. At first, I was touched by the generosity of my interlocutors, but as I observed the give and take of fish and favors around me, the reality sunk in. Caught in a network of reciprocal relations, I was deeply in debt.

Seated on the edge of a small boat with the ocean behind him, a fisherman holds a small octopus in his hand.
An octopus offering for the ethnographer. Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

Debt is ubiquitous in the fishing industry. While fishmongers own the boats and fishing equipment, diver fishermen are free agents. In order to secure the labor of diver fishermen, fishmongers offer to loan them anywhere from $500 to $2,000, significant sums in a town where the average monthly wage is under $400. Fishermen known to bring in more catch are offered larger sums, and the amount of debt a diver accrues with a fishmonger signifies his value as a fisherman (see Bernard 1967 and Spyer 1997). Debts, as such, are both loose labor contracts assuring that fishermen fish for one business over another, as well as marks of value and skill. While fishmongers often complain about fishermen’s outstanding debts, such complaints are reminders of social contracts rather than demands to pay off debts entirely, since paying off a fisherman’s debt would mean labor lost for the fishmonger. As one boat owner and fishmonger explained, “They [fishermen] benefit me. I lend to them, but that money doesn’t matter. I collect on their debts little by little because it’s what you do, but they benefit me so long as they are fishing for me.”

Two fisherman work in the stern of a boat, preparing their gear.
Fishermen prepare for multi-day voyages in the fishmonger’s boat. Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

Debts, as many point out, are always a risk (Graeber 2011). Fishermen are known to skip out on a fishmonger who lends them money, leaving town or leaving one fishmonger for another and thus causing social rifts. Drama ensued after one highly valued diver fished in the boat of a fishmonger while he had outstanding debts with another. The moral onus, however, was on the competing fishmonger, who had an obligation to buy off the diver’s loan from the previous fishmonger. Often, divers’ refusals to heed the social capital of debts owed contributes to the unsavory reputations of fishermen in Monte Cristi, but denying one’s debts is also a statement of autonomy, of independence from the demands of often very risky labor on fishermen’s bodies.

The slippery anatomy of debt in fishing communities is perhaps one of the reasons why NGOs, government, and aid institutions have been unable to penetrate the social structures of fishing. Attempts to create a fishermen’s association by one NGO struggled to acquire funding offered by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which wanted fishermen to divide the debt of a small boat among themselves. “The problem,” the NGO’s director lamented, “is that fishermen most often don’t have a house or something to leverage for debt.” Fishermen have reasons to be elusive regarding loans offered by IDB and other international funders: Monte Cristi was the place from which the United States invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916 in order to secure debt payments; and Haiti looms next door, exemplifying the consequences of debt relations with foreign institutions for Caribbean nations (Black 2001). Yet from the perspective of fishermen, money loaned through local patronage is more reliable. Since debts are inherently social contracts, and institutions like the IDB have no social presence in Monte Cristi, and thus, no accountability.

A fisherman squats next to four fish.
A fisherman prepares to clean fish that he will give as debt payment. Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

Perhaps what lending and borrowing relations in fishing reveal are alternative anatomies of debt. Fishermen’s bodies are their income, and fishing productivity requires heightened risk of injury (the bends, for example). Fish bodies stand in for gold or currency, and social bonds are connected by the tissues of gifts and reciprocation, often through lending and borrowing. Debts in this fishing community are ways that people anticipate the future actions of their peers, cultivate relationships, and assert autonomy where power relations are inherently unequal.

All of the leverage-less fishermen referenced by the NGO director were owed debts by their local American ethnographer, yours truly. As ethnographers, many of us enter into relations of debt with interlocutors, and these debts often allow us to produce the theory and analysis that works as currency in our own professions. Give an ethnographer a fish and she will write for a lifetime. Also, she will give you small loans during times of need, professional photographs for children’s birthday parties, translation services, and fins and spearguns from California.

Kyrstin Mallon Andrews is a PhD candidate at UC Irvine and longtime ethnographer of borders, water, and health in the Dominican Republic.

Walter E. Little ([email protected]) is contributing editor for the Society for Economic Anthropology.

Cite as: Mallon Andrews, Kyrstin. 2019. “Give an Ethnographer a Fish.” Anthropology News website, September 3, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1244

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