Islands as Places of Being and Belonging

By Olwig, Karen Fog | The Geographical Review, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Islands as Places of Being and Belonging


Olwig, Karen Fog, The Geographical Review


It is clear, for the Caribbean at least, that a body of land entirely
surrounded by water is no longer an island.
--Robert A. Manners, 1965

In the 1950s the American anthropologist Robert Manners brought a group of students to the Caribbean Virgin Island of Saint John for a summer field school. In the few months spent on Saint John, it became increasingly apparent to him that the island was a far cry from the well-bounded, tightly integrated, local social, economic, and cultural systems that anthropologists had come to associate with islands--and which made them popular field sites. Owing to massive emigration, Saint John's population had been decimated, and those who still lived on the island were almost entirely dependent on remittances received from emigrant relatives on Saint Thomas or in the United States (Manners 1965, 186). This remittance economy was so extensive that most islanders had given up on local economic activities such as small-scale farming and fishing, and Manners described a local society that had become almost entirely integrated into a geographically extensive field of social and economic relationships. The case of Saint John, he noted, posed a challenge to the notion of the local community corresponding to a particular geographical area--in the case of islands, conveniently demarcated by water--that had been the "traditional unit of research" in anthropology. When studying the Saint Johnian community this traditional research unit would no longer be "coextensive with the unit of analysis," because the latter unit needed to include the economic relationships that integrated Saint John into a single economic system extending as far as the United States (p. 182). A cross-cultural survey led Manners to conclude that Saint John was not the only small-scale society that depended on extensive remittances, and he suggested that this meant the end of traditional community studies as anthropologists had been conducting them. He warned that the anthropologist had to "be especially careful lest his professional heritage and his near-commitment to the hypothetical tribal or community isolate obscure a social field which reaches outside his village, community, or country and across several thousand miles of ocean to the sources of stability, change, growth, or decay" (p. 192).

Anthropological studies conducted during the 1960s and 1970s on other Caribbean islands, such as Nevis (Frucht 1966, 1968, 1971), Montserrat (Philpott 1968, 1973), and Jamaica (Foner 1979), confirmed Manners's conclusion that Caribbean islands were not self-contained units but must be understood in a wider context. Stuart Philpott suggested that anthropologists, rather than stay put on a Caribbean island, might do well to follow the migrants to their destinations and thus make the networks of relationships that connected migrants with the sending society their unit of research as well as analysis (1968). He himself adopted this approach by following migrants from the small Montserratian village, where he conducted fieldwork, to London, the villagers' most important migration destination during the 1950s (1968, 1973). During the 1980s and 1990s this research strategy became increasingly common; indeed, by the 1980s, focus in Caribbean studies had moved to a considerable extent from the Caribbean region to Caribbean settlements abroad and the networks of relationships that connected them with the migrants' place of origin (Sutton and Chaney 1987; Brown 1991; Olwig 1993; Basch, Schiller, and Szanton Blanc 1994; Byron 1994; Chamberlain 1997; Levitt 2001; Schiller and Fouron 2001).

The shift away from local community studies to wider fields of relationships has been most pronounced in the transnational approach that came to dominate migration research during the 1990s and has been particularly influential in Caribbean migration studies. This theoretical stance maintains that, owing to the long history of migration, Caribbean people are strongly oriented toward transnational sociocultural systems, whether they still live on a small West Indian island or have moved to a large metropole in North America or Europe. …

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