Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Collecting International Merchant Seafarer Oral Histories: Experiences and Reflections

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Collecting International Merchant Seafarer Oral Histories: Experiences and Reflections

Article excerpt

"... The only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: That words are more powerful than munitions." Albert Camus (1)

I am a peace researcher. I use qualitative research as a tool for advancing toward positive peace (Galtung, 1998). I view qualitative research as action-centered. In this article, I reflect on my research process, and suggest how qualitative research methods must be flexible enough to accommodate researchers' needs in a chaotic global milieu. Ideally, my experiences collecting international merchant seafarer oral histories will illuminate others' work and expand the dialogue surrounding the development of qualitative research methods.

When choosing a research topic, smart researchers usually avoid studies of inaccessible populations. Their reluctance stems less from insurmountable methodological problems than inconvenience or lack of will. In fact, the means of studying all manner of populations exist. Their implementation, however, is not easy. What is needed is "money, trained staff, and cooperation of various disciplines ..." (Goldstein, 1968, p. 249). When I initiated my research project oriented on achieving an understanding of contemporary international merchant seafaring, money was unavailable to me in any significant amount. Yet my position as director of a seafarers' center provided an experienced staff capable of mastering the methods of oral history and positioned me to access hundreds of mariners as they entered and departed our port. And my own background brought an interdisciplinary approach to the organization of the study and the analysis of resulting data. Two out of three is not too bad. It is hoped that the example of this work will encourage others to undertake similar projects.


In globalization's chaos, labor is in constant motion, seeking work. By definition, globalization erodes national boundaries (Menyhart, 2003). Cross-boundary labor flows, legal or otherwise, are an inevitable outgrowth of globalization. Labor migrates across porous national boundaries pursuing work; work chases cheap labor in a global market. Like water, the labor market seeks a common level, often the lowest point. That is the bedeviling issue. Yet people can formulate rational and humane policies even when national boundaries and jurisdictions fade. Policy is the outgrowth of narrative (Matyok, 2009). Through the telling of stories, narrator and listener interact and negotiate a new future.

Globalization promises long-run benefits for all, but it is too often discussed in economic terms stripped of its human dimension. Economists measure outcomes, never processes. Outcomes are measured quantitatively; process defines quality of life (Brady, 2003; Figini & Santarelli, 2006; Goldberg & Pavcink, 2004). My research pleads for creation of worker counter-narratives that confront the human dimension of globalization.

A seaport is an exceptional laboratory to study the impact of globalization on labor. First, international merchant shipping is probably the most global of all industries. Second, ships' crews are composed of men and women from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities. Third, because of this diversity, seaports attract a large mobile, heterogeneous population of seafarers. They exhibit a multi-cultural character coexistent with the relative homogeneity of the greater port community. A study of international merchant seafarers can examine numerous cultural and ethnic groups within the clearly defined geography of a seaport. It can record perceptions formed by a host of value systems reacting to a global economic context. Access to such views promotes an understanding of conflict transformation processes; processes essential to serve the needs of globalized labor. The world shipping industry acts as a lens to glimpse, however darkly, future labor discord--friction exacerbated by cultural and ethnic factors as well as economic and political disputes. …

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