Research Summary

This summer, I completed research for my Anthropology senior honors thesis entitled Learning and Living on the Chesapeake Bay: Education and Issues of Conservation, Economy, and Community in Guinea, Virginia.  I began by getting a sense of the physical boundaries of the Guinea community, located in Gloucester County, by driving around the area.  I conducted research on the lifestyles of the people and the ecology of the surrounding waters.  I also volunteered as a counselor at the Watermen’s Museum (located in Yorktown, Virginia, across the river form Guinea) Pirate Camp.  I decided to contribute half a day each week to the camp in order to learn more about the science and people of the Bay.  As such, my duty was to teach elementary school children the basics of blue crab anatomy, how the crabs are harvested, and the concept of a sustainable harvest.  In addition to learning about blue crabs, one of the key species harvested in the Chesapeake Bay, volunteering at the museum allowed me to tour the exhibits describing the past, present, and potential future of the watermen’s way of life.

As the summer progressed, I began building on the contacts supplied by my parents, who have lived either in or near Gloucester County for many years.  I met with experts on topics such as local boatbuilding and blue crabs to gain necessary background knowledge on my intended area of study.  Next, I interviewed watermen, whether part-time or full-time, retired or active, about their work and opinions on conservation measures, particularly fishing regulations.  I also attended a meeting of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and interviewed an employee of the Commission to get a better understanding of the regulatory process, as well as his opinion on the relationship between the Commission and the fishing community, and whether or not he believes that the method for watermen’s representation to the Commission is effective.

As my research progressed, I realized that my focus began to shift.  Whereas I originally intended to study education in the broader context of community livelihood, I decided that such a topic did not seem very feasible.  Also, I became interested in ideas such as the concept that watermen may be forced to become essentially water farmers as aquaculturalists rather than traditional harvesters or exploiters of the Bay’s natural resources, and the relationship between regulators and watermen.  At this point, I would still like to synthesize much of the information I have gained from the watermen and host an activity for fourth graders at the elementary school in Guinea.  When I talked to the school principal, she thought that this would be the most feasible way to integrate Guinea into the curriculum, as the fourth grade SOLs require that students learn about Virginia history.

While the information presented will be at a level that fourth graders can process, I have learned that fishing in Guinea is extremely multi-faceted.  One example involves the concept of community.  Throughout the research process, I have been referring to the Guinea ‘community.’  As an anthropologist and researcher using the term ‘community,’ I realize that the definitions of such terms are not always clear-cut.  Looking back, I probably conceptualized Guinea as the population of traditional Guinea watermen and their families who live on Guinea Neck.  What about those who move in and out of the area?  One book I read even claims that people from the area itself have conflicting views of where the community begins and ends, at least physically.  Perhaps cultural values and lifestyle matter more to Guinea residents than the physical boundaries.  I always held the assumption that they took pride in their identities and carrying on the livelihoods of their forefathers.  At least some people take pride in their Guinea heritage, as locals hold an event called the Guinea Jubilee annually to celebrate the culture of Guinea Neck.

I faced other challenges as I gathered information.  To begin with, working with people presents a whole set of challenges in itself.  While I enjoy the human element in anthropological work, people’s failure to return phone calls or follow through with further contacts became frustrating from time to time.  The time constraint also bothered me to a certain extent.  While I am fortunate in the fact that Guinea is located close to Williamsburg, so I can continue researching throughout the fall semester when necessary, the summer is a fairly short time to undertake such an ambitious research project.  While a senior honors thesis in cultural anthropology may be viewed largely as a trial in fieldwork for the student, I often reflected and struggled with the idea of how long it takes to really get to know a community and whether or not I really had any right to insert myself into the Guinea community as a researcher, regardless of my adherence to ethical guidelines.

At this point, it may seem as if I have more unanswered questions than information gained from my project.  While there are several concepts that I am still exploring, I have learned a lot since the beginning of the summer, in terms of both the anthropological research process and my specific project.  I have learned from and about the people who live in Guinea and the people they interact with.  Also, I experienced the iterative research process first-hand.  My research focus has shifted over time, causing me to panic slightly about the writing process.  With the assurance of my advisor, I have been planning my next steps in the process.  As I attempt to reconcile the concept of community as it relates to Guinea, I will attend the Guinea Jubilee at the end of the month.  I also plan on continuing to interview watermen, regulators, and scientists in an effort to try to fathom the convergence of science, economy, politics, and people’s everyday lives in a place that may appear to many as a quaint, insignificant community.  While I, as an anthropologist, can never know everything about the Guinea community that relates to my research goals, I am trying my best to gather as much information as possible.