Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, August 14, 2017

A maritime sociology


Some years ago, I encountered the curious world of maritime sociology. It transpired that maritime sociology covers a broad range of topics, fields and issues. These may intersect with other sociological areas such as family, employment and environment, but they may also have commonalities such as their interest in seaside and maritime areas.
Given that Malta is a small island in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, maritime sociology should be of interest to scholars and policymakers. Some facts can help. Malta’s territorial waters are 14 times bigger than the country’s land area, and the 25-nautical-mile Fisheries Management Zone is almost 40 times of the land area. Malta’s coastal zone is almost one fifth of the country’s surface area, and the coastline extends 273 kilometres.
According to Eurostat, Malta is a European high flier in terms of unloaded goods and international intra-EU marine transport. In the second half of 2016, Malta had 1.4 million kilograms of registered fish landings and Malta is also a Mediterranean protagonist in the fish farm and cruise liner industries.
A conference held in Malta some years ago featured statistics by the Net Mari Med project, which estimated that the marine and maritime sectors contribute to almost 15 per cent of Malta’s gross domestic product, and that this is expected to increase. Around 40,000 persons (25 per cent of Malta’s workforce) are employed in coastal tourism, water sports, fishing and fisheries, and Malta has one of the largest merchant ship registers in the world.
In this regard, the term blue economy has become mainstreamed in the vocabulary of institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank.  It commonly refers to economic activity in the maritime sector, and it is often aligned with the concept of sustainable development, thus adding social and environmental dimensions to its meaning.
This can take us to the realm of sociology in general and Maltese sociology in particular. There are so many aspects of the marine sphere which are of interest.
For example, given that the maritime sectors provide so many job opportunities, it is important to verify who is being employed and under which conditions. Who works in bunkering, yachting, mooring? Are trade unions involved? How many workers are on fixed or temporary contracts? What are the nationalities of workers? How do they interact with each other and with significant others such as family members?
If we had to look at maritime communities such as fishermen, we can research their aspirations, challenges, opportunities and threats. In this regard, Alicia Said has researched the artisanal activities of small-scale fishermen. Others can research fishermen employed with big business companies. Malta also has its own fishing cooperative, fish shops, markets and other spin offs.
The bluefin tuna industry has recently captured the public imagination due to the slime issue. As early as the mid-1990s, the late Maggie Borg had already warned that this type of industry could have negative environmental impacts. I myself researched the political dimension of bluefin tuna fishing as part of my doctoral thesis.
As we all know, the sea around Malta has also become a main route of irregular migration. Maria Pisani and Mark Micallef carry out research in this area, which is characterised by a myriad of interactions involving death, new lives, exploitation, abuse, hope and fear, and by the governance of state and non-governmental organisations.
The politics of marine life is a fascinating area of research characterised by power networks, interests, and discourses. One can analyse the interaction of different stakeholders ranging from the European Union to environmental NGOs, and from fishermen’s representatives to the government.
One can analyse industries such as construction, cruising and fishing, but also micro-politics such as the occupation of space in public beaches. Think of the recent deckchairs and umbrella issue. Or the areas demarcated for swimmers and dogs.  Think of communities who live near fishing areas and beaches from Marsaxlokk to Sliema.
Maritime sociology is ripe for growth and institutionalisation. Similar to other areas such as small island states, this could well prove to be a niche sector for Maltese social scientists with global impact.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Not just about quotas

“How will your baby affect your chances of being prime minister?”  This question was asked a few days ago to Jacinda Ardern, the new leader of New Zealand’s opposition. Needless to say, this raised controversy and captured news headlines around the world.
To me, this shows that when we discuss gender equality, we need to think beyond quotas and whether a prime minister is male, female, gay or black.
Sure, having politicians come from different social backgrounds can be symbolic of broader changes taking place in society.  But evidence-based policymaking will point out a wide range of factors which contribute to inequality.
Some feminists, for example, argue that even in societies which prize gender equality, women may experience inequalities such as prejudice over women’s capabilities, responsibilities and potential.
In various cases, women employed in the labour market end up facing double (or triple) shifts when they face a heavy burden of housework. And often, family responsibilities have a greater negative impact on women than on men whenit comes to matters such as promotions at work.
In no way am I trying to play down social policy achievements of various countries in this matter. For example, the Nordic welfare states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland are often referred to as ‘women-friendly’ welfare states. Here, personal autonomy is not burdened by one’s gender, and work-life balance policies have helped reduce various inequalities.
These include equal pay for equal work, prohibition of employment discrimination based on one’s gender, public provision of childcare and various reforms in family and pensions legislation.
In Nordic and other liberal democracies, there has also been a gradual increase in women in politics. This has taken place due to a variety of factors, which also include quotas. Indeed, according to quotaproject.org, more than 100 countries have some form of political quotas, though this also includes voluntary quotas imposed by political parties.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear that he wants a parliamentary discussion on gender quotas in the near future. Some political party and civil society players have already declared themselves in favour or against. They obviously have every right to declare their positions, though I do hope that they consult with social-scientific evidence and experts before rushing with conclusions on the social media.
In this regard, I appeal for the widening of the remit of the gender equality debate. Some examples have already been touched upon in the public sphere. For example, Malta’s parliament does not have family-friendly working hours. And by the way, there are many Dad politicians, too. Others have referred to the need for updating policies related to violence, abuse and reproductive rights.
On a more optimistic note, some emphasise that there is a growing number of women in Malta’s labour market, that females are outperforming malesin education, and that policy reforms such as childcare are helping improve gender equality.
But I think that other aspects related to gender inequality are being elbowed out of the debate. Some matters have to do with social justice. For example, is the national debate giving enough importance to ‘invisible’ women in various employment sectors? I don’t think so. Here I am referring to women with low wages in regular jobs, women in casual or precarious work, and women with no union representation.
Would it be right to celebrate the entry of a minority of women into the pinnacles of politics and employment, when so many other women are facing difficult social circumstances? Does the fact that some women make it to the top suffice to declare gender equality? Are gender neutral legal provisions the be-all and end-all of policymaking?
I would answer in the negative. Indeed, I believe that discourse on gender neutrality and quotas should not alienate us from realities such as one’s social class, age, nationality, situations and so forth. And by the way, there are exploited men too: likewise, many happen to be politically voiceless.
Thus, when new policies are discussed, let us keep in mind that society is not simply made up of monolithic genders. Different persons may have different possibilities, experiences, interests and choices.