2013 | 22 | 62-68
Article title

Ships as ‘Total Institutions’. Acculturating Seafarers for a Global Political Economy

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Seafarers working in the 21st century global shipping industry are multi-national crew of migrant contract labourers, recruited by crewing agencies to work on a variety of ships for specific periods of time. Types of ships found today may include bulk carriers, container ships, tankers, gas carriers, heavy lift vessels, car carriers, ferries and passenger ships such as luxury cruise liners, among others. The voyages undertaken on board ships cover an expansive global maritime environment depending on where the goods are sourced, the destination, goods being transported, the type of ship, and if there are any designated ports of call for loading and offloading goods as well as boarding and disembarking passengers on the way. Typically, the greater proportion of the seafarers’ contract period is spent at sea, working in a maritime work environment on board different ships where he is assigned by his employer. During this time, crew interact with colleagues from a variety of nationalities, performing role-specific tasks in the same built environment and within a maritime mobile workspace. While conducting an empirical research on ship crew in the international fleet to harness their views on how maritime piracy in Eastern Africa may be affecting their health and wellbeing, the author observed that the ripple effects of structural changes in the shipping industry in the last few decades could be adversely influencing the seafarer work environment and social interactions, in ways that justify the description by Lane and Smith (2011) of ‘ships as jails’. The author has analysed the social adjustments that seafarers constantly make in order to fit into their evolving mobile workplaces. This discussion has been done using ideas espoused form Goffman’s ‘Total Institutions’ conceptual framework. This article therefore seeks to discuss the acculturation process that crew undergo within their mobile work built environment, as being comparable to some extent, to the social adjustments that Goffman’s subjects underwent in their institutions. Through ‘mortification processes’, the residents in Goffman’s studies were impacted psychologically by the regimented social life in the enclosed institution spaces interacting within limited social circles. Although a number of aspects have been identified that have the potential to adversely affect seafaring occupational health and safety regime (Walters, Bailey, 2013), this article will concentrate on highlighting some factors within the seafarers work place that in the author’s opinion, have directly influenced some psychological adjustments that seafarers make, in order to adapt the seafaring culture befitting their workplace. Three noteworthy influential factors discussed in this article include(a) the cumulative effect of living and working in an enclosed built environment (b) the seafarers’ limited social circle while onboard ships (c) the physical and social isolation of seafarers from colleagues while on-board ships, and from their families and land-based communities by the ship structure and the geographical maritime nature of their workplace. These features were selected as they could be discussed from Goffman’s theoretical framework as possible influences on the seafarers’ workplace socialization process. They are just a few comparable factors between the situation of modern seafarers and Goffman’s subjects. The scope of this paper will explore the potential for these three key factors to impact on psychological adjustments that seafarers make during their career working on ships. The author has based the discussion of ‘Ships as Total Institutions’ on the fact that there exists evidence of the cumulative effect of each of these three factors over time in the career of seafarers. The empirical studies provide the evidence upon which the author concludes that the ship is a ‘Total Institution’. This article has been written as the drafting of the author’s thesis is at an advanced stage. The intention of this paper is not prescriptive, rather as a catalyst for discussion of seafarers’ work environment and occupational health and safety from an additional social theoretical perspectives.
  • Seafarers International Research Centre, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University
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