Fish mongers, markets, and mechanization: Gender and the economic transformation of an Indian fishery

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John A. Agnew


Geography, Social structure, Womens studies, Aquaculture, India, Agricultural economics

Subject Categories

Human Geography


This dissertation examines the impact of global economic processes such as the emergence of an export economy and industrialization of production, on local fishing communities in Kerala, India. The approach I have taken has been to analyze the marketing and distribution of fish locally in Kerala and to assess the impact of mechanization-driven development on small-scale traders. Following Barbara Harriss, Clifford Geertz, and Florence Babb, I argue that an analysis of marketing processes is central to an understanding of development and economic transition and that State policies for fisheries development in this region have been inadequate, in part due to their failure to envision production and distribution as a single process and in their utter neglect of women's roles in the fish economy.

My analysis of market processes in Kerala draws on work in both economic anthropology and economic geography and combines analysis of spatial factors such as location, structure and periodicity with sociological inquiry through the conceptual framework of "place". To this end, analysis of factors such as gender, caste-religion, and native place has been crucial to understanding the social relationships that constitute marketplace transactions in this region and the central role they play in mediating economic change and its the impact on particular groups of fish traders. The framework I construct for analyzing the impact of economic transition on small-scale traders is further grounded in an analysis of the household as the primary unit for production and provision of subsistence needs and, as such, as an important institution through which individuals are linked to the larger economy. An examination of gender and the manner in which it shapes how petty trading households are linked to market networks figures prominently in this research.

My principal conclusion is that mechanization has changed the geography of fish production in Kerala toward greater centralization of landings in particular places. This, combined with an ecological crisis associated with overfishing, has transformed distribution systems in such a way that women fish traders' relationship to the market has undergone a qualitative change from household-based production and distribution to commercialized exchange. This change, I argue, has worked to marginalize women within distribution at the same time their labor in this activity has become increasingly important for household survival. This experience of women fish traders, in turn, requires a rethinking of development initiatives such that the needs of the household are privileged over the so-called needs of the state.


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