8 Apr 2021

Doing Vietnam academic justice

An unexpected stumbling block led to Edyta Roszko’s greatest academic achievement. Yet.

Edyta Roszko’s academic career has led her down a path that she describes as full of unexpected connections rather than sudden turns. Those unexpected connections have resulted in a prestigious European Research Grant doing ethnographic research on the fishing communities on the islands of central Vietnam.

Falling for Vietnam
When Roszko after finishing her Master’s degree was unsuccessful in winning a much coveted scholarship to go to China, she applied for a similar programme in Vietnam. Her initial plan was to get sufficient experience and skills to re-apply for the academic programme in China that she had failed getting into the first time around. But her plans changed quickly upon arriving in Vietnam for the very first time. Even though Vietnam was originally a pragmatic choice for Roszko, she fell in love with the country. Delving deeper into scholarly output about Vietnam, she also found that the scholarly focus on Vietnam was narrow: Western scholars usually saw the country through the prism of the Vietnam War or the integration with global capitalism. In her home country Poland, Vietnam  was associated with poverty, economic backwardness, and a harsh tropical climate. She got a strong feeling that much of the studies on Vietnam did not do the country justice. Also, Western scholars working in and on Vietnam were geographically narrow, tending to conduct research in northern and southernVietnam. Roszko was no exception. During her first three year stay in Vietnam, she conducted ethnographic field research in the north, sticking to her interest in Buddhism. So how did she end up among the fishers in a little village on the Vietnamese coast?

Even though Vietnam was originally a pragmatic choice for Roszko, she fell in love with the country.

When she came back to Vietnam in 2006, this time as a PhD student from the Max Planck Institute, she had a pretty good grasp of the Vietnamese language and a thorough knowledge of northern Vietnam. But she was looking for new challenges.

-I decided to shift my research on religious revival and heritization of religious practices in urban Vietnam to rural settings in an understudied and little-known part of central Vietnam. That’s how I ended up in a small fishing village by the coast. Originally, I wanted to find out more about Buddhist religion and practices among the fishermen, but I quickly found that for them, different religious traditions co-existed and overlapped in flexible ways, forcing me to widen my research focus, says Roszko.

She also quickly realized that religion, rituals, politics and the economy were all at the heart of changing relations between the state and society, and crucial for the relationship between the fishers and the official and religious authorities. The research interest in the political dynamics in the wider region could almost be considered part of the package:

-To understand the fishers’ religious practices, I needed to better understand their way of life and their day-to-day experiences that increasingly have become shaped by and even dependent on the geopolitical issue of neighbouring countries’ competing claims over the South China Sea, says Roszko.

Coming out of the backwardness
In precolonial and colonial Vietnam, the fishing community was considered a backward one - as people ‘out of culture’ and of a lower social status. Fishing was a despised occupation and fishers were one of the most marginalized groups in society. Landless, without proper roots in any village, and living in areas close to the sea and rivers, fishers were discriminated against and deprived of the spiritual and material amenities offered by the village.

In precolonial and colonial Vietnam, the fishing community was considered a backward one - as people ‘out of culture’ and of a lower social status.

But things are changing, and dramatically so. The introduction of refrigeration, modern navigational systems and large-capacity has not only made life easier for the fishers, it has also made them richer. And perhaps even more momentous; their standing in the social hierarchy has changed.

-Fishers from geopolitically strategic locations like the small islands on the central coast of Vietnam have been able to enhance their position not only economically, but as political actors in Vietnam and China’s ongoing power battle over the South China Sea, says Roszko.

From being seen as backwards people out of culture, they are now seen as spearheads of Vietnamese sovereignty. Their fishing operations at the contested seas have received national as well as global media attention, and their bravery has been celebrated both by Vietnamese and tourists on the mainland.

From being seen as backwards people out of culture, they are now seen as spearheads of Vietnamese sovereignty.

Expanding alongside the fishers
The connection between geopolitics and religion may seem a blurry one, but as Roszko explains, it is nothing of the sort. The fishers have succeeded in using their newly won position as the vanguards of the South China Sea as a leverage to claim various economic and cultural benefits from the state, including turning their temples and places of worship into a national heritage. Yet, some things never change.

-The urban population still see the fishing communities as consisting of ignorant people who are undereducated and in need of ‘development’, says Roszko.

And despite all the blessings of modern inventions and technology, fishing is still a dangerous and laborious occupation packed with risk. While parents continue as fishers, they work hard to provide their children with the best education possible so they do not have to go to sea. Climate change has had a dramatic effect also in the South China Sea and the fish stock has decreased dramatically.

While parents continue as fishers, they work hard to provide their children with the best education possible so they do not have to go to sea.

Less fertile fishing grounds on their home turf combined with an increasing demand for marine products has pushed them to expand out of the South China Sea, towards Africa and Oceania. So following in the footsteps, or rather maritime routes of the fishers, Roszko expanded her geographic area of interest. She started looking into how Vietnamese and Chinese fishers went beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and the hitherto territorially bounded fisheries.

Her combination of anthropology, political science, economy and history clearly both spoke to a large audience and appealed to research funders. In 2018, she received the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant for her project Transoceanic Fishers: Multiple Mobilities in and out of the South China Sea (TransOcean).

With this project she hopes to provide a fuller picture of the changes that are taking place, not only in the everyday life of Vietnamese fishers, but of the globalization of fisheries, maritime enclosures and marine ecologies.

-Until now, most scholarly attention has been devoted to the expanding scale and the environmental impact of globalizing fisheries. Quantitative assessments like these give us an idea about the sheer scale of the problem in terms of vessel tonnage and catch, and important pointers as to what is clearly unsustainable fishing methods, she says.

But in her opinion, they lack something crucial – an understanding of the human factor. She is passionate about the people who play their part in this picture: Their experiences, their day to day lives – their significance - cannot be reduced to quantitative assessments.

-When powerful state and religious figures confront each other in a triadic relationship with communities such as the fishing villages of central Vietnam, local people are the ones who, little by little, subtly shift the ground and influence events in ways that make a real difference, says Roszko.

To her, it is all about the little people. And about how the little people navigate the big waves that engulf them, created by the state, religious leaders or the condescending view of an entire nation surrounding them.

 

In her new book Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam, Edyta Roszko explores how the everyday lives of Vietnamese fishers are impacted by geopolitics. Join us for a book launch in Bergen Global on April 15.

Edyta Roszko

Senior Researcher, Principal Investigator: TransOcean (ERC Starting Grant)