Energy and Resources Group Spring 2014 Colloquium Series (ER295)
Revisiting the Fisheries of Kerala, India
School of Information, UC Berkeley
Department of Engineering Eductaion, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
In this talk, I will discuss a study that has become canonical in the field of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD), economist Robert Jensen’s study of mobile phone use in fishing markets in north Kerala. Jensen found that the use of mobile phones to share market price information made fish markets more efficient while also improving producer and consumer welfare. With my collaborator Janaki Srinivasan, we revisited the region where Jensen’s study was carried out to conduct our own ethnographic case study. Our goal was to understand the geographic and political economic conditions in which Jensen’s findings hold and to examine questions of generalizability. We show that what makes the fish trade in north Kerala a special case is due, in part, to its coastal geography and prevalent credit relationships that provided fishers the flexibility to optimize profits by selling at different markets. However, we also found that those working in various roles in Kerala’s fishing industry emphasized more broadly the use of phones in maintaining trade relations, facilitating coordination, and protecting themselves during times of risk, vulnerability, or emergency. We suggest that parsimonious models, such as Jensen’s, can generate blind spots which are problematic when such studies are used to draw broader conclusions about policy and technology design.