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Staging the animal oceanographer: An ethnography of seals and their scientists


This dissertation is an ethnographic, historical, and theoretically driven inquiry into the staging of the “animal oceanographer” at the edge of the sea. It examines research practices in which northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) are outfitted with tools of oceanographic sensing and data-gathering, allowing shore-based scientists to follow seals’ oceanic activities in close detail. I follow the couplings of humans, animals, technologies, and landscapes involved in this animal tracking and imaging work.

I use mixed methods of participant-observation ethnography, video recording, analysis of scientific papers, and a reflexive examination of techniques for attuning to embodied practices. My conceptual framework draws from environmental and postcolonial history and anthropology, modes of natural historic description, material feminisms, embodied interaction studies, animal studies and multispecies ethnography, and science and technology studies—particularly feminist approaches to corporeality and technoscience. The project is organized around the figure of the “edge”: between habitats, between and within bodies, and between knowledge practices.

I begin by examining the evolutionary, historic, and epistemic histories of elephant seals, attuning to the material details of the coastal shore that matter for shaping both their sociality, and the ways scientists ask questions of them. Then, I examine the encounters between scientists and seals that turn the later into “animal oceanographers,” analyzing the separating practices involved in this knowledge production, and in so doing drawing attention to both entangled histories with sealing science, and possible futures for asking non-reductive questions about non-human sociality. I trace the practices of intervention, care, and knowledge that emerge at the edges, surfaces, or interfaces between—and within—human and seal bodies and socialities. I end by examining how performing my ethnography with a particular device—a small, body-worn, viewfinderless camera—created openings across the edges or interfaces between mine and my informants knowledge practices, generating partial and achieved affinities.

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