As an interdisciplinary scholar in anthropology and environmental studies, I investigate sustainable development and marine resource use through the lens of historical environmental relations. I approach the intersection of resources, perceptions, and politics using anthropological data collection methods—conducting interviews, surveys, archival research, and participant observation. Amidst intensifying use of marine resources worldwide and climate-induced changes in the ocean, my research contributes to understanding how coastal residents meaningfully transform oceanic engagements.
Social Impacts of Conservation
Research I conducted at the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Conservation Science Program, where I was employed as a social scientist for two years following my master’s studies, attempted to understand how conservation processes were formulated within the world’s largest international conservation organization. My research at WWF focused on quantifying the social effects of conservation on local residents. In a meta-analysis of the social impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs) published in Conservation Biology, my colleagues and I demonstrated that MPAs positively affect resource rights but have mixed effects on local food security. This analysis was used to develop a research framework for assessing the social impacts of WWF’s work–an unprecedented program to address an increasingly controversial topic.
Transforming Transnational Conservation in Southwestern Japan
I continue to conduct research within transnational environmental organizations, research that appears in my first book Drawing the Sea Near: Satoumi and Coral Reef Conservation in Okinawa (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). In the context of conservation-induced displacements and the negative socioeconomic impacts of transnational conservation organizations on local communities, I became interested in the following questions that seem increasingly significant given the large scale environmental changes that communities also face worldwide: How do transnational conservation organizations effect changes that lead to more socially just conservation? What kinds of conditions enable that change? And, what are the factors that make larger-scale transformations more challenging to implement?
This research has taken me to a southwestern Okinawan island that has one of the largest blue coral populations in the world. Beginning in the 1980s, it was the site of a prolonged conflict between “nature” and “culture”—a conflict that pitted preservation of the precious reef against development of an airport on top of the blue corals. The reef was eventually spared. In Drawing the Sea Near I explore the reverberations of this conflict within the community and also on the WWF—which has a coral reef research center there. The book utilizes a rarely-pursued organizational ethnography approach to these global institutions. Drawing the Sea Near opens a new window to our understanding of transnational conservation by investigating projects in Okinawa shaped by a “conservation-near” approach—which draws on the senses, the body, and memory to collapse the distance between people and their surroundings and to foster collaboration and equity between coastal residents and transnational conservation organizations. This approach contrasts with the traditional Western “conservation-far” model premised on the separation of humans from the environment.
Based on twenty months of participant observation and interviews, this detailed ethnography focuses on Okinawa’s coral reefs to explore an unusually inclusive, experiential, and socially just approach to conservation. In pursuing how particular projects off the coast of Japan unfolded, Drawing the Sea Near illuminates the real challenges and possibilities of work within the multifaceted transnational structures of global conservation organizations.
During and my fieldwork for this book in Japan I was a research affiliate at Kyoto University’s Research Institute of Humanity and Nature. As a contributing researcher to a five-year, global research project on conservation institutions, I collaborated with scholars in other disciplines in order to make conservation policy more socially robust. My ethnography of how residential research institutions create “embedded conservation” provides useful data for Kyoto University’s large-scale project and for policy makers seeking to design more effective marine conservation interventions in Japan and elsewhere.
My long term ethnographic research into conservation led to further research into how ideological minorities navigate their work at the headquarters of five prominent conservation organizations (Claus 2022). This research analyzes the hidden labor required to negotiate hierarchies of expertise that tenaciously persist in transnational conservation despite concerted attempts to mainstream conservation’s human dimensions over the past two decades.
Seafoods, Sustainability, and Cooking
A third and emerging direction of my research examines the transnational nature of environmental problems by focusing on oceanic fish. A large-scale and consequential game of substitution is playing out in kitchens worldwide as sustainable seafood scientists try to replace over-harvested fish like salmon and tuna with more abundant species. Scientists widely interpret mackerel to be sustainable in most places where it can be found, in contrast with those slower-growing fish, however its taste profile differs substantially from the fish that it replaces on consumers’ plates. Substituting one fish species for another is the primary mechanism for ensuring seafood sustainability in today’s troubled oceans. How do cooks interpret and transform scientific knowledge about sustainability? What sociopolitical factors support cooks in their use of sustainable seafoods?
This new research has been funded by Fulbright and Wenner-Gren, and it emerges from previous research about seafoods (Claus 2017). I have also collaborated on comparative research on these themes, like a co-authored book chapter on intersecting narratives of consumption and sustainability (Randle et al 2017). This research also builds on a co-authored chapter concerning societal conceptions of disasters (like food insecurity) (Claus et al 2015).
I gratefully acknowledge organizations who have funded my research: