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Even fish have an ethnicity: A study on how ethnic identities mediate livelihoods in a fishing community in post-war Sri Lanka

While discussions on ethnicity and tensions based on ethnic interactions are still very important in post-war Sri Lanka, these discourses   are insufficient to explain the nation’s post-war social tensions as well as the inequalities that lead to these tensions. A study conducted in coastal Trincomalee over a period of thirteen months by PhD candidate Gayathri Lokuge explores how these ethnic dynamics are manifested in the mundane day to day lives of men and women as an ideological concept that men and women subscribe to, and as a rallying force for political means. From ‘ethnicised’ types of fish to ‘ethnicised’ fishing methods, from morality and legitimacy to ‘illegal’ fishing, ethnicity pervades life in post-war coastal Trincomalee. However, ethnic identity is socially constructed. In times of civil unrest, ethnicity becomes a political and social construct. Further, similar to the way men and women do gender, men and women of different ethnicities, caste and class groups do ethnicity. This doing, is usually mediated by ethnicity’s interaction with other social identity categories such as gender, caste and location. Gayathri’s study attempted to understand how these identity constructions mediated differentiated access to livelihood spaces for men and women and in turn, how livelihood activities of men and women shape ethnic and other identity categories and their meaning.

Gayathri introduced her study explaining how ethnicity is interwoven with dynamics taking place within the wholesale fish market in Trincomalee, with types of fish preferred and consumed, and also with certain fishing practices. Some of the key point highlighted during the CEPA Café discussion included: how overlapping identities of men and women shape differentiated access to livelihood spaces and resources and how livelihoods shape identities; how identities are fluid and situational; how people’s relations are shaped by structural forces (i.e. social, cultural and political factors and discourses); and how ethnicity is mediated by various other identity categories (i.e. structural inequities, agentive power).