How do we study oceans?

What are the multi-sensory ways in which oceans can be understood?

How do we overcome “sea blindness” in terracentric social theory?

An estimated 97 percent of the world’s water is found in the ocean, and over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is encompassed by this mass of saltwater. Because of this, the ocean has considerable impact on weather, temperature, and the food supply of humans and other organisms. 90 percent of global trade happens by sea. Almost everything we consume has spent time on the millions of ships currently at sea. More than 60 million people work offshore, a number that does not include the hundreds of millions who inhabit the narrow littoral zones at the threshold of land and sea. Yet, in spite of the ocean’s importance, we suffer from what has been called a form of “sea blindness” (Sekula 1995), with most people oblivious to the deep maritime connections essential to everyday life. Accidents and disasters at sea, such as oil spills, pirate hijackings, shipwrecks, and disruptions in trade, offer the fleeting moments when global attention turns to the ocean before returning again to land. The sea is essential but often invisible. At the Ocean’s lab, we aim to make the sea visible once again and explore the effects of sea blindness on our social world.

The Team

Jatin Dua

Jatin Dua is an associate professor of Anthropology and Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. His research explores maritime mobility, and its perils and possibilities, in the Indian Ocean, focusing on processes and projects of governance, law, and economy. His book, Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean, published with the University of California Press (December 2019) and winner of the 2020 Elliot P. Skinner Book Award, is a multi-sited ethnographic and archival engagement with Somali piracy and contestations over legitimate and illegitimate commerce in the Western Indian Ocean. In addition, he has published a number of articles on maritime anthropology, captivity, political economy, and sovereignty. His current research projects continue this emphasis on maritime worlds and their entanglements with law, sovereignty, economy, and sociality through two main projects on chokepoints and port making in the Indian Ocean and a research project on the lives of seafarers from the Global South. He teaches courses on the anthropology of law and regulation; oceanic studies; global capitalism; state and non-state violence and a course on the various historical and contemporary practices that have been labeled “piracy” from maritime raiding to the moral economy of hacking.

Kristi Rhead

Kristi Rhead is a PhD student in Anthropology and History working on a project about Réunion, a small beautiful island in the Southwestern Indian Ocean that is fully administratively integrated into France. Never a home to an indigenous population, Réunion is very diverse; its current population is composed of waves of migration from places far beyond France, such as Madagascar, India, and China. Kristi’s research examines (non)sovereignty, identity, and solidarity in Réunion in the absence of indigeneity, as well as in the absence of the “typical” post-colonial political outcome of national independence. She particularly focuses on antiassimilationist political movements such as queer liberation projects, local language politics, commemorative projects, religion, and (most recently) Radio Free Dom, a very unusual talk radio station often considered to be the “voice of Réunion.” This research draws inspiration from existing scholarship in media anthropology, political anthropology, oceanic anthropology, and anthrohistory to position Réunion as a salient case across different geographic and cosmographic categories such as the Atlantic, the French postcolony, and the Indian Ocean.

Francesca Conterno

Francesca Conterno is a PhD student at the University of Michigan in the joint program in Anthropology and History. She is interested in Dutch colonial spatial cosmologies and their afterlives in present day Indonesia. She hopes to use this history as one of several relevant frames to situate contemporary Indonesian development projects and their attendant geographies. As an archipelagic nation, Indonesia’s “territory” includes large expanses of water that link up with multiple economic and cultural maritime circuits, a peculiarity that affects the means and ends of both government plans and political contestation. Yet Indonesian fluidities also open on to questions of global concern, especially on the coast of Java. One of the fastest sinking metropolitan cities in the world and one of the region’s busiest ports, Jakarta serves as a critical node from which to understand urban and national transformations in times of climatic and capitalist precarity, within which oceans threaten to announce the extent of their powers anew.

Irene Promodh

Irene Promodh is a PhD student in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the vernacular Christianities of the Indian Ocean world, particularly those practiced by dominant-caste Syrian Christians and historically subordinated Pentecostal Christians, as they circulate between their places of work in the Arabian Gulf and their home societies in Kerala, south India today. More broadly, she is interested in transregional mobility, the semiotics and politics of caste, colonial missionary histories, and rural-urban connections. She has also worked on sound and radio, looking at how the work lives of south Indian migrants in the Gulf crosscut with everyday forms of leisure in and outside their places of work.

Friends of the Oceans Lab

Matteo Aria

Matteo Aria is a professor of economic anthropology, popular culture, and Oceanian culture at Sapienza University of Rome, where he also chairs the anthropology curriculum of the PhD program in History, Anthropology and Religion and the master’s degree program in ethnoanthropological disciplines. He conducted research work in Ghana on fishery and on heritage-making processes, in French Polynesia on memory, land, heritage and the passeurs culturels, in New Caledonia on the “objets ambassadeurs” and the cultural policies of the Centre Culturel Tjiabau, and in Italy on blood donation, material culture and domestic objects. He is also co-creator of the academic/nautical project Ermenautica Saperi in rotta. 

Julie Y. Chu

Julie Y. Chu is a sociocultural anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is currently completing a book entitled The Hinge of Time: Infrastructure and Chronopolitics at China’s Global Edge. Based on three years of fieldwork largely among Chinese customs inspectors and transnational migrant couriers traversing the Taiwan Strait, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific (via ports and border zones spanning the PRC and the U.S.), this works examines how certain figures of “infrastructure” animate the global politics of time in three distinctive keys — as matters of constancy, rhythm and non/event. Professor Chu is also developing a new research focus on the politics and poetics of logistics, especially in relation to e-commerce driven innovations in moving goods, people and information according to increasing aspirations for on-demand seamless “fulfillment.” Her latest “oceanic” lines of inquiry involve elaborating the mixed temporalities and insoluble mixtures of the offshore in “colloidal worlds” — where water meets land — and the related estuary topographies that bridge the old cyberpunk and pirate utopias of digitized circulation (i.e., the open seas of Web 1.0) with the upstream/downstream algorithmic anxieties of contemporary supply chain capitalism (i.e., the riverine tangle of Web 2.0).

Isabel Hofmeyr

Isabel Hofmeyr is Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand and was Global Distinguished Professor at New York University from 2013 to 2022. She has worked extensively on the Indian Ocean world and oceanic themes more generally. Recent publications include Dockside Reading: Hydrocolonialism and the Custom House(2022) and a special issue on “Reading for Water” in Interventions 24 (3) 2022. She co-directs a project Oceanic Humanities for the Global South with partners from Mozambique, India, Jamaica and Barbados. 

Jeffrey S. Kahn

Jeffrey S. Kahn is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. An interdisciplinary scholar with training in law and anthropology, his interests include border policing, maritime commerce, seafaring knowledge, legal geography, semiotics, and ritual economies, among other topics. His multiple-award-winning first book, Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2019), explores how boat migration from Haiti to the United States during the last three decades of the twentieth century led to the development of new forms of legal activism, border governance, and oceanic policing that have remade the spatiality of the American nation-state. His second book, tentatively titled Ships at a Distance, investigates how Haitian seafarers have forged complex maritime geographies of mobility and interconnection in the shadow of U.S. extraterritorial surveillance regimes. More broadly, it examines how an ethnographic and historical understanding of Haitians’ shipping and migratory projects can illuminate questions related to the precarity of commodity supply chains, the production of space, and the semiotics of racialization operating in the aqueous border spaces of the globe.

Andrea Muehlebach

Andrea Muehlebach holds a Professorship in Maritime Anthropology and Cultures of Water at the Department of Anthropology and Cultural Research at the University of Bremen in Germany. She is the author of A Vital Frontier: Water Insurgencies in Europe (Duke UP 2023), and is expanding her current interests in the anthropologies of water, environmental and infrastructural politics, and global extractive regimes to include the oceanic as well. Apart from teaching classes that center environmental justice and the oceanic, including classes at and on the North Sea, Andrea Muehlebach is also preparing a multi-sited research project on ocean-floors – from their charting to the discovery of how ocean floors interact with larger Earth systems, to how humanity can deal with everything from seafloor marine litter to deep-sea drilling and purple zombie sea urchins. 

Elspeth Probyn

Elspeth Probyn is a Professor of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She has published several monographs including Sexing the Self (Routledge, 1993), Outside Belongings (Routledge, 1996), Carnal Appetites (Routledge, 2000), Blush: Faces of Shame (Minnesota, 2006), and Eating the Ocean (Duke, 2016), and co-editor of Sustaining Seas (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). Her current project, Extracting the Ocean, is focused on forms of oceanic marine extraction (from fishing to mining and bioprospecting).

Naor Ben-Yehoyada

Naor Ben-Yehoyada‘s work examines unauthorized migration, criminal justice, political economy and the aftermath of development, and transnational political imaginaries in the central and eastern Mediterranean. His monograph, The Mediterranean Incarnate: Transnational Region Formation between Sicily and Tunisia since World War II (Chicago Press, 2017), offers a historical anthropology of the recent re-emergence of the Mediterranean. He is specifically interested in the processes through which transnational regions form and dissipate. He proposes to view such spaces as ever-changing constellations, and show how we can study them from the moving vessels that weave these constellations together and stage their social relations and dynamics in full view. He has also written shorter pieces about the different phases of the dynamics of maritime unauthorized migration and interdiction, as well as on the role that the Mediterranean’s seabed plays in Italian political retrospection.

His current project follows the perpetual debate about what the Mafia is and how anti-Mafia forms of inquiry (by magistrates, journalists, political activists, police investigators) encounter this dilemma. It follows the recent trial regarding the 1988 murder of a journalist and the several preceding key criminal cases that the trial has revived, all of which, people still assume, involved the Mafia.

Counter-Mapping Shipping: Digital Joy and Digital Labor in Oceanic Social Media


The Oceans Lab, an interdisciplinary research and advocacy initiative, explores maritime issues across oceanic spaces. With a focus on themes of race, labor, inequality, climate change, migration, and geopolitics, the Lab seeks to unravel the complexities of our oceans, making them comprehensible through innovative approaches. One such approach is the creation of this map that aims to help bridge gaps between how scholars describe oceanic spaces and the voices of those that inhabit them.

Inspired by global maritime shipping maps like, the Oceans Lab’s map is not just about tracing the trajectories of cargo ships; it is about weaving together interdisciplinary oceanic scholarship with the voices of those who inhabit the seas. It seeks to represent the various voices and ideas that converge to define the concept(s) of the ocean(s) from what may initially appear to be blank cartographic space. In the spirit of counter-mapping, we invite creators, scholars, and seafarers to use our submit button in order to actively participate in redefining how we perceive and understand oceanic spaces.

Counter-mapping, at its core, seeks to provide alternative perspectives and representations that challenge dominant power structures and dominant narratives (Peluso 1995). This ever-evolving map thus recognizes that the ocean is not just a backdrop for the global commerce represented on standard shipping maps, but a vibrant and dynamic space shaped by human experiences.

In addition to showcasing the multifaceted nature of oceanic life, the map brings to the fore the concept of digital labor and attention economies. In the digital age, content creation and the curation of online personas have become forms of labor, often underestimated and overlooked. Those at sea who engage in social media share not only their experiences participating in the shipping economy, but also contribute to the attention economy. In addition to including these digital contributions in scholarly conversations, the map hopes to open up questions about this digital labor, underscoring the importance of recognizing it within the broader context of oceanic scholarship.

More Info

Do you want to add something to our Oceans Map?

Send us your name, a short essay, a short story, a photo, a video, or a link to a social media post related to the sea or maritime issues (TikToks at sea are welcome, as are research essays!). We aim to fill our map with “stories from the sea” of all kinds.