Fishy business: the market for fish

2016-01-23-11-54-49Fish has become over a period of time a most sought after food. Fish.. that wonderfully healthy food that we all enjoy full of that powerhouse of omega fatty acids, that natural source of vitamin D and calcium, that healthy lean protein that is filling and yet not bad for your weight… fish has come to occupy an important place in preventive health. A variety of medical studies  on obesity, alzheimers, arthritis, brain development, psychology and moods, all reinforce the benefits of this wonderful food. From a food that was consumed by  coastal communities, a culturally specific food of sea side communities, fish has now come to occupy a central place in all markets, coastal and non coastal. The entry of fish into non coastal markets has been possible due to a growing body of scientific health based studies of fish, that has fed into a public discourse about fish as a health object as well as more material structural transformations of markets. In this post I explore these three aspects and look at the way in which they are interwoven and thus co-constructive of this market phenomenon. I will conclude on the importance of qualitative research and ethnographic methods to understand markets and customer preferences. I will make an argument that though consumer behavior often relies on rational choice methods, there is a lot of potential in understanding the emotional, affective relations that people have to objects.

I come from Bangalore, a city in the southern part of India and as a young child I remember my parents taking particular interest in our diets. I remember accompanying my father to the local market in south Bangalore, the Jayanagar 4th block complex where we would trudge up dirty and worn out concrete steps to climb up to the 1st floor which consisted of empty floor of shops, except a busy corner store that sold fish. I used to be excited about going there, because I was as a child allowed to touch and feel the fish, and I found it exciting to be see these varieties of fish I had never seen before. My father taught me how to judge the freshness of the fish, to touch it with a finger and see if it was good to buy. If the skin felt taut and bounced back the fish was fresh, if my finger left a mark, it wasn’t fresh. back home he taught me how to clean the fish and I wondered why all this fuss when we could buy cleaned chicken ready to cook at the market. My parents were part of that early group of fish eaters in Bangalore who truly believed that fish was beneficial for our health. Some of this came from newspaper and media reports, doctor’s advice and advertisements of fish oil that spoke of the skin, brain and bone health of people who consumed fish oil. But some of it was also intertwined with cultural stereotypes – for example the brainy Keralites or  Bengalis – essentially the brainy fish eaters. My father had no doubts about our intelligence, but he also wanted to do what he could to improve it. So fish, which was more expensive than any other meat became a part of our diet. How the common man, woman or parent makes meanings about a product is crucially important to understand in the world of markets. The middle class Bangalorean who had the means to buy fish occasionally to boost the health of his/her family is a crucial player as the inculcation of a product in the lifestyles of children translates into a life long consumer demand for fish.

Fast forward to the 2009 in Switzerland when I became pregnant, I began to increase my intake of fish. As a doctoral student I was more scientific to my approach towards fish but now the world had also changed, to a more scientific, objective evaluation of fish. All those memories of the brainy Keralites were now replaced by a set of scientific studies on the benefits of fish and I remember reading up on the importance of consuming fish during pregnancy. As an expectant mother, what can be more reassuring than to be told by scientific material that in order for my baby to be healthy and intelligent, all I had to do was consume one single product – fish! Once my son was born the reliance on fish increased, now my son was also fed fish very early on as soon as he was introduced to solid food. During this stage, I followed up all the latest scientific material on the effects of different foods on young children, and fish really stood on the top of the list as a single solution to all the problems mothers could face. Media material interpreted the scientific studies on the effect of omega fatty acids on mental health and I was pitched the idea that fish stabilizes moods and so avoids tantrums and moody children. My smiling son also reinforced this belief and I truly believed that a lot of what he was came from the food he ate. Here the material that is out there, the scientific studies, media articles, cook books, parenting guides, research on problem children, etc. were reinforced by what was happening inside my home. I had a healthy, happy, well adjusted child, who never really had mood issues, and was to the most part of his toddler life an upbeat child. What is happening here is that people often get messages from the outside and they then weave their everyday experiences into these messages, to form meanings that are attached to particular products. So fish not only meant health to me, but also meant happiness, calm and peace in the home.

Now since the last year in my research with the fisherwomen of Udupi, I have begin to re-engage with fish. In my interviews with older fisher women, they speak of times in the mid 1900s when fish was sold only to local populations and there was little demand for fish from outside. After the improvements in transportation in the form of buses and rickshaws in the late 1900s and the advent of ice in the market, fish business suddenly boomed. Women who were selling salted fish to Keka households – i.e., traditionally assigned households to whom they could sell fish, spoke of the exchange of fish for rice, something that was not profitable at all but enabled a hand to mouth living. Women spoke of the harshness of selling fish in which fish had to be sold by the end of the day as there was no ice and thus was sold at very low prices. One fisherwoman told me that fish did not have value – she would often dump the fish she could not sell on the sides of roads. But when ice came into the market with improved transportation, the increasing demand from outside for fish came to compete with local demand and they suddenly saw the rise of value for fish. In the late 1900s the market for fish had developed in non coastal areas and so now people were consuming more fish. So demand supply laws ensured the rise in price. But why the demand? The demand cannot be explained only by availability of a product on the market shelf, though that is important. In my interviews women spoke of the way in which there was a transformation amongst people’s perceptions of fish as food. They spoke of how, suddenly people, even the locals began to appreciate the health values of fish, and thus cultural preferences were married to health discourses, increasing demand within. Not only the tourist who visited the temple in Udupi but also the local consumers were ready to pay a higher price for it.

Concluding with anthropology: In a divided disciplinary world the engagement with the market is often in particular ways, through large abstract data. But is this enough? Aren’t we are human beings constantly making personal meanings based on everyday experiences that often trump meanings made from statistical data? So if we are thinking and feeling human beings, how can such irrational feedback enrich how we understand rationally organized numerical data.

Going back to fish, today as we move into a context of severe environmental degradation, in which the oceans are today called a ‘plastic soup‘ in which marine life is increasingly ingesting toxic material, the meaning of fish is bound to be further transformed. The health benefits of fish is bound to soon be questioned and when this happens, new meanings are bound to be assigned to the very same object. In my interviews and work with the fisherwomen of Udupi, I am beginning to see how people are beginning to ask questions of the health benefits of fish. For example in one interview with a fish seller, she told me that consumers prefer sea fish, because they are wary of the increasing pollution in river waters. River fish was often preferred only during the monsoon when there was less fresh sea fish. When information of plastic soup is disseminated and becomes common knowledge, what will happen to fish? Will people demand less of it, will people switch to buying farmed fish? This analysis of what is bound to happen in the future is possible by tapping into the experiences of today. But how can one do this if one is dealing with data sets generated several years ago? This is where qualitative research and ethnography provides a vital method.

What is crucial for the future generations is to foresee these occurrences and work on ways to solve these problems even before they occur. One way of doing this is to have a deeper understanding of social trends, to decipher the pulse of the ordinary man, the ordinary consumer – that can then enrich the technical knowledge they obtain. But this is the stuff of sociology, not business or economics. And yet the social world of the consumer plays a significantly important role in guiding desires. A strictly market analysis of fish, is insufficient to explain the success of fish in the market, nor will it explain what we will see in the future, when people become cautious about consuming fish. This need to tap into the consumer pulse has guided the efforts of top CEOs of corporations such as Indra Nooyi in determining future product lines. A good solid technical education thus has much to gain from sociology and anthropology. The Harvard Business School has increasingly begun to engage in anthropology to enable deep research, arguing for the consumer anthropologist.  The Harvard Business Review online has begun to include a series of articles on the importance of anthropology to business. Sociology is also increasingly embraced in management schools in India- such as the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. In time most business schools will engage with social and anthropological approaches as they realize that we are increasingly doing business with consumers who may on the surface seem rational choice making citizens, to more emotional and affectively disposed communities.


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