Sociology Seminar Series - Risk in Research: Covid-19 and the politics of bio-moral marginality on the south Kerala coast (India)

Prof Osella’s research has focused on the social mobility of low status communities, socio-religious reform movements, popular religiosity (Islam and Hinduism in particular), labour migration, gender relations, trade and entrepreneurship, and religious charity. His research extends from Kerala (India) to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China and various Gulf countries in West Asia. Prof Osella’s current research involving a multi-disciplinary research team of social scientists, physical geographers, atmospheric and marine scientists, and ICT experts seeks to find effective ways to make small scale artisanal fishers’ livelihoods in Kerala more secure and sustainable by improving safety at sea. He has published extensively: co-authored monographs [e.g. Men and Masculinities in South India, 2006]; edited collections [e.g. Migration, Modernity and Social Transformation in South Asia; Islam, Politics and Anthropology; among others]; and several journal articles, most recently with Modern Asian Studies (forthcoming), titled, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Trust: Trade, Conviviality, and the Life-world of Indian Export Agents in Yiwu, China’.

Prof Osella: “In this talk I reflect on the consequences of COVID-19 interventions on coastal communities in south Kerala (India), and the responses of the local population to the latter. In particular, I map out the events which led to spontaneous protests in a number of fishing villages during the second wave of the epidemic in July 2020. I will show that whilst during the first wave of the epidemic coastal communities remained supportive of government intervention, such an initial support begun to wane as the epidemic unfolded over time and became more aggressive and widespread. I argue that such a shift in fishing communities’ attitudes was a response not only to the consequences of a more forceful policy of containment of the epidemic, but also to a sudden identification of coastal communities as the main locus of contagion in the district. I suggest that the consequent restrictive measures enforced on coastal communities were driven as much by epidemiological concerns as by a media-driven social panic built upon widespread negative stereotypes that have historically worked to marginalize, and even criminalize coastal communities in Kerala. I deploy the notion of bio-moral marginality to reveal ways through which the attribution of specific—and largely stereotyped and negative—physical attributes and moral dispositions to the bodies and behaviour of people belonging to fishing coastal communities constituted the ground upon which the social panic concerning the spread of the COVID-19 virus unfolded in south Kerala, thus leading to fishers’ militant response.”