Fishing as Knowledge Exchange

The fishing project was supported by a group of experienced anglers who taught the young people to fish. The nature of this teaching was tacit, embodied and supportive. The project opened a shared space for the participants to reflect on the complex meanings that lie dormant beneath the surface of a familiar activity. The project focused on how knowledge can cross between and develop within communities of practice that share a very different vocabulary and sets of priorities. Of particular interest was the way in which different kinds of knowledge surfaced across the project, and hierarchies of knowledge were destabilised. The concept of the academic as ‘knowing best’ was contingent within a wider structure of thinking. Wisdom, in this case, the lore and understanding of fishing, could be found within the anglers, or within the young people. Part of the project involved writing field notes, which documented sitting by the pond watching young people fishing. In the field notes, discussions were recorded which showed how fishing could be a site of knowledge exchange.

Conversations about fish between the coaches and the young people tended to have a quality of exchange rather than instruction. Here is an excerpt from our field notes, where Hugh (ethnographer) is discussing with Jordan (young person) and Terry (angler) about whether a fish is a particular kind of fish, called a rudd:

When he caught a fish we discussed whether it was a rudd as it had an orange eye. When I came back later and he caught another fish he showed me how rough its scales were and pointed out that the other fish was really slimy, we talked further about the fish’s eye. I asked him if the fish was a rudd because I was trying to learn them and Terry had pointed out the orange eye to distinguish them. Jordan was a little unsure but when he caught the next fish with the rough scales he made a point of showing it to me and discussing it to make sure that we were right when we said that rudd had orange eyes. (Hugh Escott, field notes, June 2013)

Here, the discussion is contingent on observation, and knowledge exchange, with the young person, Jordan, becoming the expert and the ethnographer the novice. We found that fishing could be regarded as a different kind of knowledge from ‘schooled’ knowledge, one that required recognition of different kinds of expertise. For example, here is an extract from Hugh Escott’s field notes where he is talking about the skill of fishing with Reece (a young person) and Terry (an angling coach):

When Reece caught a fish I took the opportunity to go and sit with him and Terry. Terry spoke at length about coaching and fishing. Especially about how you can tell in 5 minutes if someone has a natural talent for snooker or football but you can’t tell if someone will be a natural fisher. He spoke of people he knows who aren’t ‘very bright’ but were incredible fishermen. All the while he was watching over Reece’s shoulder and discussing what he was doing with him. Reece joined in with what he thought about certain aspects of fishing. Reece spoke to me for a while about his success in match fishing and his preference for carp fishing which Terry also preferred. (Hugh Escott, field notes, 23/04/2013)

The coaches were respectful of the young people’s expertise while at the same time providing deep expertise in the craft of fishing. In our project we were able to differentiate between different sorts of wisdom, ‘school’ wisdom and ‘life’ wisdom. Johan Siebers helped us understand the different types of wisdom, as shown here:

The investigation of wisdom as a form of life, as a reality of the life everyone lives, is one way of looking at the objective of the fishing project. The ethnographic material we gather can be read through the lens of the question how wisdom is communicated, manifested, present, in the experiences researchers and participants have with the practice that we are exploring. In an approach that is reminiscent of grounded theory, we do not want to bring a ready conception of what happens in this practice to the interpretation of the material, but rather we want to let the material speak, bring its own contrasts, dynamics and distinctions2

Here, we recognise the wisdom that the young people themselves hold. While sitting watching young people fish, I (Kate) was frequently aware of how bad I was at fishing and how well the young people fished. This required concentration and the ability to keep still and be quiet, so as not to put the fish off. I (Kate) watched Dylan, for example, one sunny afternoon:

I decided to sit on the bank and watch Dylan. Dylan sat very still. He dropped his line very low in the water. He watched and did not do anything else, speak or chat or move. Every so often he would catch a fish and he would bring it in, carefully, inspect it, take the hook out and throw it back in. Once or twice he needed the landing net. When he caught a fish he drew it in quietly and gently. He did not boast or show other people. It was part of the process of fishing. (Kate Pahl, field notes, 04-06-13)

This piece of observation repositioned Dylan as a quiet source of knowledge and skill. The other anglers admired Dylan as a fisherman and thought he was very talented. I (Kate) realised that I was the person in need of coaching as I tended to talk too much and scared the fish away. Young people became repositioned as experts within the fishing community. They were able to provide coaching for the research team, and helped us understand the process of fishing.

Dylan told me to fish between two patches of lilies and very quickly I caught a big rudd which Dylan said was a fat one. I asked him about fishing and he said he fished in the canal near Asda a lot and that he went fishing a lot with his uncle. (Hugh Escott, field notes, 07-05-13)

Many of the young people learnt to fish with older relatives such as uncles and grandparents. The presence of inherited wisdom in the areas where we were doing the project, that were characterised by being ex-mining areas, and considered as areas of socio-economic deprivation, was important in repositioning the knowledge and skills of the community. Rather than seeing the community as ‘lacking’, the community could provide skilled knowledge that was of benefit to young people’s well-being and mental health. As a team, the older anglers supported this process and quietly coached the young people to achieve their potential.

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