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The im/possibilities of Caribbean area studies.


In this essay, I aim to make two closely connected, intersecting and in some cases parallel scholarly and political contributions to wider discussions about area studies through a focused engagement with Caribbean Area Studies. First, I position myself within Caribbean (area) studies as a feminist anti-racist researcher and scholar. I explore the im/possibilities of my role within the "area" of the Caribbean through a feminist analysis. Second, I aim to ensure that the scholarship from academics within and of the Caribbean is placed central. I provide insights from Caribbean theorists who discuss the ways in which the region is both bounded and exploded but nevertheless a recognisable entity of Caribbean area studies.


Caribbean, feminism, anti-racism, Caribbean scholarship

I write this piece as a resistance to the hegemonic understandings of area studies as largely Euro-American projects of knowledge production. One of the strengths and possibilities of Caribbean Studies is that people who are located in, or connected through birth or kinship with, the region generate so much of it. I purposefully engage with existing debates developed by scholars in and of the Caribbean about what constitutes Caribbean Studies. I pay particular attention to a special issue edited by Scott (2013) of the journal Small Axe: A Journal of Caribbean Criticism published by Duke University Press where, in 2013, 13 articles addressed the question What is Caribbean Studies? Through exploring these two aims I interrogate my own title on the im/possibilities of Caribbean Area Studies.

Aim I: positionality, feminist anti-racist research, standpoint theory

My academic engagement, and hence my political and scholarly positionality in relation to the Caribbean, began first as serendipity, then became about a desire for a place, circled round again to academic encounters but in a much more complex and problematic way, and is currently settled at an academic, relational and emotional commitment to people and place. First, though, as aside to consider the role of everyday discourses in the UK about the Caribbean in which I was embedded.

Growing up in the UK I knew of/ was exposed to the Caribbean through two dominant discourses, one highly racialised and often negative, the other highly exoticised and always positive. The first related to the complex discursive framings of the migration and settlement of Caribbean migrants from the Anglophone West Indies to the UK; the second a representation of the Caribbean as luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime, elite holiday destinations. Both these were discursive ways of viewing the Caribbean from the outside; not only as a cause of anxiety for the UK but also as a site of desire. The first view from the outside was a remainder from the 1950s and the 1960s when Britain continued its colonial power over much of the Anglophone West Indies actively recruiting Caribbean labour. This legacy served, and serves, to perpetuate the Caribbean as a set of problematic spaces of development from which "migrants" came. The complexity of continued colonial relations was writ large, and even in the post-independence era for the larger territories (Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago), colonies remained among the smaller islands and still do in the here and now. (1) The second outside view was about the desire for insularity and escape. Stephens (2013: 14) argues that particular kinds of European representations of islands developed through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The European colonial relationship with islands was she argues, drawing on Deleuze, (2) "a double movement" providing both the dream of pulling away, being separate, lost and alone, but also a location of origin with the possibility of rebirth and starting anew. These were the views from the UK towards the Caribbean; a combination of political, economic and cultural perspectives that influenced UK area studies of the Caribbean. (3)

Let me return to the process of engagement with the Caribbean, first through academic serendipity. Once at University I became more involved in anti-racist activism alongside writing tutorial essays for Geographers Professor Ceri Peach about West Indian and Puerto Rican migration, employment and settlement patterns in the UK and the USA, respectively, and Professor Colin Clarke on urban and social geography in Jamaica. These were my first introduction to Caribbean Area Studies, guided by British academics writing about the region and its diaspora. My academic and anecdotal knowledge of the Caribbean expanded after completing my degree in Human Sciences (a small interdisciplinary degree programme at Oxford that combined social and biological sciences) when I was employed as a researcher for the journalist Simon Winchester. I sat in Oxford University libraries note-taking on the remaining British Dependent Territories (BDTs) in the Caribbean for his book Outposts (1985). One of these islands was Montserrat, a British Crown Colony since 1632, beautifully captured in Fergus' (1975) History of Allioucigana: A Short History of Montserrat. I was captivated by the history and spatiality of this small island in the Eastern Caribbean, also defined as the Lesser Antilles. I developed a dream and a desire to travel there.

A UK Economic and Social Research Council PhD scholarship to the University of Newcastle, England, allowed me achieve that dream sooner than anticipated. I circled back to academic work based on and in the Caribbean. Here I consider my academic positionality and the role of inter- or trans-disciplinarity in relation to Caribbean Area Studies. I positioned myself as an early career inter-disciplinary academic, then as area studies scholar, and a later-in-life geographer. Once Geography as a discipline went through intellectual shifts, connecting with feminist theory, cultural studies, post-structuralism and post-modernism it became a place where I could find an intellectual home, and importantly employment. My PhD was located in a Geography Department, but I continued my inter-disciplinary journey. Caribbean Studies as a form of area studies is by its very nature inter-disciplinary. This makes it a rich, dynamic and complex way to study this particular area of the world (more on this under "Aim 2").

Montserrat was the field site for my thesis, Women, Men and Power: Gender Relations in Montserrat. The dream was now a real place and a set of people that became, and remain, extremely important in my life. Living and working in Montserrat for almost a year forced me to consider my positionality in ways that my feminist and anti-racist activism and academic reading in the UK did not prepare me for. I was white and British working with black participants in a British colony. I had to work through different instances of tension and "easiness" (4) associated with relations of race, gender and class at the same time as conducting interviews on the gender power relations of households, workplaces and sexual union practices. When I returned with all my tape-recorded interviews and handwritten transcripts, with my field-notes and photographs, I turned to feminist theory to ground my methodology chapter and work through the convolutions of the gender and race relations I had experienced in the Caribbean.

Standpoint theory, which emerged in the 1970s and through the 1980s, was (and remains) a strong force within feminist theory and practice. It focuses on feminist critical theoretical examinations of the production of knowledge and practices of power. During the 1980s, it went beyond being an explanatory theory and became more prescriptive about methodologies in future feminist research. It triggered considerable "controversality" (Harding, 2004: 1), dissent and argument within feminist scholarship, expertly captured in Harding's (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Consequences. However, upon returning from the Caribbean in 1987, much of standpoint theory's emphasis was on the production of knowledge, the goal of creating the intellectual space for oppressed groups, especially women, to become the subjects of research rather than objects. It was also about displacing the disembodied, unplaced, "scientific, researcher who produced "knowledge" about groups who were denied their own voice to be the "speakers of scientific sentences" (Harding, 2004: 4). Standpoint theory demonstrated that research focusing on women had been largely androcentric, Eurocentric, racist and heterosexist. While I could confidently counter that my research was not androcentric or heterosexist I could not escape my standpoint as a European woman doing research in the Caribbean. Additionally, I was concerned that my thesis, focusing on gendered power relations between black men and women in the Caribbean, may be construed as racist, however, hard I worked with anti-racist politics. At that time, many feminists lacked the vocabulary and conceptual tools to be able to find an intellectual space within standpoint theory even as we agreed with the politics of the approach. I was left with many questions that I felt inadequately skilled or knowledgeable enough to answer: How could I justify being a white British woman writing about black Montserratian women and men? What if (however unintentionally) I perpetuated stereotypes about black Caribbean people that added to racist discourses? Who was I to represent a group of women so different to me? Ironically, given the focus of this piece, at that time, in the 1980s through to the recent present, I felt very confident about my contribution to Caribbean Area Studies but lost confidence in my ability as a white feminist anti-racist scholar.

I faced a "paralysis of race" that I worked through (partially) for my PhD but that made wider publication difficult if I was to remain committed to my anti-racist feminism bound up with standpoint theory. I felt it impossible to act as any kind of interlocutor for Caribbean people. While it cost me dear for my early career, it was definitely important for me to remain silent, reflect harder and wait. Subsequent feminist theory written by black female scholars in the USA, such as Crenshaw (1989), Hooks (1990) and Collins (2000), and in the Caribbean, for example Mohammed (2002) and Barriteau (2003), provided new articulations and pathways for anti-racist, feminism. A decade later, inspired particularly by Caribbean feminist work, I was able to work my way through this personally, politically and academically (Skelton, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004a).

However, this work was based on subsequent research in Montserrat related to the social and cultural impacts of the volcanic eruption that began in 1995, but it was still an engagement with Caribbean Area Studies (see below for more details). Making return visits and leading university held trips to Montserrat post 1997 when the island was appealing for visitors to contribute to the devastated economy I was so much more confident about my research and role in the production of knowledge. My on-going relationships with Montserratians and discussions with feminist academics based at the University of the West Indies enabled me to move beyond my paralysis and continue to practice feminist anti-racist research with Montserrat, Montserratians and the wider Caribbean. In my contributions to Caribbean Studies, and also writing the Caribbean into Geography, I have always placed anti-racist feminist politics first and followed its ethics and academic scrutiny to practice de-colonial writing (Smith, 1999) and have often collaborated with Caribbean-based authors (Skelton, 2004b). Hence I have been enabled to settle into a critically engaged academic, relational and emotional commitment to the people and place of Montserrat.

Aim 2: a focus on Caribbean area studies: impossibilities and possibilities

The "controversality" of feminist standpoint theory was intellectually provocative and valuable. It forced me to think about my role in the Caribbean and the ways in which my work contributed to Caribbean (Area) Studies. I did not claim the identification of Caribbeanist because I was an outsider to the region. I did not want to perpetuate an intellectual tradition that Smith (1955) identified in his highly influential essay A framework for Caribbean Studies where, similar to feminist standpoint theory, he asserted the right for Caribbean people to be recognised as knowledge producers about their own lives. He critiqued US and UK based academics visiting the Caribbean and then writing about it, with little to no engagement with Caribbean intellectuals. From the 1950s onwards, such scholars were the ones to identify the key themes of investigation and create discourses about the region, regardless of what was important to those living in the area. In my own academic reading on the Caribbean 1 found anthropological discourses of the "dysfunctional family" particularly objectionable as this fed into practices of colonial governance to "civilise" and "order" the "degenerate" gender relations and sexual practices of Caribbean populations. As a feminist I worked to challenge these prejudicial representations of Caribbean families and households in my PhD thesis, playing a part in making a more accurate discussion of the region possible.

Researching and working in the Caribbean provided me the space to think differently about knowledge production and the hegemonic dominance of intellectual enquiry generated by the west, particularly in the European-American context. The US was/is a powerful presence in the region, and Europe still haunts it. Considering the extensive, long-lived and on-going relationships between European countries (particularly France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK) and different parts of the Caribbean, the relative academic neglect of the Caribbean as a valid basis of area studies scholarship is surprising. Based in the UK "our" (5) social and cultural understandings of the region were largely premised on US-based anthropology from the 1950s, although excellent Caribbean historical, political, development and literary analysis was present. Currently, UK-based Caribbean Studies is small and underfunded but intellectually diverse and inventive, not least because of British scholars of Caribbean descent and through the engagement with Caribbean-based scholars. The UK-based Society for Caribbean Studies for example celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2016 and has been a major meeting space of area-based Caribbean Studies with a genuine mixing of scholars from, or working on, the Caribbean (the Caribbean Studies Association, based in the region is another important scholarly congregation). So it is important to ask why this apparent academic negligence towards the Caribbean?

Perhaps it is because the absolute, brutal and crushing practices of slavery, plantocracy, resource-extraction and colonialism rendered the region as places without history, sites of translocated labour, devoid of an authentic identity. Besides the historical study of slavery and plantation culture, economics and politics, the Caribbean is seen to lack the depth of "civilisation" so fetishised through orientalism, which drew the European intellectual gaze to the "East". However, in a similar way to Cuba thriving and forging its own development trajectory despite the US embargo, I argue that the relative lack of European scholarly attention (with some important exceptions of course) has led to the distinctive formation of Caribbean Studies. Experiencing either neglect or a highly focused gaze relating to development, international relations and security studies for example, provided an intellectual space for new ideas and perspectives to emerge from this distinctive region. Caribbean Studies could in fact be described as a kind of subaltern area studies; developing theoretical and conceptual tools and appropriate methodologies to explore the Caribbean from within the Caribbean.

The Caribbean has a long history of higher education scholarship. There have been universities and colleges in some of the islands for centuries: Dominican Republic (1558- 1823, re-founded in 1914); Cuba (1728); Barbados (1743); Haiti (where a university was founded 16 years after the revolutionary war against France in 1820); and Puerto Rico (1903). Universities on the other islands and in the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean were formed just before or subsequent to independence. The University of the West Indies (initially established on campuses in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago and now serving 18 English-speaking territories) was founded in 1948 as part of the provision of higher education in the British colonies. It became an independent University in 1962 (the year of independence for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago). Hence the Caribbean has a long French- and Spanish-speaking University tradition, and a more recent one of the English-speaking Caribbean. What does this mean in relation to area studies?

It means that Caribbean-based scholars have been active in establishing their own version of area studies from post-revolution, post-independence, post-colonial contexts. Regional theorisations, concepts and identities were, therefore, in part forged through the intellectual project of those researching in the Caribbean. Spanish- and French-speaking Universities and the University of the West Indies (UWI) became sites of post-colonial scholarly identity founded on "traditional" disciplines--history, politics, sociology, anthropology, geography, economics, literary studies, etc. However, from the start, the scholarship had a Caribbean inflection and provided Caribbean-based and Caribbean-relevant productions of knowledge. This Caribbean-based formation of area studies knowledge, understanding and analysis of the region is co-produced by scholars in the area itself. All of this constitutes an important possibility of Caribbean area studies.

Here I want to introduce Montserrat, the island from which all my wider Caribbean work originated (note the echo of the island trope as a space of origin, starting anew, of rebirth). In 1986, Montserrat was home to just under 12,000 people mostly of African descent, with minimal tourism but a successful economy, high levels of education, complex familial and gender relations, an elected legislative council and a geopolitical designation of a British Dependent Territory (BDT). Montserrat is now an island of just under 6000 people, experiencing an on-going volcanic eruption that began in 1995, Montserratians remain the majority but migrants from Jamaica, Guyana and the Dominican Republic are a significant part of the population. In 1997, a relocation package was developed for those who wanted to move to the UK. This triggered a constitutional crisis as the islanders were from a BDT and not British citizens and could only legally enter the UK as tourists. Special terms of "leave to remain" had to be agreed by the UK parliament to allow evacuees from the near total devastation created by a volcano to stay in the UK (Skelton, 2000). The European Union was already demanding that member states revise their constitutional relationships with their colonial territories. The Montserratian crisis forced the UK to produce a white paper and the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) Act of 2002 allowed Montserratians and others residing in BOTs to apply for British citizenship.

I provide this brief but detailed insight into this particular island as a way of showing the complex relations within which a small Caribbean island is enmeshed. As a place Montserrat is part of, and plays a part in, colonial history, regional migration and geopolitical relations that stretch to the UK and the European Union, at the same time, as being home to generations of Montserratians. With such intricacies of dis/connectedness through time and space, how is it possible to define, pin-down, fix such an island, or mainland country with equal complexities, within a discourse of Caribbean Area Studies?

As both Geographer and a scholar of Caribbean Studies (but not a Caribbeanist) I know that places cannot and should not be fixed but Area Studies has had that tendency to define and bound, to map and enclose particular places together. Yet, within Caribbean Studies the long-established inter-disciplinary approaches have provided the conceptual tools to create complex, diverse and fluid ways of "practicing" Caribbean Studies in all its spaces and places (Giovannetti, 2013). Influenced by Glissant (1997), Puri (2013) refers to landscape not as "a setting but as a character implicated in the action" and asserts that "landscape is an emblem of the local and the particular, it offers a metaphor for a locally grounded politics". Hence the landscapes and places of the Caribbean island provide vernacular memories (Puri, 2013: 61) that contribute to complex understandings and interpretations of the wider Caribbean and Caribbean Studies.

Concurring with Stephens (2013), I wish to close with Glissant's (1997) spatial imaginary of the Caribbean as an explosion of the networks of the oceanic navigational rhumb lines and bordered spaces, so favoured by the colonial powers, so that they lose their orientation and allow a new possible way of visualising the spatiality of the Caribbean as area. A spatiality founded on an "archipelagic perspective of a branching, rhizomatic, relational set of itineraries and spaces". (Stephens, 2013: 26). This is an intellectual contribution and imagination that speaks from the Caribbean and to other spaces of area studies.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


(1.) There are six remaining British colonial territories, now officially called British Overseas Territories (BOTS). These are Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Isles, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos and Montserrat.

(2.) Deleuze G (2004) Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974 Semiotext(e): Los Angeles.

(3.) Of course these weren't the only perspectives and as I developed more knowledge of Caribbean Studies then research on slavery, indentureship. plantation economies, history, and socio-cultural analyses became predominant. However, they were not part of the everyday discourses and debates circulating in 'ordinary' British society

(4.) I draw on this word from Montserratian speech. When I was worrying over something relating to my research, my positionality, how to be better at understanding people, Montserratian friends would tell me to 'ease myself, to 'show some easiness and stop fretting'.

(5.) In using 'our' as a collective for those of us in/from the UK, I follow Scott's use of the term about the Small Axe special issue where each paper "contributes to an overall collective rehabilitating of the conceptual-political space of thought about our Caribbean." (2013: 7, my emphasis). It serves to highlight the ways in which we are working within and from quite different spaces, even when the focus is the Caribbean.


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Tracey Skelton has had the privilege of undertaking academic research in many parts of the world: in the Caribbean; the UK; and in several Asian countries. In her work she seeks to engage with, and learn from, those marginalised by politics, economics, socio-cultural practices and the academy. Through her publishing and teaching she integrates critical geographical perspectives in order to encourage and facilitate a different way of understanding and being in the world.

Tracey Skelton

National University of Singapore, Singapore

Corresponding author:

Tracey Skelton, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Kent Ridge, Singapore I 17570, Singapore.


DOI: 10.1177/0263775816656532
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Author:Skelton, Tracey
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Article Type:Essay
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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