An Intellectual Balancing Act

By Ross A. Klein, MUN School of Social Work

I’ve always had my feet in two camps. As an undergraduate student I was attracted to sociology for its vantage point of social observation – objective but critical – and to social work for its activist orientation. The time was the late 1960s/early 1970s, the anti-war movement was at its peak, sociology departments were flush with soft funding for community-based organization and research, and sociology faculties had clearly projected political orientations. My foot in sociology provided theory and critical thinking, both essential elements in a foundation for social activism. My foot in social work, in complementary fashion, taught methods of community development and social activism for effecting change. Saul Alinsky, a sociologist, was required reading for students of social work at the time. Much of what I learned about community organizing and social action was drawn from sociology and sociological theory.

Fast forward six years. I completed a Masters degree in social work (with emphasis in community organization and research methods/design) and spent four years as an old-style social group worker. My work focused on community development, not on therapeutic intervention. While I enjoyed the work I did in one camp, the other camp kept calling. As a social worker I was engaged in practice, but without a strong theoretical base. The void – or theoretical bankruptcy as I referred to it at the time – drew me back to sociology. I saw too well how social work, as Piven and Cloward’s Regulating the Poor observed, had become an agent of social control rather than an agent of change. Instead of seeing the way in which society maintained oppressive and exploitative class structures (in those days few spoke about Marx’s conception of the lumpen proletariat), the social work profession had become an instrument of the power structure.

In 1978 I returned to sociology, enrolling at Syracuse University. I found an environment where the debate was not so much between quantitative versus qualitative methodology, but between which of four schools of qualitative research and analysis was “best.” Similarly, there was less debate between those on the political right and political left – those on the right were marginal at best – than between social anarchism, Marxism, critical theory, the Frankfurt School and the sociology of knowledge. It was a fascinating environment in which to learn and to apply theory. Given the diversity of thought, our training was mainly in how to formulate a well-reasoned argument that could be supported by (often classical) theory.

I carried two broad interests into my graduate studies – nonviolent conflict and change, and how those without power can escape subjugation and control. The result was a dissertation entitled “David versus Goliath: The Big Power of Small States.” Focusing on international conflict, the study explored how it is possible for states that are relatively weaker militarily to win in conflicts with states that are militarily strong. Using case studies of a series of disputes over fishing rights from the late 1940s to the late 1970s – the Cod Wars between Iceland and the U.K., and the Tuna Wars between Ecuador and Peru and the U.S. – the dissertation drew on some of the theories that were the foundation for my practice as an activist: knowledge about norms of reciprocity (Gouldner’s work based on Marcel Mauss), power-dependence relations (Emerson’s early work that was inextricably linked to Blau’s Exchange Theory, and later to theories of interdependence), and theories of class and class conflict. By focusing on conflicts where the weak successfully confronted the strong (and refrained from using direct military force), the case studies were effective for the study of the power of nonviolence and noncoercion.

I received my PhD in 1981. The job market in sociology was dismal – opportunities were few and far between – but jobs in social work were plentiful. I had little choice but to put my foot into that other camp. I took a position teaching social work in a department of sociology. The negative is that I was assigned responsibility for coordinating a huge service course taught by graduate students – its official title was “Courtship and Marriage,” but it was popularly known among students as “wooing and screwing” – but the positive was that I taught community action and a PhD course in political sociology. All would have been fine except I was living in the middle of Iowa. When I had told my dissertation supervisor of the job offer, his response was reserved – he commented, “most people are happy to end their career there.” I learned in time what he meant.

I arrived at MUN in 1988 after five years in a research university and two years at a small Ivy-league-wannabe private college. (I had to experience what a small college was like and didn’t need long to reach my conclusion.) My research at the time was not well focused. I had written on child sexual abuse prevention, nonviolent conflict and change, and on public attitudes about the military and militarism. And I had done work in applied research related to social policy issues and program development. The work satisfied the need to be productive but I had lost touch with core issues related to exploitation, oppression, and social justice. My foot in social work had taken hold and I was losing my sociological imagination. A social-critical perspective was slowly being consumed by social work’s focus on doing. A focus on analysis for social change had been replaced by a focus on analysis for better social programs – the trap of managing people rather than changing society. I had lost the complementary elements – desire and activism for social change (social work) inspired and informed by critical data analysis and social theory (sociology).

Things changed in 1996. My partner and I had since 1992 chosen cruise vacations and were spending considerable time on cruise ships – approximately 40 days in both 1996 and 1997. I had gotten to know a number of staff and crewmembers and was becoming aware that there was much to write about, especially from the perspective of sociology. I checked the literature and was surprised to find the topic had yet to be written about. Nothing at all!

The decision to turn my vacation choice into research came in 1997. By now, I had spent almost 150 days on cruise ships. But more significantly, I had twice spent 24 days straight on a single ship, including a ship where a friend was the ship’s physician. Informal chats over wine rounded out my understanding of the industry. Questions and curiosities were answered, and information that would otherwise be unavailable landed in my lap. Gaps in understanding evaporated and the shining façade of “luxury” vacations removed. I now saw how the industry’s economic success was facilitated by structures that were racist, classist, exploitative and oppressive; and by advertising that was misleading if not outright lies. One example will suffice: while Royal Caribbean marketed itself as environmentally green (including staff members wearing pins saying “Save the Waves” and having the slogan pasted throughout the ship and in advertising), it was systematically dumping into harbours and coastal waters dry-cleaning fluids (perchlorethylene), photofinishing chemicals (silver nitrate), a host of other hazardous chemicals known to be carcinogenic, and oily waste from its engines. By 2000, the company had been fined more than $30 million in the U.S. By 2002, each of the major cruise corporations had been fined for similar behaviour. But the fines appeared to be the cost of doing business – they cost less than behaving in ways consistent with corporate advertising and public proclamations.

Environmental practices were not the first thing to capture my fascination. On an early cruise I innocently asked a Honduran busboy how long it would be before he would be promoted to waiter. His response: “my skin is too dark – I can never be a waiter; I’ll always be a busboy.” On the next cruise, a wine steward told me he had previously worked for a different cruise line – I naturally asked why he left. The response, “The company fired all the Filipino wine stewards because they didn’t think their skin colour projected the right image.” The Filipinos were replaced by white-skinned eastern Europeans. A couple of years later I asked an Indonesian worker who was handing out trays at the start of a buffet line what it was like working under surveillance cameras all day (pointing to the bubble in the ceiling) – his face went blank and he said, “the Dutchman is always watching.” Later that same day I overheard the ship’s captain, in conversation with a group of passengers, refer to the crew as his “little Indonesian pets.” The cruise line was Holland America and the comments clearly demonstrated how the company had replicated onboard its ships the traditional master-servant relationship given that Indonesia had been colonized by the Dutch.

Other issues also seized my interest:

  1. the disconnect between the product advertised and the product delivered (I watched as a passenger went to the Purser’s Desk with a copy of the ship’s brochure, pointed to the wide-angle picture of the room he thought he had booked, and said this is the room I reserved and this is the room I want);

  2. the degree to which shipboard accidents were kept secret and often buried by the media (easily done by an industry that spends one billion dollars a year on media advertising and that sponsors travel and food shows for many mass-circulation newspapers);

  3. the economically exploitive relationship between cruise ships and the ports they visit (a cruise ship retains as much as 90 percent of the price a passenger pays for a land excursion bought onboard and gets kicked back as much as 40 percent of the money spent by passengers in portside stores);

  4. the industry’s ability to directly influence the U.S. Congress (through lobbying, campaign contributions, and strategically directed donations) and to maintain freedom from U.S. laws and regulations;

  5. the nature of medical care and the industry’s ability to avoid liability for medical malpractice onboard its ships and to avoid liability for large-scale illness outbreaks); and,

  6. the problem of sexual assault of women and of children – it is a well kept secret that a Canadian has a greater chance of being sexually assaulted on a cruise ship than anywhere in Canada.

There was plenty to write about and so I did. Given the absence of critical material about the industry, my work was quickly picked up by the media. (I’ve done more than 300 media interviews since the publication of my first book.) And it was acknowledged and used by those concerned about cruise industry practices. The International Transportworkers Federation and the U.K.-based War on Want involved me in their “Sweatships” campaign; more than a dozen environmental organizations involved me in their local and national efforts to impact cruise ship environmental practices (including Oceana, which funded a two-week lecture tour following my second book, and KAHEA – The Native Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, which twice sponsored week-long lecture tours and meetings with grassroots groups concerned with the environmental impact of cruise tourism); port communities invited me to speak and be part of their effort to curtail the growth of cruise tourism; NGOs in Canada and the Caribbean involved me in projects that would bring to the forefront the economic exploitation of ports and of small island states; and when the International Cruise Victims Association was formed in 2006, I was soon contacted to serve as a resource and advisor.

It was a fascinating opportunity for a sociologist. I was given diverse opportunities to work with individuals and organizations that were confronting the cruise industry – my research and expertise provided a foundation for making credible and effective arguments based on fact rather than anecdote. My research was having a direct impact and I was having fun. For example, I was used in a successful campaign by Livable Oldtown, a grassroots organization in Key West (Florida), to scale back cruise tourism and to ameliorate its negative impacts on the community; in a successful campaign by Save Our Spit in Gold Coast (Australia) opposing construction of a cruise terminal in the area; and in a successful campaign by a consortium of environmental organizations in Monterey Bay (California) to ensure environmentally responsible practices by ships traversing the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.

My work also led to invitations to provide expert testimony. I twice testified before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as they considered environmental challenges associated with plans for a new cruise terminal, before the Hawaii Country Council as they worked to manage the growth of cruise tourism, and before both the U.S. House of Representative and U.S. Senate in hearings on crime aboard cruise ships. In Canada, I was asked by Members of Parliament from British Columbia in 2007 to participate in a press conference and media work around environmental impacts of cruise tourism, and a year later was asked by two Members of Parliament (from Ontario and BC) to participate in a press conference and media work around sexual assaults on cruise ships. Testimony and media work largely involved dissemination of my research. My involvement as an expert witness in court cases however provided a new source of data.

My first court case was Hui Hoopakele Aina vs. Hawaii – native Hawaiians on Molokai were suing the state to prevent cruise ships from landing on the island. They argued that social and environmental impacts of cruise tourism had not been adequately measured. Although they subsequently lost in court they achieved their goal – no cruise ships have stopped on the island. Their success is attributable initially to mass demonstrations that prevented cruise passengers from landing on the island, and subsequently to political intervention that got cruise lines to withdraw plans to call at Molokai – the withdrawal being “forced” while the court case was still active. Being part of the process meant having an inside track on behind-the-scenes information that would normally be unavailable to a social scientist. Other court cases have also provided considerable data – some from depositions of other witnesses and cruise line employees and some from the huge number of documents provided in the discovery phase of lawsuits. For example, a class action suit brought by onboard employees of Princess Cruises for unpaid overtime – they received no remuneration for hours worked beyond the mandatory 77 per week, many working 98 hours or more – yielded 10,000 pages of internal corporate documents. While much of the information had little relevance, some was quite useful. There were results of a survey of all onboard employees regarding workplace and job satisfaction, and there was a letter informing a crewmember that he was paid less and worked longer than others because he was on the Asian/Central American contract and others were on the European contract.

My involvement in cases involving onboard sexual assault has also yielded data that would otherwise be unavailable. The most recent case with which I was involved provided 1,500 pages of documents, including original complaints and investigations. Before having the documents I was faced with using the cruise line’s characterization of an incident, but now I am able to make an independent judgment. For example, one case labeled as inappropriate touch by a cruise line was more precisely sexual assault: a woman went to the spa for a foot and ankle massage and was awoken from her relaxed stupor when the masseur attempted to manually penetrate her vagina. Another case labeled inappropriate touch involved a twelve-year-old girl who, travelling on a cruise with her parents, experienced unwanted touching and kisses by a crew member – he had let himself into the family cabin with his passkey when she was alone in the room. I now have a data set of more than 550 sex-related incidents on two cruise lines belonging to one corporation.

Data from court cases supplement and complement data I already have. Methodologically, my work has relied in part on participant (simple) observation and informal conversations. But the largest source of data is from documents: corporate reports and studies, journalistic accounts, government studies and reports, trade publications, industry-supported research, and financial disclosure data (i.e., spending for lobbyists, campaign contributions, corporate foundations). I have always been fascinated by Eugene Webb et al’s Nonreactive Measures in the Social Sciences (originally published in 1966 as Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences) – my dissertation research was based largely on documentary sources (supplemented by interviews with key informants). My research of the cruise industry is similarly based almost entirely on the methods and approaches articulated in that book.

As with any research, it is important to know when a project has reached its natural end. My research on the cruise industry has taken on a life of its own, but there is less and less new data and consequently the topic (although still interesting to many) is less fascinating to me as a researcher. It is time to begin to chart a new project. Though the cruise industry research is hard to beat, a natural horizontal move is to undertake a complementary study of hotels and resorts. While much has been written about the hospitality industry, there are a number of salient sociological concepts and questions that have not been posed. The parameters for my next study have been shaped in part by cruise line informants who are corporate executives with hotels and resorts, in part by lawyers with whom I have worked whose practice includes hotels and resorts, and in part from my own travel experience – since being blacklisted by several cruise lines in 2001 my vacation choices have been land-based and have included a range of types and qualities of hotels and resorts. The next study, guided by a healthy sociological imagination, builds on what I have learned from my cruise industry research, but also goes in some new and exciting directions. I am anxious to see how it turns out.