Coastal Perspectives Lecture – Apr 2, 2024

Shadows in the Water: What Sharks Tell Us About Ourselves

Michaela J. Thompson, Ph.D., Sustainability & Environmental Management, Harvard Extension School


Sharks inspire myth-making and hyperbole. We often think of them in totalizing terms: terrifying and primeval, toothy and mysterious, timeless enemies of man. But interactions between sharks and humans are deeply rooted in place and time, and constitute a history often characterized by rapid and dramatic change. In the mid-twentieth century, a series of conjunctures –technological, cultural, and scientific—thrust sharks and people into unprecedented levels of contact, resulting in a new preoccupation with the “shark menace.” To unravel this complex history, this talk examines a series of case studies in the U.S. and South Africa, nested within a larger narrative about the evolving human attitudes and responses to sharks that continue to this day. In doing so, it touches upon issues of knowledge production, contestation and collaboration between stakeholder groups, cultural narratives regarding man-eating animals, and human perceptions of the ocean.


Michaela Thompson has been fascinated by sharks since childhood, when she drove her parents nuts by begging to watch National Geographic’s The Sharks over and over again. Today, she is an environmental historian, sustainability scientist, and STS scholar, focusing on the complex dynamics of social-environmental systems. In particular, her research explores the ways in which various communities have framed and navigated their relationship with the sea and its creatures. Topics she has examined include salmon fishery management in Alaska, shellfish aquaculture in Canada, Arctic tourism, and shark science and policy in the U.S. and South Africa. Her forthcoming book explores the relationship between sharks and humans from the midcentury to today. She lives with her partner in Boston, spends as much time near the ocean as possible, and has been known to dress her cats up as characters from Jaws.




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