University Of Tasmania

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What the sea portends: a reconsideration of contested island tropes

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 22:23 authored by Peter Hay
This paper argues for a shift in the focus of island-themed scholarship away from theories of islandness toward an engagement with psychologies of island experience. The former project has become mired in intractable dilemmas. The present paper pursues two linked lines of observation. First, it is maintained that integral to any coherent notion of islandness is a psychology that simultaneously assimilates containment with remoteness and isolation (the latter not to be equated with disconnectedness). In some of its manifestations this psychology is pathological in character, conducive to despair, cultural and economic stagnation, and a xenophobic conservatism. In others it is enabling, conducive to resilience, resourcefulness, cultural dynamism and a can-do economics. It may also make islands unusually relevant, rather than unimportant backwaters, in the search for workable modes of living on a small and fraught planet. Second, it is contended that, if there is enough in the notion of islandness to justify a coherent intellectual preoccupation called 'island studies', it must have to do with the element of the sea. Isolation, remoteness, containment - none of these psychological orientations, the qualities popularly held to characterize islands, will do - because these are all characteristics of certain real and imagined continental locations, and must, therefore, be psychological qualities evoked by some more primary condition. If there is something coherent to island studies beyond its status as a branch of biogeography or a minor tributary within literary studies, it must be that to be girt by sea creates distinctive island psychologies. Nevertheless, as globalizing processes burgeon, such a psychology becomes more precarious - containment, remoteness and a sense of apartness from the great human tides inevitably recede - and this is the real threat to a coherent sense of islandness (and, hence, 'island studies').


Publication title

Island Studies Journal








School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


Institute of Island Studies at University of Prince Edward Island

Place of publication


Rights statement

Copyright 2013 Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Other culture and society not elsewhere classified