island conversations
podcast series

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Benoît Raoulx is a French geographer, born in 1965. He studied geography and Nordic languages at the University of Rouen, Caen and Copenhagen. He is currently an Assistant professor and director of research in social and cultural geography at the Department of Geography at the University of Caen Normandy, France. 

His PhD focused on island micro-societies in marginalized locations. He considered them as laboratories for studying the interplay between global economic/geopolitical issues and the local scale of social relationships. After studying film-making at Ateliers Varan, he made several documentaries on social marginality issues and space. Raoulx is interested in the epistemology of island studies, visual methods and studies, alongside social and spatial marginality. In 2012, He co-created FRESH (Film and Research in Social sciences) – an interdisciplinary program supported by several institutions in France and in Tunisia. 


This fascinating podcast explores Benoît Raoulx’s journey to Island Studies and his involvement within the field. 

Henry Johnson: Hello Benoît, it's great to have you online here today. It's evening in New Zealand and it's early in the morning in France. As an introduction, could you give me a bit of background about yourself and what you're doing?

My name is Benoît Raoulx. I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Caen-Normandy. In fact, my status is an Associate Professor and Director for Research. I'm a geographer, a social geographer, and so I work on different topics, and islands are part of my research field. I went to different conferences organized by SICRI in Malta, Okinawa, Newfoundland, and I co-organised with Arianne Reis from Sydney the 14th SICRI conference in Normandy on Tatihou Island in 2018. It was a very interesting and stimulating experience because it involved people from France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Italy, and we tried to connect different research networks, different traditions: Latin ones, Anglo-Saxon ones, and island studies, so it was a very interesting event.


Benoît Raoulx in 1984 on Mykines Island (Faroe Islands)

Credit: Benoît Raoulx

What are some of your personal island connections? Can you share some memories of researching on islands? Maybe a couple of examples of different island settings with some key points about those islands?

In fact, I got interested very early in islands, before I started studying geography. So as a kid, I was fascinated by islands, and especially the Faroe IslandsKerguelen Islands, those remote islands in cold areas. I had huge maps on my wall, on Kerguelen Islands, so there were three big maps on Kerguelen, so there was hardly any space in my room. At the age of 16, I traveled to the Faroe Islands for the first time. At 17, I went to Eastern Greenland in Scoresby Sund, which is now called Ittoqqortoormiit. Thanks to the support of different foundations, I wrote articles for magazines, and then I went several times to Greenland, Faroe Islands, and even went to the French southern islands, including Kerguelen and Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean. And then I studied at the university geography and Nordic languages, mainly Danish. I wrote a master's thesis on Faroe Island society and fisheries in 1986. And later, I wrote a Ph.D. on what I call island micro-societies in the North Atlantic, Faroe Islands, in comparison with other small island societies. St. Pierre and Miquelon of Canada, I went there several times, ShetlandsMagdalena Island. I got to do a postdoc, and went several times to Greenland, especially to the northern part.


In my work, I noticed that those societies are far from being totally isolated, they get impacted by global geopolitical and economical trends. It was very interesting to study how do they cope, reframe, reshape, these systemic trends at the local scale. It was more like an inter-scholarly analysis to show that the small societies reinvent themselves despite the huge impact of the economy like the development of fisheries, the global market, and so on.


The other aspect I'm still interested in is the epistemology of islands, mainly in geography, the theory of islands. It is a relevant subject for studying the world and to what extent did academia create this subject that has been very important at the beginning of academic geography, especially in France, because there is a huge, important tradition in island studies. As a social geographer, I think I'm always careful with the notion of islands as it can fall into the trap of what we call spatial determinism. We have to always think about how the space is produced by the societies, it can be the island societies or other societies that produce, for example, an imagination of islands. And also I worked on a culture project with the Danish Institute in France. It conceived many different cultural exhibitions and even some on the Faroe Islands, and I published also the first book in French on the Faroe Islands thanks to a fund from the Faroes Parliament. In fact, I tried to connect academic work with different audiences, not to be only academic work.


Saksun, an iconic place of Streymoy on Faroe Island

Credit: Benoît Raoulx (excerpt from the book , les îles Féroé, 1992)

Then I felt that I needed to renew my experience because I think it's a very good school of geography. I mean, for training, for developing for fieldwork, for example, because you have access small island societies with different languages, values and so on. I think it's very interesting for PhD students. And I reused these skills in different fields like social marginality and urban studies, so it's at the very end of the spectrum. And both of them, first, I worked on spatial geographical marginality on societies, and then I shifted to social marginality in urban space, which is the opposite. But I always kept an eye on islands and I came several times to the Faroe Islands, for example, and I taught on island issues at the University of Caen. Thanks to my friend, Christian Fleury, who had worked after me on island topics for a PhD, I got connected with SICRI and so we have worked together and I have done some more work. 


North Greenland, Qaanaaq (Thule) (excerpt from Habilitation to Direct Research)

Credit: Benoît Raoulx

Now I'm especially interested in Visual Studies and Visual Methods. So I'm interested in the figure of islands in film, especially the documentary film, from the early film, like, of course, Robert Flaherty to today. It's how has the figure of the Islands impacted the cinematic gaze and the aesthetics? How does it connect with issues in social and environmental science since the beginning of the cinema? What is the interplay between cinema and science? Basically, I'm interested in this topic, the epistemology of islands because, of course, it's a very topical issue with the geopolitical goal of conflicts, concerning the ocean, and so on, and I think it's still a relevant field for studying the work, you know, how does it change? And I think it's interesting to work on islands to maybe rethink some framework and then to try to export those models, those methods, to other spaces. Somehow, I still think that islands can be very interesting laboratories, but if it's a laboratory you need to also use your experience in island studies in other fields. Otherwise, it’s no more a laboratory because you’re just working on an island. Anyway, it's my perspective. On empirical stuff, I’m more interested in some geopolitical issues around Denmark, Faroe and Greenland. That is my old topic.

So your current research is looking at ethnographic film of islands?


Yes, not only ethnographic films, it can be creative documentary films. Like, you think of the film Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), the Italian film on Lampedusa, which is more a creative, what we call creative documentary films. And I'm also interested in fiction film. But it's true, I'm quite interested in ethnographic film because I'm also making documentary film myself. I didn't do any on islands, and I still have a project, so I think in the next year I will try, if I have enough time, to start doing a film on an island.

benoit4 2.jpeg

[Left] The first study of Faroe Islands in French, published by the Danish Institute in France with the Cultural Fund of the

Faroe Parliament.  [Upper right] Skálavik (Sandoy), Faroe Islands. [Lower right] The stone wall differentiating the “inland” (bøur)

from the “outland” (hagi), a trace from the old Faroese peasant society (Sandoy).

Credit: Benoît Raoulx

Okay, well, that's really interesting, Benoît. Could we move closer to your home, to France? How would you define the field of island studies in France? And is this distinct from island studies in other parts of the world? What is its history and key features? Could you just talk about that area for a short time? 


I think at the beginning of academic geography, at the end of 19th century, early 20th century, islands were a very important topic in French geography and abroad, and especially there were debates between what we call physical determinism, the media, how did it impact the society, and the question of culture, society. Many key thinkers like Jean BrunhesCamille Vallaux, who has been forgotten these days. But he [Vallaux] wrote a book, Géographie Sociale: La Mer, the sea and islands. Also, Jean Brunhes, I think, was a very interesting geographer. And there was a debate with German geography and [Friedrich] Ratzel, who was very, what we call deterministic geography. And so the French geography was more, I will say, flexible. 


A very important book, and I think it's still interesting to read these days, is a book written by a historian. It’s the first epistemology, as such, of islands; it’s the book of Lucien Febvre, in 1922 ... This book was reviewing all the ideas of islands and he was saying, ‘Okay, be careful with spatial determinism, you have to empirically study the island to see if there is an effect, and if there is an effect, it's an effect through the society’. And so, it was quite interesting. After, I think it was no longer a very important topic in French geography. It started again, I would say, in the 70s and 80s, and especially in Brittany, with many small islands. Also, later, with a different perspective, there is a work of Abraham Moles, about, he coined the word nissonologie, in 1982, I think, about the idea of islands. And it's more in the mind, a mental image of islands and the perception of space. Also, I think geographers get more interested in the way of ‘how do the people experience the island? What is the imaginary notion of islands?’ and, of course, the geopolitical issue, became important because in the 70s, in France, and thanks to Yves Lacoste, the geopolitical approach raised a huge interest. And I think also what is interesting in France is that because there are many overseas territories, and most of them are islands, it's a huge issue. And, so, geopolitical issues about the seas and colonization, and so on, development, culture, it’s very important because of this political situation. You have French islands, like St. Pierre and Miquelon next to Canada; the West Indies, like MartiniqueGuadeloupeSaint MartinSaint Barth; Indian Ocean with Réunion, the Scattered IslandsMayotte; the French Southern territories like Kerguelen, Crozet, and Amsterdam and Saint Paul; and all the Pacific territories, New Caledonia, which maybe will [gain] . . . independence, Wallis and FutunaFrench PolynesiaClipperton. It seems that's almost all. I think, also, the French, it's difficult to talk about the French tradition as such, maybe because there are different approaches. There’s always work in the Mediterranean part, with, of course, there is Corsica, and it connects with Latin countries like Italy, Spain and even Greece. There is also the North Atlantic and Channel side, with the islands in Brittany, but also the Channel Islands where they share the coast. I will say they are different, kind of workshop areas. And the workshop areas, have different connections with other countries. And I think that there are many connections between Italy and France, for example, in this topic. 


Do you think it is a very hot topic at the moment with islands studies in France? Are there any geopolitical issues or concerns whether it's in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea or the English Channel? Any of the French islands?


Yes, I think so, because in fact there is a different topic because islands, they reflect change in the world, but in a model, on a small scale, but you have many global changes at stake. There are geopolitical issues. It's clearly one of the main issues, especially it is not only the island itself, but the surrounding waters, and there are a lot of issues with extensions. And you know, of the boundaries, thanks to the continental shelf, there are some sovereignty issues; the Scattered Islands, they're claimed by Madagascar, Mauritius for Tromelin IslandComoros Islands, and there is the issue of the Indo–Pacific, also with China, US and the French dependencies. So it has been a very topical issue concerning Pacific, even the geo-strategic dimension, you know, with China, Australia and US and the others. So, there is an issue of decolonization with New Caledonia, which is a long and very difficult process. And there are also other issues, of course, environmental issues, that are quite interesting because, of course, there is global warming, the climate change, but there is also, what is quite interesting, is how do we connect with geopolitical issues? For example, France is extending conservation areas around the Scattered Islands, but it's also a way to legitimise the French sovereignty through the environmental issues. So it's quite interesting to see what is at stake, you know, if we can engage the older spectrum, environmental, geopolitical, but also social-political issues. It's given a different picture and I think that's why it's a very hot topic.


There are other topics also concerning local development, it's the issue of tourism, the issue of renewable energies like windmills and things like this on small islands. These issues also have inequalities. For example, I think it's very important for small island societies, you have the ones that are able to move from islands and to come back, and some are more like, they cannot travel because it's too expensive. So for the future of islands, in a globalised world, it's a very important issue. You have some migration issues in the Mediterranean Sea, like, for the Italian Islands, Malta and Greece, it's a border as such, so, I think it reflects many global issues within a very small space. It’s like a boat in a bottle, like this, but you can maybe study it still. I think it's very stimulating for the self, you know, and you can maybe, it's easier for the researcher to combine different aspects that otherwise would be more difficult to think together. And I think that is, so I still believe and it's maybe a belief, in the island as a laboratory, but not in the same meaning sense, as you know, the beginning of the century. It's more about social science now.


Gjógv (Eysturoy), Faroe Islands

Credit: Benoît Raoulx

Thank you, Benoît. As a concluding question, what do you think island studies scholars, like yourself and others, will be working on in the next two or three years’ time? Or what do you think they should be working on?


It's a good question I think. First, I would think that they should work on whatever they think is interesting because the idea of islands, you can study many different topics in a small space. So that I think it's more like this. As always, there are some topical issues and things, so geopolitics and you can see it, of course in the Indo–Pacific area with China, US and so on, but not only in this part, everywhere, that is an important issue. For example, the effect of Brexit in Europe is also an important issue. There is an environmental issue, of course, there is global warming but how does it connect with other issues? And I think also, as it's very important these days, are the pictures, images, all the media, as media now, mass media and so on, is a very important dimension. I mean, it's producing space as such, you know, it's no more with the simple reflection of the space, but it's part of producing, you know, the space, and the relation between society and places. So I think that this, for example, is three key issues, but there are many others. But I've seen there are many things about the idea of Anthropogenic issues, which is, of course, very important. [...] I learned that these have to be something quite free, you know, that it's like showing the diversity of the world. You can work on many different topics and it's this way of stimulating thought. We should not give a norm, you know, to what is the ‘right’ topic now.


So I think that's why many scholars are interested in island studies. It’s because it's open to other things because you go to a conference, there are others at work on other islands on different topics and its ‘Oh, yes, it's interesting, I could connect it to other things. So it's a very interdisciplinary field. Also, the kind of multi-space, multi-place field, is the most interesting thing. That's why we had the idea, but we just worked simply. It's about the initial notetaking. Its means that it's a kind of library you can work. It's like a book, an island, like a book you can take a case study, you can take another and you try to mix everything and to see ‘okay, what is interesting?’ Are there any new ideas or not coming out of this process? That's my point of view anyway, I don't know if it's very rational.


Benoît, that's absolutely fascinating. You've shared with us many insights about not only your own work but about others in France and a bit of the history of island studies in France and some of your thoughts on the importance of island studies. Well, thank you very much. We look forward to reading more about your research in the future.


Gjógv (Eysturoy), Faroe Islands

Credit: Benoît Raoulx

Useful links:

Articles in English:

DESIRING THE SHORE: Adolphe Lalyre and the Sirens of Carteret 

ISLANDNESS, INUNDATION AND RESURRECTION: A mythology of Sea/Land relationships in Mont Saint-Michel Bay 

TOPONYMY, TAXONOMY AND PLACE: Explicating the French concepts of presqu’île and péninsule 

Articles in  French: 

Le Groenland dans la politique arctique du Danemark


Les microsociété inssulaires : vers de nouveaux choix de développement?

Une réflexion comparative et théoriquue à partir de l'exemple des Îles Féroé