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Marine social sciences for the ocean we want

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By Raimund Bleischwitz

· 11 min read

Life-supporting services provided by the ocean are increasingly recognised: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms the ocean’s uptake of 25-30% of all greenhouse gases and its role as an essential sink of the overwhelming majority of greenhouse-effect heat. The ocean also constitutes over 90 per cent of the habitable space on the planet and contains some 250,000 known species, with an estimated number of 500,000 yet unidentified marine species.

The ocean provides livelihoods for over 3bn people worldwide and is the principal source of protein for an equal number of people. In socio-economic terms, the ‘blue economy’[1] of ocean-related activities worth $2 trillion of value added makes up for the 8th largest economy in the world. Learning to shape human behaviour and relationship with the sea towards sustainability could become a new role for marine sciences. Against the background of an emerging debate (see references below), this contribution aims to push further and strengthen the recognition and integration of the marine social sciences and thus transformative research in general.

A key focus is the ocean-climate nexus: one cannot meet the target of keeping global warming below 1.5º C without managing the blue carbon wealth of nations in a more sustainable manner. More than perhaps ever before, the Ocean is intertwined with global environmental changes affecting humankind. There is need to accelerate action at all possible levels. The UN Ocean Decade offers a splendid opportunity to go beyond the pivotal role of SDG 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development – for the accomplishment of the SDG agenda as a whole, including food security and poverty eradication.

Yet, the role of the social sciences urgently needs to be revamped and upgraded: an ‘Ocean we need for the future we want’ will require fresh thoughts on solutions with large-scale pro-social and pro-environmental behavioural changes and upscaling them at international levels. In line with the recent IPCC report WG 3 findings about various cost-effective solutions and prospects of possibly limiting global warming to 2ºC, we pledge for strong social science capabilities and capacities on better understanding people’s motivations, deep institutional changes and international solidarity. This necessitates a strong involvement from all sub-disciplines, be it economics, politics, law, sociology, anthropology and others. We also call for leadership of the social sciences in interdisciplinary research on integrated assessments, risk analyses, and – indeed – on enabling societal transformations. We propose key issues where we see a huge need and potential for growth in the field of marine social sciences:

  1. Governing coastal resources and the open sea: UNEP’s IRP report provides an agenda about governance challenges and failures in ungoverned pathways (e.g. coastal sand extraction), the current monitoring divide between land and sea, and the dysfunctionality of jurisdictional boundaries and open access. All those governance challenges are inherently multi-level, ranging from people on the ground to regional and national policies and planning, agendas of individual nations on the high seas, and efforts of international organisations and global governance. Governance research also requires issue-linking combining the marine dimension with climate strategies, biodiversity, and development perspectives. The notion of a ‘common heritage of mankind’ is a useful frame for principles on responsibility and accountability in future marine spatial planning, and for needed capacity developments. It needs to be managed such that sea ownership by coastal communities is enabled and local co-benefits can be claimed, in line with accountability of political and industrial actors and appropriate institutions.
    Methods of participatory planning, SEA, the science/policy interface, and on collective action ought to be aligned with a next generation of global governance research and deep transitions. An evidence base beyond the existing data needs to be developed and maintained.
  2. Cross-scale comparative assessments for leveraging social values and norms, upscaling, and transformation: Over the last decades, pro-environmental solutions were expected from technology and business investments. Equally relevant for SDG delivery (and the UN Ocean Decade) are collective action, policy-based innovations, and interventions grounded, for example, in social psychology and behavioural sciences to shape positive action for the future, social norms, and to spark large-scale behavioural change. Transformational change is needed in institutions, governments, markets, and communities, and across scales. Capabilities of coastal communities to address highly dynamic environments need special attention. A next frontier is a multi-criteria method for comparative assessments of local and regional cases across the globe with a view to network and possibly upscale solutions. Research on pathways to empower women and vulnerable groups will need strengthening (see e.g. Ammachi Labsin India, BRAC in Bangladesh). Breaking the dichotomy of top-down and bottom-up drivers of change, the marine social sciences must explore the dynamic interplay and potential synergies across scales. Tipping points need to be investigated to lead small-scale solutions to large-scale adoption, and the supporting role of nested governance to facilitate community-based solutions.
  3. Rebalancing power and establishing partnerships: Equitable research guided by diverse research traditions and epistemic backgrounds is needed to face the challenges of the Ocean Decade. As stated in Cape Town, this requires international partnerships in equivalence – with strong voices for tropical communities and vulnerable groups, small island states, least-developed countries. Those voices need to be empowered with skill training and enabling policies to join new stakeholder alliances with actors from like-minded businesses, emerging economies, and international organisations. Together and supported by better policies, these alliances could create social purposes and missions to deliver and contribute to the broader debate about prosperity indicators beyond GDP, for example through national accounting for the ocean economy as a platform for strategic directions.

Altogether, this will require awareness by all researchers of positionality and privilege, and continuous effort to create agile new ways to research that develop new spaces of common and flat-hierarchy collaboration. In addition, rigorous novel methods must be developed for assessing and ensuring co-benefits – both for the environment and the coastal communities – within multi-level contexts of local livelihood surroundings, national legislations, and international norms. Potential cases for solutions and partnerships include the large-scale restoration of coral reefs, reforestation of mangroves, sustainable marine aquaculture, sustainable tourism, and renewable marine energy, potentially with a strong role for the EU. Some features of those cases will be unique, and others transferable as ‘lessons learned’ towards desirable pathways and accelerating transformations. Key norms are equity, pluralism, inclusion, and diversity in research in order to address just transitions.

  1. Risks and opportunities: There are already numerous risk assessments about ocean warming, acidification, marine litter and plastics pollution, over 700 classified ‘dead zones’ with losses in biodiversity and fishery productivity (UNEP’s GEO6, 2nd World Ocean Assessment). These require systematic socio-economic impact assessments with repercussions on, for example, livelihoods, hunger, poverty, equity, social upheaval, and security. Such devastating trends need to be compared with the manifold opportunities provided by blue economy activities in aquaculture and novel food, sustainable tourism, marine renewable energies, transformations of shipping towards decarbonisation, etc., estimated to double in value over the next few years. Social sciences have a role to play in developing possible future socio-economic trajectories under various governance and policy regimes. Marine social sciences can credibly assert leading roles within assessments, and pay attention to unwanted side effects of strategies that could otherwise lead to e.g. ‘carbon colonialism’ and ‘conservation colonialism’ by industrial offsetting measures that could side-line local people, or favour siloed solutions based on limited indicators and influential stakeholder perspectives. Methods of cost-benefit analysis need to be extended towards risk-opportunity analyses in order to account for non-market values, potential cumulative gains, and livelihood implications. In line, methods of impact assessments and green and just transitions will also need to be revisited and upgraded; a promising direction may address a normative equity-focused shape of a sustainable Blue Economy.
  2. Qualitative and quantitative computerised (big) data analysis and modelling will play a crucial role for Ocean governance and will also change the marine social sciences. Such analysis enables deeper understanding of human behaviour and potential of behavioural change. Marine social science data regularly collected needs revision and large expansion to close the existing data gap between the social and social-ecological sciences, and the natural sciences.

Computer-based tools integrating reliable social and ecological data can provide options for cross-scale governance, and these can address social values as ‘deep leverage points’ on the way to changing environmentally relevant practices. As far as economics is concerned, blue economy data need revisions and a better evidence base with modelling efforts. Such well-integrated data will help for the modelling of scenarios leading to better decision support on any governance level. Marine social sciences shall undertake efforts of looking forward with methods of imagination, narratives, back-casting, foresight, dynamic time series analyses, web-based co-creation tools, and a range of scenarios (such as the SSPs). They will engage in inter - and transdisciplinary, participatory and system modelling efforts to study lessons from local non-linear, socio-economic and environmental impacts of such transformative scenarios, thereby anticipating future shocks and risks.

The various marine social sciences help to diversify the conventional scientific perspective on the oceans. We expect the marine social sciences and humanities to become a driver for understanding real life changes via analysing diverse viewpoints and helping to align interests in a forward-looking perspective - for the delivery of SDG 14 and the SDG agenda as a whole. We anticipate a new age of demand for skills in marine social science, both within higher education and continuous professional development. We sincerely hope these revamped efforts will increasingly enable interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges and vitalize collective action for the Ocean.


This essay has been emerging out of an online workshop conducted at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical marine Research (ZMT) on Oct 4th 2022, with inputs from excellent colleagues:

Raimund Bleischwitz, Achim Schlueter, Marie Fujitani, Annette Breckwoldt, Michael Kriegl, Michelle Portman, Maraja Riechers, Susanne Stoll Klemmann, Tanja Bogusz, Marion Glaser, Emma McKinley, Arno Pascht, Hug Govan, Kathleen Schwerdtner, Edvard Hviding, Andrea Muehlebach, Sebastian Villasante, Elodie Fache, Vanessa Hatje, Priscilla Lopes, Eva Anggraini, Marie-Catherine Riekhof, Hugh Govan, Mirta Teichberg, Tamatoa Bambridge, Maxim Colin, Fiona McCormack, Jörn Schmidt, Maarten Bavinck. Thanks to all involved!

Further comments are invited using the email address

We also gratefully acknowledge a discussion with ZMT’s International Scientific Advisory Board on 25 May 2022 and earlier efforts on the topic, e.g.: Bavinck, M., Verrips, J. Manifesto for the marine social sciences. Maritime Studies 19, 121–123 (2020). ; McKinley, E., Acott, T. and Yates, K. L. Marine social sciences: looking towards a sustainable future. Environmental Science and Policy 108 , 85-92 (2020); McKinley, E., et al. Development and expansion in the marine social sciences: Insights from the global community. iScience 25(8): 104735 (2022); Partelow, S., Hornidge, A.-K., Senff, P., Stäbler, M., Schlüter, A. Tropical marine sciences: Knowledge production in a web of path dependencies. PLOS One 15(2): e0228613 (2020); Breckwoldt, A., Lopes, P., Selim, S. Look who‘s asking: Reflections on participatory and transdisciplinary marine research approaches. Frontiers in Marine Sciences. 8: 627502 (2021).

[1] Noting ambiguous terminology we suggest to use the definition provided by UNEP’s International Resource Panel (2021): A Blue Economy is an ocean-based economy that provides equitably distributed social and economic benefits for current and future generations, while restoring and protecting the intrinsic value and functionality of coastal and marine ecosystems and is based on clean technologies and circular material flows.

This article is also published in Springer Nature. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Raimund Bleischwitz is Scientific Director of the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT). He has been Chair in Sustainable Global Resources at University College London (UCL) and Director of the UCL Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (UCL BSEER).

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