Social Science to the Rescue

The cultural driver of shark killing - from

Can social science save the sharks? A recent article in Progress in Oceanography by Peter Jacques seems to think so, calling for a “social oceanography”. In other circles, this could be known as the human dimensions of a marine ecosystem or the social side of a socioecological system. Either way, the field exists already.  However, it’s small and generally not recognized outside of purely academic circles. It may be time for us to step outside of our comfort zone.

Anthropological studies have been extensively carried out in fishing communities to the point that some consider fishers an overstudied population. Such studies have not been completed in the shark fishery, likely for a number of reasons. Jacques pointed out through their literature review that sharks are far less likely to be studied than other commercial species, such as tuna (there are 50% more articles on tuna despite having an order of magnitude less species). In addition, “there is and has never been any shark-centered international binding agreement, protocol, amendment, treaty or convention”. That makes analysis of the international policy failures rather difficult. Sharks generally need more research in every discipline if we’re going to save them.

There's definitely a need for international shark governance, thanks

The authors did a fairly standard content analysis of international conservation discourse and agreements, discovering that sharks were very rarely discussed, if at all. This, they hypothesize, leaves them drastically unprotected for their population status.

Gaining research access for a worthy social scientific exploration of sharks also may prove difficult, as good data relies on cooperation from the fishers, consumers, biologists, and policymakers that make up the pool of research subjects. Such cooperation would be difficult as there is a growing stigma about eating shark fins and definitely a hesitancy to share the gory details about how the sharks are caught and processed. One could expect lots of fabricated stories.

That being said, the task is not impossible. The authors argue for a “social oceanography”, not just a study of the human dimensions of shark ecosystems. Though the notion that adding a social component to oceanography may seem as easy as inviting one more researcher to the table, the proposal is a bit naïve in thinking that there could be just one key person that needs including. The social sciences span many disciplines with distinct cultures, perspectives, and utility in analyzing marine ecosystems. From anthropology to geography to sociology, each should be included, but to what degree are we really willing to support a whole new research team?

Jacques said it himself, defining his social oceanography as “an eclectic discursive space…to iterate multiple social science approaches” and warns “such a project is not one that simply plugs in social science to biological models”.

Does all wilderness look like this? Thanks

Drastic changes in funding and even the philosophy of ‘wilderness’ would have to take place before a true ‘social oceanography’ could emerge. The idea that saving sharks is a matter of understanding their life history and protecting the most vulnerable stages from human activity just begins to scratch the surface of the complex system that needs to be analyzed and understood before effective interventions can be implemented. The fundamental underpinning that sharks can never be placed in a world free of human influence needs to made explicit before further research of any kind can truly be useful to conservation.

That being said, there’s a growing community of conservation social sciences found in departments ranging from sociology to natural resources. Will we help study sharks? Absolutely. Someone just has to help us find funding. And as Jacques uncovered, that might be the bigger challenge.

~Bluegrass Blue Crab

Jacques, P. (2010). The social oceanography of top oceanic predators and the decline of sharks: a call for a new field Progress In Oceanography DOI: 10.1016/j.pocean.2010.04.001


  1. peter Jacques · May 28, 2010

    Hi Amy,
    well thanks for being the first to react to the paper in public. I appreciate the fact that it was pulled out of so many available for your comment. I normally and strictly avoid responding to blogs (for example when our paper on “the organizing denial: the link between conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism” came out I never responded to what was said about it in the blogs even when it was positive). But, you are an apparent social scientist, so maybe we can have a real discussion here.

    I am concerned that you have really misunderstood the paper, or at least presented it as a simplistic and naive work; I am not convinced you have really engaged the material.

    For example, I wonder why the more important social science was ignored (issues of paradigms, political economic priorities and political privileging, the order in which human decisions to fish sharks, the difference between attention, science, and institutionalized science; the way we have ignored a host of very serious ecological concerns in world fishery management, the potential ways our values work with institutions, etc…).

    I also see that you rightly characterize the content analysis as “standard” in that it is a standard social science method, but no-one has done what we have done, so in that way it was new and I think the connotation in your post is that what the article did was somehow a yawn. Yet, it was pretty shocking to a conference on top ocean predators. This attitude of dismissal confuses me.

    As a social scientist in training, it also is strange to hear the way you have oversimplified a number of discussions in the paper. For example, I provide a number of serious problems to inter-disciplinarity which include epistemology and disciplinary politics, all of which only get reflected in funding later. I never imply that we can add on appendages of sociologists, etc…., in fact I argue specifically against this (why did this get seriously misunderstood?).

    And, yes there is a group of people doing human dimensions work, but they are organized more under just that, “human dimensions” not specific to oceans. I think you are right in that the energy and work already exists, but you are wrong in that it is not organized into a field.

    I would be surprised, for example, if you could find more than 5 or 10 people teaching a course entitled “human dimensions of marine systems” around the world (I could be wrong, but I would be surprised). Even if I am wrong on that count though– where are our journals specific to socio-marine systems [and I don’t mean the fragments in marine policy and marine anthro etc…], our regular conferences, and our textbooks? They don’t exist, and I think we need an epistemological space to start this work.

    My criticisms aside, I am grateful for the notice since it is the usual role for most of us to work in obscurity.


    Peter J. Jacques
    University of Central Florida

    • Southern Fried Scientist · May 28, 2010

      Hi Peter,

      Amy is currently at sea, but I hope you will check back in a few weeks when she returns.

  2. peter Jacques · May 28, 2010

    Sorry– I also forgot to ask you about your title to the post itself, and your claim that I say social science can save the sharks–

    My concluding sentence actually says, “Social oceanography will not save the sharks, but it may provide us with enough insight and humility to allow for broader evolutionary possibilities in social systems as
    we interact with the marine world, and this possibility is evermore at stake amidst the historical changes now occurring in the World Ocean.”

    I will however claim, that we will not be able to save the sharks without social science.

    hope this makes sense,

  3. Bluegrass Blue Crab · June 2, 2010

    First, I would like to emphasize that I wasn’t being critical of your article at all. In fact, I champion your efforts to reach out to the shark conservation community and broaden their research horizons.

    However, you’ve hit upon an area of sensitivity among social scientists. First, it is considered disrespectful by many social scientists that people outside the discipline use their methodologies without proper training and grounding in the accompanying literature. In addition, the call for more social science in conservation has been echoed time and time again since 1969, when Eugene Odum first advocated including humans in systems ecology. In the marine realm, the concept you’ve called social oceanography was specifically called for by Jane Lubchenco in a 1998 Science paper as critical to future conservation efforts. The issue may not be an awareness of the need for social science but instead a willingness to provide salary support for such people in conservation efforts.

    Finally, I have two comments about why there’s no journals specifically related to social marine systems. There’s a prevailing philosophy among the environmental social sciences of environmental based management and analysis. This is most clearly reflected in studies of island nations in the Pacific with their mountains to sea conservation philosophies. It includes your social oceanography as well as land-sea interactions that are so critical to human-environment linkages. Also, the problems you’ve correctly identified about questions of research agenda and support – what gets paid attention to and in this case, why sharks have been left out, is all part of political ecology and social studies of science, fields in which there are a number of prominent journals. The issues are ones of power and environmental decision making and are far from unique to the marine ecosystem. In fact, much of the literature on similar issues in terrestrial systems could likely be applied in helpful and practical ways to marine challenges. Personally, I like that level of interaction rather than restricting the discussions to just the marine world.

  4. Gustavo · October 24, 2011

    Peter, gostaria de seus contatos para trocar figurinhas, publicações etc. Sou oceanógrafo e tenho avançado na construção de uma oceanografia humana no Brasil. Penso que temos muito o que conversar.

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