A Sea Change in Epistemology

In recent decades, each of these barriers to human geographic research on the ocean has been challenged by broad reaching shifts in social thought. Turning first to the barrier of state centrism, since the 1970s the rise of globalization studies has led to the emergence of a number of perspectives that challenge the prevailing view of the world as a set of states that interact with each other. Instead, the world increasingly is being conceived of as one integrated (albeit differentiated) social system. This shift is significant for the ocean, because if, for example, one thinks of the world as consisting of 190 odd state societies, then the 71% of the planet’s surface that is not in any of those 190 state societies is, by implication, beyond society. If, on the other hand, one thinks of the world as consisting of one society, with many constituent varieties of spaces, then it would be logical to include the ocean as one of those spaces of society. Hence, the ocean shifts from being conceived of as an external space between the world’s societies to being conceived of as an integral space of society.

Similarly, the prevailing notion of society as the actions of people in place has been challenged by a range of perspectives associated with post structuralism, post colonialism, and transnationalism. These perspectives all attempt to destabilize the concept of essential, placebased identity, instead directing attention to hybrid formations that emerge through interaction and movement. Border areas, including spaces of movement like the ocean, which formerly had been viewed as in between spaces that were not worthy of attention, are now recast as the spaces wherein social processes and identities are constructed (and are continually reconstructed), and they increasingly are foregrounded in social analysis.

Third, a growing number of human geographers have been interrogating the concept of nature. These geographers range from those who argue that nature is socially constructed to those who deny that there is any basis for making an ontological distinction between the social (or human) and the natural (or nonhuman). Once one subjects nature to a critique along these lines, it becomes impossible to dismiss the ocean as a space of nature that is beyond the concern of human geographers.