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Welcome to the Marine Social Science Research Group website

The Marine Social Science Research Group (MSSRG) is based in Environmental Planning, Queen’s University Belfast, and is led Dr. Wesley Flannery. Our group engages with a range of social science perspectives to research contemporary marine issues and to inform marine governance and policy. The MSSRG is engaged in a number of national and international projects, including projects on marine spatial planning; blue growth; cultural heritage; conservation; social acceptance of marine renewable energy; and port and coastal transitions. PhD researchers are core to the theoretically-informed, practically-focused approach we adopt to marine social science research. Our PhD researchers have conducted innovative research on a wide range of topics, including: marine citizen science; coastal conflict; the transition to a low carbon economy; social acceptance of renewable energy; just coastal transitions and environmental social justice. Please explore our website to learn more about our researchers, projects, publications and research outputs, and how to get in contact with us.



Our group engages with a range of perspectives across the social sciences to understand and inform marine conservation in diverse settings. In particular, we are interested in examining topics such as Marine Spatial Planning, the transition to a low-carbon economy, the participatory research practice of citizen science and public perceptions of the coast. We use multi-sited fieldwork in dispersed political and geographical spaces to critically explore these topics. Below is a list of our key research interests, illustrating the depth of the research we conduct.

Marine Spatial Planning
Marine spatial planning (MSP) has become the most adopted approach for sustainable marine governance. While MSP has transformative capacity, evaluations of its implementation illustrate large gaps between how it is conceptualised and how it is practiced. While MSP is framed as an integrated, forward-looking, and participatory approach to marine management and has been promoted as a rational means of achieving various objectives, our research has demonstrated how MSP has not achieved its promise. Driving forces of neoliberal logic, the rationalisation of scientific knowledge and post-political governance arrangements have led to problematic and unfulfilling MSP initiatives. In turn, we are keen to explore alternate avenues for realising its transformative potential and interpret MSP not so much for what it is, but for what it could be. Look through our publications to learn more about how we are examining MSP.

Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are one of the tools that can help to protect the marine environment, whilst also enabling its sustainable use, ensuring it remains healthy and contributes to our society for generations to come. For MSP to adequately integrate sustainability and exploitation in a holistic manner, it is vital that tools are created to help align MSP and MPA designation processes. Currently, however, research indicates that there are significant problems in the regard, particularly in relation to transboundary coordination and connectivity. Our work on the MarinePlan project is focused on developing a Decision Support System (DSS) for ecosystem-based maritime spatial planning (EB-MSP) together with best practice guidance to enhance the design and effectiveness of spatial conservation. The DSS will be founded on a conceptual EB-MSP implementation process and will provide the tools and best available knowledge to ensure the allocation of coherent MPAs and restoration areas in the context of EB-MSP.

Integrated Coastal Zone Management
A key theme of marine management is the concept of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). Similar to MSP, ICZM has become a highly adopted approach for sustainable marine governance for many coastal nations. ICZM is understood as a resource management system following an integrative, holistic approach and an interactive planning process in addressing the complex management issues in the coastal area. However, our research is critical about the implementation of ICZM in some contexts. Current processes appear to be ineffective for addressing some of the very problems they were established to address, such as conflicting objectives and power imbalances. Using transition management theory, our research has explored how these persistent problems can be overcome and how transformative governance can be realised.

Stakeholder participation in decision-making

For regimes of marine governance to deliver sustainable management plans, it is crucial that stakeholders are able to legitimately participate in decision-making procedures. There is growing concern, however, that current governance initiatives are not facilitating a shift toward publicly engaged management. Instead, research has suggested that approaches such as MSP may simply be repackaging power dynamics in the rhetoric of participation to legitimise the agendas of dominant actors. Thus, raising questions about the legitimacy and inclusivity of participatory governance initiatives. Our research argues that, to be effective, participatory MSP practice must develop mechanisms that recognise the complexity of socio-spatial relationships in the marine environment; facilitate participation in meaningful spatial decision-making, rather than in post-ideological, objective-setting processes; and create space for debate about the very purpose of MSP processes. Read through the profile of MSSRG alumni Maria Pafi, as well as the CLIP Project page, to learn more about how we have been researching stakeholder engagement. 

Public perceptions of the environment
An increasingly important research theme of our research group is the public perception on the management of coastal landscapes and seascapes. The coast and the sea are an integral part of the maritime heritage and livelihood of the coastal communities. At the same time, they are important assets for other sectors of the economy, such as coastal tourism, renewable energy and aquaculture. This has an impact on the coastal landscapes and seascapes and can sometimes create conflicts among different users, which require planning solutions to be managed sustainably. Many nations have adopted policies that will lead to the growth of maritime economy, often referred to as ‘Blue Growth’, which has been successful in terms of increasing revenue and international recognition, but has brought intensive and unsustainable tourism. Our research is interested in understanding how local communities and tourists experience and value the landscapes, with a particular focus on the west coast of Ireland, within this context of increasing changes and pressures.

Citizen science and participatory research
A key focus of much of our research is to explore innovative solutions to the challenges which marine governance regimes face. Citizen science, an increasingly recognised form of participatory research, is one solution which we find great interest in. While participatory research has existed in one way or another for centuries, citizen science is a relatively new approach to engaging members of the public with environmental research. Advanced as a transformative practice, research has positioned citizen science as a means of democratising governance regimes and allowing local knowledge to influence management decisions. While we see significant potential in citizen science, there is evidence that it is failing to legitimately instigate change to the manner in which citizens can shape governance regimes. As such, our research on the practice emphasises the need to foster more critically conscious, power-aware forms of citizen science. Check out some of our recently published papers exploring citizen science on our publications page.

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy
The need to transition toward more sustainable environmental management is crucial, with the establishment of low-carbon economies central to this. Recent decades have seen the impacts of non-renewable energy use become significantly more prevalent and calls have been made for immediate government action to move away from reliance upon fossil fuels. MSP, along with other marine governance initiatives, has been advanced as a means of facilitating such transitions. However, despite commitments made by many coastal nations that innovate management approaches will instigate change in their usage of non-renewable energy sources, there remains a significant focus upon oil and gas extraction. Our research examines how this illusion of progressiveness is conducted by governments and what it means in the battle against climate change. While we argue that there are significant paradigm changes which must be operationalised, we do not feel that current challenges are unresolvable. Indeed, much of our work explores radical approaches which can create new solutions. Check out the profile of MSSRG alumni Jane Clarke to learn more about our research on the transition to a low-carbon economy.

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