Reframing Gender Studies in Marine Social Science to Address Structural Inequities in Ocean Governance

11 March 2024
By Annet Pauwelussen
Blog published on Fathom

Current gender studies and queer theory literature in marine social science

For decades there have been social science studies of gender in relation to fisheries and the sea, and there is already an extensive body of literature that focuses on gender or feminist studies in marine social science. The role of women is often neglected, and gender studies in marine social science have helped make women’s roles in fisheries and seafood production and trade more visible.

A majority of these studies are rooted in development theory and sustainable livelihood studies. What these studies generally have in common is that they analyze gender as their object of study, which means that they look at gender roles, positions, and needs, and how they are unequally structured in fisheries and marine conservation programs. With that, important steps have been made towards illuminating and addressing the inequities between women and men in fisheries and other sea-related practices, industries, and livelihoods, and how these are shaped by power relations. 

However, this approach has its limitations. There is a risk that gender studies in a marine context predominantly becomes “women’s studies,” which is a limited framing of what gender studies and feminist theory is about. If we look at the long tradition of feminist and queer theory beyond the field of marine social science, we see that doing gender studies has different meanings, and is about much more than studying the different roles of women and men. 

In environmental scholarship beyond the “marine,” feminist and queer theory have shed light on deep-seated gender biases in how we conceptualize and think about the environment, how humans relate it, and what is considered “natural,” with political implications. Feminist scholars have also advocated for critical reflexivity regarding our biases, privileges, and responsibilities as researchers, writers, and policymakers in relation to the communities and worlds we study, engage with, or make policies for. If gender is merely framed as the “object” of study, we risk leaving out critical examination of deeper questions about how dominant systems of thinking, governing, and researching human-environment relations are gendered and how they intersect with colonial and racist structures. And yet, we really need to examine these questions to tackle structured gender inequities in marine science and policy.

Reframing theory to include marginalized narratives

Beyond thinking about gender as the “object” of analysis, feminist or queer theory can be used as a springboard to highlight gendered biases and power relations in how we think and conceptualize the world. Feminist and queer theory have addressed how our ontological and epistemological traditions – how we understand the world, what is deemed good science, and appropriate methodology – are gendered. Such an approach may, for example, show how discourses around deep sea mining are rooted in a masculine, Western tradition of thinking about the sea as an exploitable resource. It may also show how modern thinking has long associated the ocean and its waves with a feminine force to be tamed and managed by rational, scientific discipline. Once you realize this, it becomes possible to explore other ways of thinking and conceptualizing the world. For example, there is a growing interest in reimagining and reorganizing human-environment interactions along feminist and Indigenous notions of care, kinship, and reciprocity.

Moreover, feminist and queer theory in environmental science and humanities have questioned the white, Western, and masculine roots of dominant scientific knowledge traditions, which tends to frame the world through dualist categories (like nature/culture, male/female, mind/body). The problem is not that it is a Western construct or invention, but that it can obscure the fluid and plural reality in which people live, think, and shape their lives in relation to others, and even discredit the various lay, indigenous or BIPOC ways of knowing the world as relational, poetic and entangled.

Feminist and queer theory offer the opportunity to think about the relations that undo the binaries used to understand how we think and order the world, opening up space to (1) see the spectrum of gender identities, experiences, and bodies related to the sea, (2) seriously consider emotion and embodiment as valid and vital to marine environmental knowledge, and (3) understand the marine environment as more than just a resource or background of human action. We can learn from feminist, queer, Black, and Indigenous scholarship the ways in which we can include the ocean and its many agencies and beings such as fish, corals and octopus spirits as actively part of and entangled with social life. 

We must also more structurally reflect on the power, privilege, and biases present in how we do research and make policy. This involves awareness of our own positionality in doing marine science, but also taking into account which voices and narratives we foreground in our work, and which voices remain in the background. For example, we must think about which authors or studies tend to become part of the often-cited key works, and which authors or studies are lesser known. White male scholars from privileged institutes with English as first language may be cited more often than female scholars of color, those from an Indigenous background, or those from institutes in the Global South, even if the latter groups have published similar works or have a unique perspective to contribute. It takes acknowledging such biases and making active interventions in order to foreground a more diverse scholarship and include other voices and narratives into the field of marine social science. It also means putting care and responsibility at the center of doing marine research in non-exploitative ways. 

The importance of incorporating intersectionality and equity into marine social science

The equity implications include what has been left out or marginalized, and this can be seen in how projects of gender equity and female empowerment take shape. A majority of gender equity programs in marine science are about the analysis and inclusion of the roles and voices of women (for example, in fisheries or conservation planning). However, it might not engage deeply enough with the structural issues of inequity at play, and the need to also address and unsettle the colonial, racial and capitalist logics in which marine science outreach and development projects are often still entrenched.

By using a feminist theory perspective, we can determine that it is important to make the assumptions and biases regarding what it actually means to be an “empowered woman” explicit. For instance, Western, liberal values of empowerment might be more related to individual decision-making power or the ability to speak up in public fora. But, at the same time, this may disempower women and local communities if these ideals do not reflect their situational practices or needs.

Feminist and queer theory can contribute to making structural inequities more explicit, and help imagine and build alternative, more equitable ways of engaging with the sea and sea-dependent communities. It is crucial to further develop intersectional awareness of gender and feminist critique in relation to other political and emancipatory critiques (for example, those related to anti-racism and decolonization).  

However, in gender studies in marine social science there is still limited engagement with power imbalances beyond gender. One reason for this may be that they often focus on conservation and fisheries projects at the local or community scale as the site for gender or community empowerment. Gender can then easily be taken as the primary axis of power because broader political economic relations, like corruption, capitalist extraction, colonialism, or racist governance structures, are less easily identified at that scale. Yet, these may very well condition and reproduce the inequities at the local scale and may be overlooked or disregarded by policymakers and researchers. For transformative change towards more equitable ocean governance to be possible, an intersectional analysis is therefore essential. 

News Item:

Een boycot op vis gaat de oceaan niet redden

Dutch News paper article in response to Seaspiracy, Also published as Wageningen news blog

News item:

FNP joins Ocean Nexus Center in studying social equity in marine nature restoration

News Item:

How to include smallholders in sustainable shrimp farming in Vietnam?

Newsflash from the horizon 2020 EURASTiP Project

Video: roundtable FAO/Duke small-scale fisheries

Interdisciplinary workshop Small-Scale Fisheries
May 2018 workshop at the University of Washington organized by the Nereus Program. An interdisciplinary team assembled in Seattle to advise the FAO on their ‘Hidden Harvest’ study for the global assessment of the importance of small-scale fisheries. One advice was the need attend to the structural inequities in small-scale fisheries as well as the non-monetary values that make small-scale fisheries matter for wellbeing, issues that are not well reflected in quantitative analysis. Our aadvice to add thematic case studies and social science literature review to the original relience on quantitative assessment of national fisheries datasets was taken up for the FAO Hidden Harvest study.

Video of the the workshop and roundtable:

Interview for NOS:

The teacher is a jerk’: trouble with student evaluations in university teaching
Interview for the Dutch Public News Organisation on student evaluation in university education:
‘Docent is eikel’: Universiteiten klaar met snoeiharde studentenkritiek, NOS 2018

Interview for RESOURCE magazine:

Cyanide fishing is a way of life
Interview for the Wageningen University Magazine
Cyanidevisserij is een manier van leven” Resource 11 April 2017, edition 17.

Interview for Nederlands Dagblad:

The sea is also a home for humans
“Zee ook een thuis van de mens”, Nederlands Dagblad 1 April 2017, p 17.