Meet the humans behind the human dimension

Three of the experts involved in the Strategic Initiative on the Human Dimension (SIHD) talk about defining the concept of the 'human dimension', its importance, and what they bring to the table.
Published: 5 July 2016

​​​​​​​​​​​So called because of the integration of social and economic sciences into ICES work, the human dimension is an important strategic area, featuring ​as a focus of the recent MSEAS 2016 symposium​ at the end of May in Brest, France. ​Here, ecological economist Jasper Kenter, social scientist Marloes Kraan, and ecologist and conservation biologist Phil Levin discuss the work and their involvement in it.

Dr Jasper Kenter SAMS.jpg

Dr Jasper Kenter, principal investigator in ecological economics at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)​, and leader of SAMS' social science group.

In your own words, how would you explain what the ‘human dimension’ is? And why is it important?

I think there are at least three key aspects that comprise the human dimension of understanding and managing the marine environment. These include drivers of change, impacts on human wellbeing, and governance aspects, including participation in decision making.

Human drivers of change can be technological, political, demographic, sociocultural as well as anthropogenic and environmental. It’s important to consider that these drivers interact: what technologies we develop, what policies we implement, where we want to live, etc – they all depend on our cultural values. They also change as a result of other economic changes such as economic globalization and technological changes (such as changes in connectedness of remote communities). They also interact in terms of environmental change (for example changes in fisheries policy may mitigate some of the climate change impacts), which then impacts on human communities, for example the social and economic sustainability of fishing ports.

Impacts on human well-being are increasingly important in environmental management across the board, it is not just about conservation, managing stocks, or maximising sustainable yield. It is about understanding how those drivers of change, including human activities and policies, affect human well-being in a multidimensional way, directly and indirectly through changes in the environment. Ecosystem services are a useful lens​ through which we can consider this. Any driver may affect multiple provisioning, regulating and cultural services through changes in ecosystem processes and structure. This will advantage some, and disadvantage other stakeholders, there may be synergies and trade-offs.

But it is important to not just consider this through economic language, because many things are not amenable to the language and arithmetic of trade-offs, such as rights and identities. From a democratic perspective, it is important these plural values are brought into a space for debate and deliberation and that we don’t solely rely on technical tools such as bioeconomic modelling or cost-benefit analysis. So these multifaceted human dimension aspects become particularly important in complex and contested contexts, where evidence is often incomplete and uncertain and thus more easily challenged.

This highlights the importance of participation in environmental management, policy-making, and governance. This is also important when we consider the competing claims for environmental space between different sectors and interests. Historically the sea was an open access resource, but this has led to a tragedy of the commons​ in many cases and we need to clarify and restrict access rights to (1) ensure both conservation of biodiversity and sustained benefits to human society and (2) manage conflicts between interests practically through e.g. marine spatial planning.

What is your connection to the initiative? And what expertise do you add to the picture? 

I am nominally an ecological economist. Ecological economics is different from environmental economics in that we are more explicit about biophysical aspects and limits (e.g. recognising that perpetual GDP growth is not feasible or desirable, the need to measure societal progress differently, and that natural capital cannot always be substituted by human capital), about institutional aspects (e.g. questions around power), about equity, and about plural values (i.e. that different dimensions of value can't all be made commensurable in a single monetary indicator). My work is mostly around on valuing ecosystem services within this context, particularly focusing on the use of participatory approaches, the integration of monetary and non-monetary ways of expressing values, and on shared and cultural values of ecosystems, and cultural ecosystem services. I also apply my expertise of deliberative and participatory methods for transdisciplinary research to bring together decision makers, stakeholders and experts to help evaluate policy and management options. 

Could you explain how in reality scientists go about bringing together social and natural sciences together? What are the main needs, hurdles, and areas of interest? 

We need to distinguish here between multi, inter, and transdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity is where researchers from different disciplines work in parallel or sequentially on a common challenge, but within their own disciplinary frameworks. Interdisciplinarity goes beyond this, where there are common understandings developed that synthesise insights from different disciplines. Transdisciplinarity adds to interdisciplinarity by also involving stakeholders, particularly decision-makers, in the design and execution of researcher, so they are not just end users but also co-producers of knowledge. This can be a powerful approach for enhancing the uptake of knowledge.

This can be rewarding but also it can be challenging for researchers, as they really have to get their hands dirty and it is more explicit that even though they are experts, their expert knowledge is still subjective because it looks at a complex social-ecological system through a particular lens. This may mean that any 'fact' can be challenged, particularly when we are talking about modelling and forecasting. Some call this a postnormal perspective, or postnormal science. Another hurdle to trans- and interdisciplinarity is that different disciplines come from different epistemological perspectives, different ways of evaluating what constitutes legitimate knowledge. I think younger researchers are more used to being epistemologically a bit more open than older generations.​​


Marloes Kraan, social scientist at IMARES Wageningen University​

​In your own words, how would you explain what the 'human dimension' is? And why is it important?​ 

The 'human dimension' is in fact quite a strange concept when you come from a social science background, as it is central to all of our science. Thus using the concept in fact is a signal of natural science dominance. There are two messages related to the concept that I would like to signal: One: furthering what I said above, the fact that we need to mention this so explicitly underscores the fact that it is not 'normal' to include the human dimension in our research world (which is still driven by natural scientists). We can be sad that this is the case or happy that it's changing. I belong to the latter group. Two: it is a very broad and vague concept. It both signals that we are at the start of a process of change, we want to have more of the human dimension in our regular work. And the broad concept signals that we do not know yet exactly what the options are. I hope this period will serve as a stepping stone to a time where we will always be aware of how our work fits in the broader picture of marine socio-ecological systems.

I see three layers in the human dimension concept. The first two can best be explained by building up the picture of the total marine socio-ecological system, making use of the simple analytical framework of Kooiman et al (2005): there is the governing system and the system to be governed, the system to be governed comprises of the natural system and the human system. The human dimension is directly related to the human system and the governing system. So all research related to governance aspects (governance by government, by the market, by users etc.) as well as research which deals with people and the sea, people living in coastal areas; users and uses of marine resources.

The third layer is that of the researchers themselves as human beings and as researchers working in applied science. The 'human dimension' is in fact always relevant, as our applied research is always supposed to fit in the governing system in order for it to be salient. But also as human beings – what is the human dimension there? And how does it impact our work? ​

What is your connection to the initiative? And what expertise do you add to the picture?

One of the starting points for me within ICES was being present at a meeting on integrated ecosystem assessments (IEAs) to discuss their governance dimension. Soon after that meeting the strategic initiative was set up.

I am a social scientist working at IMARES. I intend on doing at ICES what I try to do at IMARES and that is changing the system from within. A number of social science methods are very useful for many researchers: doing interviews (and generating useful data from them), organizing stakeholder meetings so that you not only send information (telling about your research) but also gather information from them (asking questions, listening), observing (at meetings, at sea), and questionnaire development. Social scientists study the behaviour of people as groups and theorize about it. As an anthropologist I am interested in understanding the behaviour of people from their perspective. In the marine world people from many different cultures - or perhaps we could even use the word 'tribe' - work together on certain problems. I am interested in getting a better understanding of these different 'tribes' as it will influence their definition of the problem and the solutions. I am able to do a bit of that work amongst fishers in the Netherlands, but it would be interesting to do more of this kind of research in NGO's, ministries and scientific institutes.

At IMARES we are able to increasingly integrate our qualitative approaches with quantitative approaches and use our theories to explain why certain things happen.

Could you explain how in reality scientists go about bringing together social and natural sciences? What are the main needs, hurdles, and areas of interest? 

Quite often we work alongside each other instead of really as a team. The latter is the ideal – and this works best if there is a common interest in the cooperation. Does working together bring something that otherwise would not have been accomplished? This of course depends on your understanding of what is needed. It is my conviction that we need to work together to answer the complex questions about the marine socio-ecological system, IEAs, mixed fisheries plans, MSY, and so on – they all breathe out the word integration. Such teams require people who are able to look further then their own shadow, people who are interested in understanding the other person's methodology, theories, working worlds. I think it is good to mention that there is an element of power here. If we want to have more integrated approaches, more inclusion of the human dimension, it also means we will have to do a bit less of the 'pure natural science stuff'. I mean the budgets for research are not likely to increase. We have to make choices.

Is it possible to offer a short example of an area/sector/issue that has already benefitted from consideration of the human dimension or from increased interdisciplinary/integrated research? 

I think the GAP2​ project is a good example, as it aimed to cross the boundaries between sciences (working as teams), between the working worlds of fishers and those of science, and between science and policy whilst also collaborating with NGO's. Effort is needed on all these fronts. The toolbox that was developed in GAP2 can form a great start for many other scientists seeking to use methods that help integrating different sources of information. I think in fisheries research, especially in the cooperative research work, it is becoming more and more logical to work in a more integrated way. The challenge I guess is in the more ecosystem-based work, IEAs – also because there are much more sectors that play a role in those than the fishing industry. I guess part of the problem is a principle one – do you see human beings and their activities as part of the ecosystem or not.


Phil Levin, senior scientist, NOAA

In your own words, how would you explain what the ‘human dimension’ is? And why is it important?

To me, the ‘human dimension’ refers to all human components of the ecosystem (that is “human dimension of the ecosystem”). This includes topics such as human well-being, values, and culture. Human well-being -  a state of being with others, where human needs are met, when individuals can act meaningfully to pursue their goals, and enjoy a satisfactory quality of life. Values - are desirable goals that serve as guiding principles in people’s lives. Culture - the shared language, knowledge, meanings, values, beliefs, norms, customs, and practices that are transmitted through social learning.  It also includes human drivers (for instance, seafood demand) and human pressures (for example fishing effort)

Why is the concept human dimension receiving such attention now, would you say?

One - there is an old saying in fisheries that we don’t manage fish or ecosystem, we manage people. Therefore, we really must understand human behavior to understand how we can best manage people in order to achieve an ecosystem state that supports both nature and people. Two - humans are part of the ecosystem and therefore, ecosystem-based management includes individual and community well-being as key targets of management. Therefore, we need to be able to predict how changes in ocean ecosystems and ocean management affect people.  

What is your connection to the initiative? And what particular aspects of your expertise do you add to the picture?

I’m officially part of the group. I am a transdiscplinary scientist.  I am trained largely in ecology.  Currently most of my research sits at the boundary between ecology, sociology, anthropology and economics. 

Could you explain how in reality scientists go about bringing together social and natural sciences together? What are the main needs, hurdles, and areas of interest?

It requires a purposeful integration of disciplines to overcome the widely varying – and often competing – perspectives evident in much of the current literature.  Characterized by additional challenges, work of this nature requires individuals that span boundaries among natural and social scientists, and who are trained in diverse methods, norms, and disciplinary languages.  

Management of natural resources does not benefit from disciplinary walls. 

Finally, is it possible to offer a short example of an area/sector/issue that has already benefitted from extra consideration of the human dimension or from increase interdisciplinary/integrated research?

I am currently working with the Haida Nation - an indigenous people who live in the Haida Gwaii archipelago located 100 km off the coast of northern British Columbia.  

In this system, it is clear that ignoring the history of colonialism and the impacts of industrial fishing on food security, culture, values and power relationships has created an unsustainable fishery system. 

Here is a short blogpost​ called “Toward Decolonizing Conservation”, which really captures my feelings about this place and people (but more focused on conservation than fisheries).

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Meet the humans behind the human dimension

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