An Anthropological Research Protocol for Marine Protected Areas: Creating a Niche in a Multidisciplinary Cultural Hierarchy

Article excerpt

Anthropologists who venture into planned multidisciplinary research in marine systems become enmeshed in a social and cultural system of disciplinary hierarchy that constrains the nature and type of expected research. The hierarchical system that favors biology, ecology, and economics before other social sciences is deeply ingrained in U.S. cultural models and enacted managerially in multidisciplinary research agendas. Within that framework, anthropology is one of the social sciences that modifies economics in the form of socioeconomics. Anthropology as socioeconomics is challenged to carve out research questions within the hierarchical framework. A meta-analysis of the design, implementation, and evaluation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) shows that questions of social and economic equity are in the forefront of fishers' concerns about MPAs, providing a topic of immediate and practical concern for socioeconomic and anthropological research.

Key words: Marine Protected Areas, marine systems, multidisciplinary research, socioeconomics


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be defined simply as areas in marine environments that are protected in designated ways from human activity.1 Although a variety of types of MPAs exist, varying by the nature and extent of protection, all MPAs constrain human behavior. Despite that common feature, the major objective of an MPA typically is the conservation of marine organisms and habitats. Regulatory agencies tend to view MPAs in terms of their potential as a management tool for biological and ecological conservation. MPAs are thus typically focused on marine resources, even though they developed in the first instance to conserve resources by placing limits on human behavior. Human behavior, by contrast, tends to be marginalized in discussions about MPAs, except as the source of a conservation problem in some initial ecosystem state-a common problem in all ecological research (Blount 1999).

We begin with the question of how human behavior has actually been viewed in the MPA literature. A very succinct answer can be given. Human behavior characteristically is seen as and subsumed under one generic category: "socioeconomics." MPA designers and managers see economics, modified by social factors, including culture and history, as the most important component of human behavior. The central assumption is that economic costs will be the major consideration of resource users, especially fishermen, when access to areas of the ocean is regulated. For commercial fishermen, for example, the major concern is considered to be income loss, whereas for recreational fishermen, loss may be incurred through travel to unrestricted areas due to displacement from traditional fishing grounds. Given that social factors are by definition secondary to economic ones in this perspective, what are they and how do they relate to economic factors? What, specifically, is the place or role of anthropology in a socioeconomics framework? How, in practice, have socioeconomics and anthropology been constructed and applied within MPA design, operations, and assessments?

This paper represents an attempt to answer those and other related questions. More specifically, the paper: 1) describes the multidisciplinary hierarchy that characterizes research, planning, and management of MPAs; 2) summarizes how socioeconomics has been viewed and used in MPA design, implementation, and assessment; 3) outlines how anthropology, as a social science within that framework, contributes to and modifies economics; 4) surveys and summarizes protocols for anthropological research on MPAs; and 5) identifies specific issues that have been raised in relation to the success of MPAs and that are especially amenable to ethnographic research.

The paper has a central objective of identifying research roles for anthropology within the highly specific and constrained hierarchy of academic disciplines in MPA research. …