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The Department of Social Sciences of ZMT has gradually grown and strategically diversified its disciplinary, thematic and regional expertise, comprising today of the following four groups: Social-ecological System Analysis, Institutional and Behavioural Economics and Development, Development and Knowledge Sociology, as well as the junior group Deliberation, Valuation and Sustainability.
Drawing on disciplinary expertise from sociology, economics, geography, area studies and anthropology represented in the three groups, the department studies the role of social actors and actor constellations (i.e. networks, markets), institutional structures, discourses and political and economic regimes in marine and coastal resource governance and everyday life with processes of environmental changes in the tropics.
Most research in the department focuses on individual or collective actors, their interaction with coastal ecosystems and their resources, considering these interactions as guided by the institutional (legal, political, market; de jure and de facto) frameworks they operate in. It is the aim to assess these governance arrangements – for the purpose of academic and other forms of deep understanding, as well as for the formulation of sustainability-focused policy orientations – and for the assessment of how they contribute, mitigate or adapt to environmental and socio-political/ economic change processes. Individual and collective actors rely on and strongly influence coastal ecosystems, their ecological status as well as the societal contributions to and effects of changes in these ecosystems. As such they serve as entry points for studying the intricate, and in many instances locality-specific, patterns of governance – the interplay between actors, institutional structures (i.e. political, legal, or market system) and ecological conditions.
The social-ecological system perspective explicitly focuses on social-ecological interaction dynamics in coastal waters and lands that allow for or prevent a holistically sustainable management of these ecosystems. This is further substantiated by paying particular attention to institutions as rules and norms that mediate what is required, prohibited and allowed in a society in relation to the marine and coastal environment , as this determines whether human use of the ecosystem is sustainable or not. In addition to studying political, legal and economic incentive structures, public discourses, (religious) belief systems, political ideas, everyday knowledges and intergenerationally communicated systems of sense-making essentially determine societal change (non-linear progress) and societal capacities to living with rapidly ongoing change processes.
The aim of the social science department of ZMT is thus to assess this interplay of environmental change processes in the coastal ecosystems of the tropics with socio-political and economic transformation processes. While these different types of change processes often exacerbate each other, societal response capacity depends on the development of abilities to continuously adapt to the moving target, a continuously changing relationship between social and ecological systems. Understanding this relationship between selected coastal societies in the tropics, their coastal ecosystems and the socio-political-economic and environmental change processes that affect these intricate patterns of social-ecological interaction forms the basis for the development, jointly with the research partners and societal stakeholders in the research regions, of possible pathways of transformative change. Social inequalities, access to political and economic resources, health infrastructures or the possibility to migrate fundamentally determine individual life and system trajectories. The research of this department – in close interaction with the natural science departments of ZMT – aims to empirically understand the immense social and ecological change processes that are currently – and even more so in the future – along our planet’s tropical coasts. Mitigation and adaptation can only follow from there.
Methodologically the social science department’s research ranges from qualitative, ethnographic to quantitative, from experimental to critical social sciences, paying particular attention also to self-reflexive method discussions and high research ethics to be ensured in all partner engagements.