Project IC13_I:

Working with Nature - an ethnography of soft coastal protection in Aotearoa, New Zealand

State of the Art


Coastal erosion and the need to make decisions for the future in a climate-changed world is becoming a major issue for coastal nations. During the second half of the 20th century, coastal hazard issues challenging property and infrastructure of OECD countries have mostly been addressed by installing hard protection works. In the context of climate and coastal change and under the influence of sustainability concepts however, the economical, ecological, and socio-cultural effects of hard coastal protection measures have come under scrutiny in a number of industrialized countries, and so-called “soft” practices of coastal protection have been gaining momentum during the last two decades (cf. Cooper/McKenna 2008). A variety of measures are framed as soft protection, ranging from large-scale engineering interventions relying on innovative materials or enhanced computer modelling capacities, to low-tech but labour-intensive dune restoration carried out mainly by volunteers, or planning tools like managed retreat. The research project analyzes discourses and practices of so-called soft coastal protection in Aotearoa New Zealand. With recent policy and planning instruments discouraging the use of hard protection measures (e.g. the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010), and a growing number of coastal experts promoting a paradigm shift in coastal protection, a new socio-technical imaginary (Jasanoff 2010) is emerging in New Zealand.

Research Aim


Designed as a multi-local ethnography (Marcus 1995), the dissertation combines participant observation with qualitative interviews and analysis of additional material (newspaper articles, grey literature/brochures, policy documents, legal documents, case law etc.). The research is focused on aspects of emergence and moments of conflict, following soft protection in different fields of action, including local conflicts about hard and soft protection measures, dune restoration with volunteers, and so-called soft engineering. The goal is to show how the socio-technical imaginary of Working with Nature is negotiated, shaped and realized in practice, how it is getting entangled with in actors’ life worlds and how specific coastal natures emerge in the process (cf. Hinchliffe 2007). Coastal protection is shown as a prime arena for the co-construction of natural and social worlds, with a variety of soft protection practices materializing as a shared discourse and practice of “working with nature, not against it”. The combination of research topic and approach chosen opens up a new field for Anthropology and aims to contribute new perspectives to the wider field of socio-cultural analysis of the coastal as a prime location of human-nature interaction.



Cooper, J. A. G., and McKenna, J. (2008), ‘Working with natural processes: the challenge for coastal protection strategies’, Geographical Journal, 174/4: 315–331.

Jasanoff, S. (2010). “A New Climate for Society.” Theory, Culture and Society, 27 (2-3): 233-253.

Hinchliffe, S. (2007), Geographies of nature: Societies, environments, ecologies (Los Angeles: Sage).

Marcus, G. E. (1995), ‘Ethnography In/Of the World System. The Emergence of Multi-sited Ethnography’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 24: 95–177.

Prof. Dr. Michael Flitner
University of Bremen
Prof. Dr. John Campbell
University of Waikato
PhD Student :
Friederike Gesing


Research stays:

02.2010 - 04.2010 University of Waikato, Hamilton

10.2010 - 10.2011 Fieldwork in Tauranga

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