Alexandria Digital Research Library

If These Walls Could Talk : A Global Ethnography of Sea Change

Gray, Summer
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Sociology
Degree Supervisor:
Kum-Kum Bhavnani
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Sociology, Organizational, History of Science, Climate Change, and Sociology, Social Structure and Development
Global Ethnography
Sea Change
Dissertations, Academic and Online resources
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014

My doctoral dissertation examines how rising seas and a recently renewed interest in the construction of seawalls illustrate a form of development that involves substantial labor, financing, and materials in addition to hidden social and environmental costs. More generally, the research looks at the moving borders of the sea driven by the complex dynamics of anthropogenic climate change in which twenty-five million to one billion people will be affected by the year 2050. I draw upon theoretical approaches that consider climate-related issues to be macro-social processes involving global and international relations as well as matters of lived experience involving people in contexts where material and cultural histories shape climate change resiliency. Using the methods of global ethnography, I address the problem of coastal vulnerability by focusing on the cultural and social dynamics of coastal development and sea change in Guyana, The Maldives, Venice and the Netherlands, highlighting issues that emerge in places where seawalls are already important fixtures in the landscape. Analysis across these sites reveals how the threat of rising seas involves multiple axes of inequality formed within the contexts of colonialism, development, and globalization over the past one hundred years. Seawalls and other coastal structures embody culturally ingrained meanings, physical demands, and financial investments that continue to shape the experiences of those who live behind them.

Data was gathered from April 2012 to April 2014 in Venice, the Netherlands, Guyana and the Maldives, and included sixty-two semi-structured interviews and nine focus groups, touching upon the lived experiences of 120 people. Findings illustrate the tensions and contradictions that ground seawall development. In Guyana, sand bags and rip-rap structures line the coast in contrast to the state of the art concrete barriers found in Venice, the Netherlands, and the United States. Poor coastal villages have few options as they invest time and hope in the restoration of mangroves forests, a process that has been met with many obstacles and unexpected sacrifices. In the Maldives, one-third of the population lives on a walled island without beaches, while tourists enjoy holidays on over two hundred island resorts nearby. As seawalls become measures of last resort in the struggle to hold the line, the existing narratives of the "sinking island" and "climate change refugee" fail to capture the dynamic inequalities that exist within and between places. This study shows the need to offer different conceptualizations of rising seas in public discourses, based on an analysis of seawalls and what the people who live in and around them say as they speak out.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (289 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Summer Gray
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