Social Science for the Great Barrier Reef

What is Social Science and why is it important to the Reef?

Social science for the Great Barrier Reef is about understanding and managing people’s relationship with the Reef for the health of both the Reef and the people.

What do social sciences study?

  • Social phenomena: markets, governance, politics, culture, demographics, ideas, narratives, development, socio-economics, well-being, policy and law
  • Social processes: social organization, decision-making, educating, marketing, local development
  • Individual attributes: values, beliefs, knowledge, motivations, preferences, perceptions and behaviours

What are social sciences for?

Like all sciences, social science works to:

  • Understand and describe phenomena: social phenomena, processes or individual attributes - why or how something is occurring
  • Develop and test theory - what factors are associated with illegal fishing? What motivates people to engage in activities to protect the Reef?
  • Anticipate future trends - how people may use the Reef in future - through modelling and forecasting social and/or economic conditions
  • Imagine desirable futures - to question the status quo or business as usual by understanding different perspectives and how we might create the future we want.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority adopts a social-ecological system approach to its management and protection. This approach recognises that the Reef and the people who use it are strongly interconnected. This dual approach is one that involves management actions that consider ecological, social and economic factors, while applying the precautionary principle.

Human dimensions of the Reef

SES with white

The reef as a social-ecological system

Human dimensions of the Reef include:

  • Where are people going in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park?
  • What are they doing?
  • How are they doing it?
  • When are they doing it?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • What are the connections between all these things and what does it mean for the health of people and the Reef?

Human dimension framework for the Great Barrier Reef

The Human Dimensions Framework for the Great Barrier Reef helps us organise this information so that we can understand and track change over time.

The framework groups the human dimensions of the Reef into five overlapping hubs:

  1. Sustainable Use,
  2. Stewardship,
  3. Governance,
  4. Heritage, and
  5. Connection to the Reef.

These hubs describe social, economic, cultural and institutional aspects of people’s relationship to the Reef. The framework will be used to report progress against objective in the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan.

This image represents the Human Dimensions framework for the Great Barrier Reef.

HD Framework

Adapted from: Assessment and monitoring of the human dimensions within the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program: final report of the Human Dimensions Expert Group (2019)

Social Science Community for the Great Barrier Reef

The Social Science Community for the Reef brings together social science practitioners and academics working in the Great Barrier Reef Region. The purpose of the group is to collaborate, share knowledge and provide a platform for improving understanding of social science for the Reef, both research and applied.

This Community is an initiative of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Office of the Great Barrier Reef (Department of Environment and Science, Queensland), James Cook University: the Cairns Institute and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Queensland University of Technology and University of Queensland.

To join or for more information please contact

Social Science Community for the Reef Symposium 2021

The Social Science community for the Great Barrier Reef held its inaugural symposium on Tuesday 5 October 2021 in Townsville, Queensland.

Connectivity, flow and Change

The symposium inspiration was social perspectives on maintaining and enhancing connections and flows that link and replenish, essential for the diversity and resilience of the Reef. We sought to explore social-ecological connectivity, which we defined as exchange or connection of ideas, benefits, knowledge, information and data, people and place, tele-connected and cross-scalar movements and other relationships.

We had an exciting program with a welcome from the Authority’s chief scientist David Wachenfeld, two plenary talks, from Peta Ross (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) and Bruce Taylor (CSIRO), 12 presentations and two discussion sessions around the themes “Connecting and collaborating” and “Navigating change”. We ended the symposium with a panel discussion on critical paths forward.

Social Science Workshop - 1Social Science Workshop - 3Social Science Workshop - 4

The Social Science inaugural symposium on Tuesday 5 October 2021 in Townsville, Queensland was attended by:

Social Science Attendees