In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Oceans

  • Introduction
  • Setting Agendas for Ocean Geographies
  • Literature Reviews and Bibliographies
  • A Space of Power and Connection
  • A Space of Affect and Culture
  • The Sea in Theory

Geography Oceans
Philip E. Steinberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0052


Until the beginning of the 21st century there were few studies of the ocean, or the world’s seas, in geography. Although cultural and political ecologists who studied coastal communities considered the watery spaces in which people worked, economic and transportation geographers considered the shipping routes that people (and commodities) crossed, and political and military geographers considered the ocean surfaces across which people fought, the ocean itself was generally conceived as a space beyond the boundaries of society, a space used by society, not of society. Physical geographers, meanwhile, while developing a robust literature in coastal geomorphology, tended to leave study of the deep sea to oceanographers. In recent years, physical geographers have made significant contributions to interdisciplinary oceanographic research, primarily through the application of remote sensing and GIS expertise and through climatological research on ocean-atmosphere interactions, but the explosion of ocean-related research in geography since the 1990s has primarily been in human and environmental geography. Much of the increase in human geographic studies of the ocean is due to influences from outside the discipline, including the turn in history to studying ocean basin–defined regions, the turn in cultural studies toward understanding the ocean as a space of cultural hybridity, and, more broadly, a growing environmental awareness of the ocean as a space that is exceptionally vulnerable to (and an indicator of) environmental transformation. Furthermore, as human geographers have turned their attention to such concepts as affect, mobility, nonterrestrial materialities, nonhuman agency, heterotopic spaces of resistance, and global spaces of exchange, the ocean has been embraced as an ideal space for thinking with, and thinking through the limits of, these emergent epistemologies.

Setting Agendas for Ocean Geographies

Beginning in the late 1990s, as significant numbers of geographers turned their attention seaward, special issues of geography journals began to appear that spelled out agendas for ocean geography. Wigen and Harland-Jacobs 1999 directly engaged the rise of ocean basin studies in the discipline of history, Steinberg 1999 sought to define the scope of a new subfield that would join elements from human and physical geography, and Lambert, et al. 2006 examined numerous aspects of marine geography within the context of historical geography. Concurrent with these special issues, Steinberg 2001 appeared as the first monograph that applied a contemporary geographic perspective in an attempt to understand the sea as a historical and social space, and, a decade later, Peters 2010 proposed expanding the agenda for marine geography to incorporate some of the latest thinking in human geography.

  • Lambert, David, Luciana Martins, and Miles Ogborn, eds. Special Issue: Historical Geographies of the Sea. Journal of Historical Geography 32.3 (July 2006): 479–688.

    As elaborated on in the editors’ introduction, this special issue proposes that a seaward orientation of historical geography can shed light on three areas: new epistemological perspectives based on fluidity and betweenness; new perspectives that incorporate the imaginative, aesthetic, and sensuous geographies of the sea; and material and social geographies of individuals at sea. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Peters, Kimberley. “Future Promises for Contemporary Social and Cultural Geographies of the Sea.” Geography Compass 4.9 (September 2010): 1260–1272.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00372.x

    In addition to reviewing recent literature in ocean geography, this article suggests three agendas for future research: the ocean as a space of mobility, the ocean as a space of the mystical and sublime, and the ocean as a space of co-constitution between human and nonhuman actors. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Steinberg, Philip E., ed. “Focus: Geography of Ocean-Space.” Professional Geographer 51.3 (1999): 366–450.

    This focus section presents a broad range of work in ocean geography, from physical geography and marine remote sensing to transport geography and political ecology perspectives. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Steinberg, Philip E. The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge Studies in International Relations 78. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Although published in a series on international relations, this book presents the first attempt by a geographer to analyze the world ocean as a global space of society, shaped through uses, regulations, and representations over five hundred years of modern history.

  • Wigen, Kären, and Jessica Harland-Jacobs, eds. Special Issue: Oceans Connect. Geographical Review 89.2 (April 1999).

    This special issue emanates from the Oceans Connect project, which sought to reframe regional studies around the ocean region. Articles reflect on the project and the meaning of regional seas, as well as presenting studies of individual regions. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

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