Social Constructions of Arctic Ocean-Space


In this essay I intend to assess the competing political conceptualisations of the Arctic which exist in the world community today and consider what the implications of these are. There has been intense interest in the region in recent years in the fields of international relations and political geography, with scholars focusing on issues such as environmental and climate change, territorial claims, maritime transport, security, and governance. I wish to focus on some of the implications behind territorial claims and the social constructions which allow these claims to come about.

I will draw heavily on the work of political geographer Philip E. Steinberg, particularly his Social Construction of the Ocean (2001), in order to unearth some of the constructions of ocean-space in the Arctic. Steinberg’s work considers the uses and representations of ocean-space in the world and how these uses and representations have shaped, and have been shaped, by states, multinational corporations, and art and literature. Following on Steinberg’s theoretical work I apply a social constructivist lens to the uses and representations of Arctic Ocean in order to discover how the various constructions of Arctic ocean-space have developed.

Firstly I attempt to suggest the difficulty that exists in defining a region such as the Arctic and the meanings of the region which arise when one considers the different international institutions which seek to manage and define. I then consider the physical state of the Arctic and suggest that its, “materiality, and hence its social function, is ever shifting” (Gerhardt et al, 995).

In the second section I cite what Steinberg considers to be the three major social constructions of ocean-space and consider how these apply to the Arctic. I consider the opening up of the Northwest Passage in relation to Canadian sovereignty and relate the Canadian and US positions on this matter to Steinberg’s constructions. I briefly suggest connections to the work of Hugo Grotius and John Selden, and then consider a possible Inuit construction of Arctic ocean-space.

In the third section I consider whether the proliferation of ocean-space social constructions has made the Arctic an area of ‘otherness’. I also consider whether the binary of land/ocean and the indeterminate and shifting nature of the Arctic would suggest that it is a heterotopia. Drawing on the work of Steinberg and Gerhardt et al I suggest that it is not entirely so and that this could ignore the internal social processes of the Arctic.

Defining the Arctic

The Arctic is often portrayed in political, media, and cultural discourse as a fragile area that exists apart from civilisation; a wilderness of frozen landscapes, vast ice caps, little wildlife, and a small number of Inuit. Geographically it consists of the Arctic Ocean itself as well as the northern most regions of North America and Eurasia, encompassing 21 million square kilometres, or 6% of the Earth’s surface (Heininen and Zebich-Knos, 196). There are eight states within the region – Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – and 4-10 million inhabitants (Heininen and Zebich-Knos, 196).

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) of 1982, states may exercise full sovereignty over their territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles (NM) beyond their shores (UNCLOS, Article 3). Beyond this states may exercise exclusive rights to all living and non-living resources up to 200NM beyond their shores, what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (UNCLOS, Article 57). However, within an EEZ, any ship is to be considered as permitted to pass unheeded, in so far as that ship adheres to international maritime norms and regulations. The EEZ is essentially an area of Stewardship rather than control and sovereignty: states hold responsibility for the marine environment within an EEZ and have the rights to resources, but cannot treat the area as closed to international vessels seeking passage.

As polar ice has been, on average, receding in recent decades, states such as Canada, Russia, and Norway (Svalbard) have suggested that they their EEZ should be extended to encompass a larger area, determined by the extent of their continental shelves. In large part this is because the Arctic seabed is considered to contain vast resources of minerals and fossil fuels. Heininen and Zebich-Knos claim there to be, “Approximately 90 billion barrels of untapped oil and 1,1670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 400 oil and gas fields north of the Arctic Circle” (Heininen and Zebich-Knos, 203).

UNCLOS provides the major legal framework for the Arctic Ocean, but there are many other international and regional institutions and forums which wield influence in the region. For example, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which represents Inuit residing in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia, or the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization comprising of the eight Arctic states and six Permanent Participants (including the ICC). A major focus of international and regional organizations – including those with less obvious Arctic mandates, such as the EU – have focuses their attention on environmental issues arising from global climate change. The region is also of great interest to scholars and policy-makers in the field of security (Borgerson; Bush; Huebert 1999 and 2011). With such a variety of state and non-state bodies exerting influence in the region the metaphor of a mosaic of governance has been used by some to describe the political nature of the Arctic (Schofield; Young).

It is also important to consider the physicality of the Arctic in order to define exactly what the region is. Gerhardt et al suggest that to consider the Arctic as an area of permanence and stability, like land or an iceless sea, would be mistaken and would reproduce antiquated, “Arctic imaginaries by metropolitan capitals of northern states [that have] remained relatively stagnant, shaped by cultural memory and an established political ontology of space” (Gerhardt et al, 998). I will consider the spatial ontology of Arctic ocean-space further in the third section.

Social Constructions of the Arctic

In The Social Construction of the Ocean, Steinberg considers there to be three major social constructions of ocean-space throughout history: A great void; Land-like; and a placeless force-field. These are social constructions in that they arise from the manner in which the ocean is actually used by societal units. These social constructions are derived from three discursive constructions: Development; Geopolitical; and Legal. The development construction considers, “the sea as a space devoid of potential for growth and civilization” (Steinberg 2001, 35). The geopolitical construction sees the sea as an area that is external to the territory of political society, which is complimented by the legal construction, which considers, “the sea as immune to social control and order” (Steinberg 2001, 36).

Steinberg states that the great void construction of the ocean considers the ocean to be a separating space which is immune from state power and is to be traversed.  He makes an allusion to the Indian Ocean circa 500B.C.-C.E 1500: “Societies of the Indian Ocean viewed the sea as a source of imported goods, but the sea itself was perceived as a space apart from society, an untameable mystery” (Steinberg 2001, 45). He asserts that, in the great void construction, territory ends at the shore and that the sea cannot be bounded or possessed, it can merely be conceived as a vast and dangerous expanse that may be used for transport: “The sea was perceived as distance, not territory” (Steinberg 2001, 52).

The land-like social construction views the ocean as a resource which can be used in everyday life. It is a resource of food and connection and, being an integral part of everyday life, is suitable for territorial claims and exertions of power. Steinberg believes this model to fit with the interaction of society and ocean-space seen in Micronesia up until recent times. He claims that, “For the Micronesias, the ocean is seen primarily as a resource provider, divided into distinct places, much as continental residents view their land-space” (Steinberg 2001, 52-3). In this construction the ocean is viewed as one may view a highway: it did not divide societies within Micronesia, but rather connect them and was a fundamental part of common heritage and daily experience.

Steinberg’s third social construction of ocean-space is that of a placeless force-field. This is a construction that holds ocean-space as an arena of competition and potential militarism. Societal units vie for power on land, using the ocean as a buffer against potential threat, separating potentially rebellious colonized areas from the hegemonic base of a single, strong empire. What is sought is not control of the ocean, which is not viewed as land-like, but rather stewardship. The historical ocean-space that Steinberg draws on here is the Mediterranean Sea, particularly during the Roman period (c. 300 B.C.-C.E.500). The ocean-space construction in this model sits somewhere between a freedom/enclosure dichotomy: “Rome constructed the Mediterranean as a “force-field,” a placeless surface that belonged to no one but upon which powerful states could intervene do as to steward its resources for the national interest.

The placeless force-field construction is perhaps the closest of the three to the manner in which UNCLOS seems to consider ocean-space, particularly with regards to EEZs: “Within an EEZ… a coastal state may claim policing rights, but not full sovereign authority, in the interest of stewarding the zone’s living and non-living resources” (Steinberg 1999, 261). It is also similar to the position the US has taken with regards to the world’s oceans since the Second World War. On the other hand, the great void construction also seems to exist to a degree today, particularly within the mechanisms of postmodern capitalism. Steinberg states that, “With the [postmodern capitalist] era’s emphasis on movement and speed, the dominant element of postmodern capitalism’s ocean-space construction is a continuation of the great void ideal that characterized the industrial capitalist era” (Steinberg 2001, 164).

As well as his three major social constructions of ocean-space, Steinberg also gives a helpful list of factors to consider when determining the meaning of an area of water (Steinberg 2001, 42-3):

  • Overall conception of ocean-space
  • Uses of ocean-space
  • Regulations of ocean-space
  • Representations of ocean-space

Drawing on Steinberg’s work cited above, which considers ocean-space more generally, I wish to apply his theoretical principles to the Arctic Ocean, in order to move closer to determining the social meaning of the ocean-space in that region. Immediately it becomes apparent that there are difficulties in determining a consistent conception of ocean-space in the Arctic. With a plethora of competing commercial, environmental, territorial, political, and cultural concerns, there does not seem to be one single conception.

The Northwest Passage is an interesting example. Canada, is an archipelago of islands in its far north, claims the Northwest Passage to be within its internal waters, as the section which passes through the Canadian archipelago is within the archipelago itself, rather than the north side of the islands. The US, on the other hand, considers the section of the passage to be an international straight, as it is wider than 12NM. It is in US interests to keep freedom of movement in the seas for both trade and military movement (Bush, Section 3.B Article 5). The Canadian government considers the passage to be a space, the US as a passage to places. These conflicting attempts at “fixing” ocean-space are indicative of the difficulties in defining a singular social construction of the Arctic Ocean.

The US position of free and open seas can be seen as a continuation of the principle of “mare liberum” (or “open seas”) which was advocated by the 16th-17th century jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and detailed in his 1609 treatise, Mare Liberum. Grotius believed that the deep seas should be free from sovereign control and shipping ought not to be impeded by local control. This has perhaps been the most influential construction of ocean-space and draws on the great void construction.

In response to Grotius’ treatise, his English contemporary and fellow jurist, John Selden (1584-1654), constructed a “mare clausum” (or “enclosed seas”) ideal, published as “Mare Clausum,” in 1635. This ideal considers ocean-space to be an area of competition in the world polity in which, “each attempts to seize as much of the ocean as possible for itself” (Steinberg 2001, 39). This construction is closer to the placeless force-field ideal and can perhaps be seen in Canadian academic, policy, and media discourse. In this discourse the Arctic is often seen as a region of insecurity, in which the Canadian government should interact with it by increasing military presence in the area (Borgerson; Carnaghan; Huebert 1999 and 2011).

The construction of Arctic ocean-space by the Inuit people is wildly different to that of the US and Canadian governments. In this case the ocean-space, which is in large parts frozen during the coldest months, is a space of resources, connection, and a part of everyday life. Therefore the uses of ocean-space would suggest a social construction which is closest to the land-like model that Steinberg suggests. As actual inhabitants of the Arctic, the Inuit can be seen to be defined by and to define the region. This provides a direct challenge to the notion of the Arctic being governed by distant states, questioning, “the scalar assumptions of sovereignty itself” (Gerhardt et al, 999). The authors go on: “With such a stance, the Inuit can be viewed as adopting a flat ontology, whereby degrees and spaces of jurisdiction are downplayed in favor of the actual interactions between the various parties who maintain specific interests in the region” (Gerhardt et al, 999).

The Arctic Ocean as a Heterotopia

The conflicting social constructions of Artic ocean-space and contradictions of the interaction of a plethora of societal and corporate units make it impossible to assert a singular ocean-space construction that can be claimed as over-arching. Focusing specifically on sovereignty, Gerhardt et al state that, “It is our contestation that ongoing contestation of sovereignty in the Arctic is rooted in the region’s indeterminate and unstable geophysical characteristics” (Gerhardt et al, 993). This develops on the earlier point I made at the end of the first section. If the ice of the Arctic sea is not permanent in place or time – i.e. it recedes and advances depending on the season, it is being affected by climate change, the ice physically moves on the ocean – then does this confuse where land and sea exist? Gerhardt et al suggest that, “the binary division of Earth into land and water is confounded in the Arctic by the presence of ice, a liminal substance that combines and confuses properties of the two” (Gerhardt et al, 993-4).

This would place the Arctic as a region of “otherness” in the world, which exists in contrast to the “usual” places of social interaction. In this case it may be appropriate to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia to Arctic ocean-space. A heterotopia is a place of alternate ordering in which something can be viewed as “other” by ordering it in a particular social context in which it is set against the “usual” (c.f. Steinberg 2001, Chapter 6). This would involve a study of Arctic ocean-space which employs something more like a poststructuralist theoretical lens. Steinberg, writing generally about ocean-space rather than the Arctic, suggests that, “As a heterotopia, the ocean is a space of ordering and limits, but as those orders and limits themselves stretch the bounds of social norms and systems, it is also a space for imagining and actualizing social change” (Steinberg 2001, 205).

Gerhardt et al – for which Steinberg was one of the authors – share this concern and do not seem to accept the notion of the Arctic – here explicitly considered – as a heterotopia either: “The notion of the experience of circumpolarity can direct the planetary orientation away from intermediate (or heterotopic) spaces that simultaneously connect and divide (e.g., oceans, borders, ships, etc.) and toward an everyday space that is undergoing continued reterritorialization by those who reside there, those who are attempting to extend their reach, and those who are just passing through” (Gerhardt et al, 999). The authors are assessing contested sovereignty in the Arctic and seem to find an explicitly social theory to be more helpful than one that leans more toward poststructuralism.


In this essay I have attempted to view the Arctic Ocean as a fundamentally social space being affected by a plethora of societal units and actors. Drawing heavily on the work of Philip E. Steinberg I have used existing constructions of ocean-space and attempted to suggest some of the different constructions that exist with regards to the Arctic, finding it impossible to apply any single construction to the region. I have also drawn on the work of Gerhardt et al to suggest that the Arctic is ontologically different from how it is often considered to be in the existing social construction of its ocean-space. The actual materiality of the Arctic does not fit into the land/water binary of the Earth.

In the final section I asked is the Arctic a heterotopia, floating as it is, like Foucault’s boat, “a place without a place” (Foucault, Sixth Principle). Drawing again on Steinberg and Gerhardt et al, I found that the Arctic is a highly social space and that the ordering principles of the Arctic are themselves “other”. Social constructivism is tremendously helpful in assessing the ocean-space of the Arctic as it allows one to recognize the social nature of ocean-space constructions and to realise the variety of such constructions which exist in the world community. While I did not investigate the notion of the Arctic as a heterotopia in much detail, I feel that using a poststructuralist lens would in fact add a vast amount to a debate about the spatiality of the Arctic. Feminist and postcolonial lens could also, for example, provide insight into the human aspects of the actual usage of ocean-space, particularly by Inuit, something which constructivism cannot seem to do. A feminist approach would also be particularly useful in assessing representations of the Arctic region in literature and media (see Craciun).



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