Narrating Science as a World-Making Activity: Sea Level Change in Singapore

Photo: Coast of Singapore

© Hornidge, 2017, Singapore

In this newsletter, we would like to continue introducing the research projects of DIE director Prof. Dr. Anna-Katharina Hornidge.

The third project in this series, entitled “Narrating Science as a World-Making Activity: Sea Level Change in Singapore“ is part of a larger interdisciplinary research programme Fiction Meets Science (FMS) funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The collaboration between literary and social sciences opens up new perspectives on the portrayal of science in both fictional and factual narratives. At the same time, the programme aims at providing insights into the inner workings of science and its place in society. Reflecting on the global dimensions, diverse cultural and regional contexts of science and public discourse production, is the main emphasis of the current project phase „FMS II: Varieties of Narrative“, studying science narratives in various genres and media. Furthermore, their contributions to broader societal discourses on science as well as to public engagement with science will be examined.

With the focus on sea level change, this subproject is also pointing to the importance of the growing field of marine social sciences. Against the background of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, starting next year, the urgent need for empirical research regarding ocean governance and related science-policy interfaces – here addressed via the investigation of a specific climate change discourse – is underlined once more.

The severe impacts of global climate change, as described in the latest IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), are ubiquitous, and Singapore is already affected by several consequences. As a small, but densely populated and low-lying island city-state, it is particularly vulnerable to global mean sea level rise, and as a tropical hotspot very sensitive to the fate of the Antarctic ice sheet. To defend the country against inundations and coastal erosion, the government builds upon various adaptation measures: About 70-80% of Singapore’s coastline is protected by polders, hard seawalls and stone embankments, or through the use of nature-based solutions like mangrove restoration.

The acute problem with sea level rise due to its geographical location is amongst the manifold reasons why Singapore was chosen as a study ground for this research project. It is rather a particular compound of aspects, including its economic influence not merely in the ASEAN but also beyond, its technological innovation capacity, the Singaporean nation-building of a cosmopolitan identity as well as its strong global interconnections as the world’s biggest transshipment hub. These factors entail a very distinctive approach and reasoning about environmental management in a challenged future, wherein the self-proclaimed role is that of an internationally leading green economy. Yet, this statement is not free of contradictions, considering the controversial sand mining practices for the ongoing Singaporean land reclamation or the fact that the carbon emissions per capita are higher than in far larger countries, resulting in an ecological footprint highly exceeding the biocapacity of the city-state.

Photo: Harbour in Singapore

© Hornidge, 2017, Singapore

Recognising the need for evidence-based climate policies, the Singaporean government started developing several action plans (e.g. “SSB – Sustainable Singapore Blueprint“) and information campaigns to raise awareness for climate change amongst its citizens. For a long time, the topic of rising sea levels was not on the public discourse agenda, but is now set on high priority. This goes hand in hand with high investments in academic research programmes with the pronounced objective to develop Singapore as a knowledge hub in climate science in (Southeast) Asia, relying on a local database and a local scientific community. As a powerful player in the region, Singapore’s socio-technological practices in tackling the consequences of a changing climate will have further impacts on the neighbouring countries.

The imaginaries of a future challenged by sea level change and respective scientific knowledge are certainly not limited to a regional level. They travel in various forms of science narratives and are translated from global discursive contexts to local ones. An examination of these discourses, revealing dynamics and structural aspects, allows a better comprehension of social transformation processes. Drawing on the concept of multi-sited ethnography and the Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse, this research project aims to qualitatively assess how and to what degree these narratives inform and guide national policy-making in Singapore. By following them on their ways from the public to the political sphere, it also explores the mobilisation of certain argumentative currents, ideas and meaning-making activities. Cultural adaptations, science journalism and government programmes will be analysed as sources co-constructing the discourse on sea level change and depicting the interplay between a variety of actors.


Time frame: 3 years                     Project staff: Beatrice Dippel