Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

If the ocean was a person, what would they be like: Gauging perceptions of the ocean through personification

Jenny Rock's picture
Rock, Jenny
Knapen, Manon
Sima, Ellen
Category of presentation: 
Scholarly papers

Bodies of fresh water have recently been recognised as legal entities. Although anthropomorphising a body of water is not a requirement for recognising personhood, it may serve as an initial step for a wider public to begin thinking about its uniquely valued characteristics, attributes and collective identity. How do we personify the ocean then becomes a relevant question.

When asked “If the ocean was a person, what would they be like?”, participants imagined an embodied ocean, as a way to identify pre-existing ideas about how the ocean ‘acts’ and what role it plays in the world. Thematic analysis yielded four general categories of response: personal, behavioural and physical attributes, as well as gender-related. Rich and varied anthropomorphic descriptions included literal human attributes, human activities, and attributes of intentionality. The clearest theme to emerge was that of variety and even contradiction between characteristics, reflecting an image of complexity and ambiguity. The ocean was depicted as oscillating between states of perceived benevolence and malevolence, at once terrifying us with its violent power and inspiring our protection and stewardship.

To extend participant reflection on the value of the ocean and its future prospects, participants were also asked to answer further questions, describing the ocean, why it matters and they think it will be like in 50 years. In a new dichotomy, participants saw the ‘good’ we receive from the ocean in material and non-material ecosystem services, and the ‘evil’ in human destructiveness and environmental damage. Long considered simply an empty space, people are connecting in new ways with the ocean, making it ever more worthy of stewardship.