Author: Beatriz Martínez-Rius (Sorbonne Université, Paris)

I bet that all of us have tried to imagine how the Mediterranean looked like 5 million years ago.

We’ve tried to draw it, model it, animate it, and depict it through scientific representations of all sorts. When we talk about partial desiccation, reflooding, isolated basins… we are exercising an effort of imagination. Even when analyzing a core, there is an intellectual struggle to mentally reconstruct how layers of sediments that occupied vast areas were accumulated, removed, transformed, transported and deposited again, layer over layer.

Imagination plays a role in sciences that can’t be neglected. But here I’m not referring to individual, subjective and psychological imaginaries, understood as a sort of dreams. I’m talking about a resource that historians can (and, from my perspective, should) take into account as one more component that influences the way scientific knowledge is produced, and scientific policies are decided: imaginaries.

The idea of taking imaginaries into account came to me from the studies done by the historian Sheila Jasanoff. In 2009, she coined the term “sociotechnical imaginaries” to describe collective visions of desired futures, related with social or political orders, only reached through particular scientific and technological developments[i]. Jasanoff pointed that those envisioned futures, shared by societies and their governments, influence on scientific research, since states tend to orientate their policies to increase the investment in those fields that would contribute to achieve that desired future (such as new means of transportation and communication, nuclear energy, or the conquest of the space). Moreover, envisioned futures are not only related with governments: they are narratives that work as “social glue”, contributing to tie the members of a community, even a whole society, together. However, as I will argue, scientists have their own imaginaries, too, that orientate and boost their research.

The hopes that the future of humanity was in the oceans exemplifies well what do I mean by sociotechnical imaginary. During the 1960s and 1970s, the oceans came to be considered the last frontier man had to conquer. Many governments, led by the example of the United States, saw in the oceans the future of their nations: they could provide an unlimited source of natural resources, such as  food, minerals, and energy, to feed their growing populations[ii]. Science-fiction narratives, extremely popular in western society, contributed to design that imaginary, reflecting and spreading those hopes among the population.  But those considerations around the ocean’s unlimited capacities relied only on its potential. This is to say: no-one knew exactly how many tones of hydrocarbons were trapped under the seafloor, or how much would cost to extract them from depths greater than the continental shelf. The imaginary of nations sustained by marine resources was built on estimations and speculation, relying on very little amount of data and proved facts.

Those imaginaries, however, were powerful enough to define the orientation of oceanography. Many states like France, Japan, or the Soviet Union launched new policies to enhance scientific research and technological development to explore, assess and exploit offshore natural resources; advancing marine knowledge as never before. Although it can be argued that there are other elements that influenced on scientific policies, I consider that sociotechnical imaginaries were not isolated from them, but emerged from them[iii]. Sustaining a particular imaginary involves the infrastructure and material resources a country possesses, the technologies it can develop or acquire, its geopolitical constrains, strategic and military concerns, etc.

Hence, in the late 1960s, policy-makers, international organizations and even citizens were projecting in the oceans a particular imaginary about their future, that motivated offshore scientific exploration. But were scientists projecting any sort of imaginary, as well, in their eagerness to explore the seafloor? Again, this question does not refer to personal motivations, interests or wills. I’m questioning if there was a shared idea that brought together communities of scientists to pursue particular research lines.

The research around the Messinian Salinity Crisis (MSC) can provide some insights. We might modify slightly the definition of “sociotechnical imaginaries”, because geologists were not envisioning a desired future, but a desired past. Indeed (and that is what fascinates me from geology), geologists play with time frameworks that mix present, future and past during their research. Those who initially studied the MSC imagined different landscapes, such as the deep desiccated basin, the shallow and desiccated basin, and the deep, non-desiccated basin. Even now, when geologists agree on many aspects, different research groups visualize landscapes that differ one from the other at some extent.

The need to rely on some sort of imaginary might be related with our way of thinking. We, as humans, cannot think without objects and metaphors: we need them to ground our ideas and thoughts in known spaces and materials, that work as fixed points with which to analyze, interpret, and compare our new thoughts[iv]. In geology, an imaginary can be a landscape populated with paleo-fauna and vegetation, where hypothesis of environmental dynamics are also projected. Those envisioned landscapes are not static, but they are transformed as new scientific knowledge re-defines their contours.

“The Gibraltar waterfall”, by Guy Billout. The Atlantic, 1982.

A shared envisioned past, in sciences, creates a common narrative that stimulates a group to combine their efforts in pursuing a  common goal, and legitimates their position against opposed groups. Like sociotechnical imaginaries, scientific ones are powerful enough to orientate the research by looking for financial support (either at the European Union or at national institutions), by deciding to conduct research in one or another place, or by choosing particular experiments, instruments, or research methodologies.

The imaginary of the Mediterranean’s past has become a narrative that has gather together already three generations of researchers, in pursuing a common goal. It has contributed to enhance marine geology and geophysics in institutions were those disciplines were almost inexistent. What is still to be revealed is how the imagined Mediterranean’s past has effectively contributed to create that space.


[i] Sheila Jasanoff y Sang-Hyun Kim, «Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea», Minerva 47, n.o 2 (June, 2009): 119-46.

[ii] H. M. Rozwadowski, «Arthur C. Clarke and the Limitations of the Ocean as a Frontier», Environmental History 17, n.o 3 (July, 2012): 578-602.

[iii] Jessica M. Smith y Abraham S. D. Tidwell, «The Everyday Lives of Energy Transitions: Contested Sociotechnical Imaginaries in the American West», Social Studies of Science 46, n.o 3 (June, 2016): 327-50.

[iv] George Lakoff y Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 6. print (Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s