Publication Details

Alexander, K. & Ryan, A. (2012). Using a social functionalist framework to understand responses to projected sea level rise and managed retreat policies in Australia. The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, 3 (4), 127-138.


Managed retreat is one of the few policy options available to the Australian government to mitigate the risk of sea level rise for coastal communities. A structured withdrawal from areas inundated by rising sea levels may be the only viable option for some jurisdictions and in many cases may be the most cost effective defensive approach. At present, little is known about community opinions on managed retreat options. The authors present a social functionalist framework to analyse the range of personal concerns and understand more about how people may respond to predicted changes to coastal shorelines. The meta-theoretical social functionalist framework suggests people can intuitively act as scientists, economists, prosecutors, theologians and at times as politicians, when subject to situations that require judgment and choice. Qualitative responses to an online survey were used to categorise participants according to their social functionalist decision-making styles. The study compared the decision-making style of three groups of participants: those concerned, unsure and unconcerned (sceptical/rejectionist) about sea level rise risks. The research demonstrated that the majority of participants used more than one social functionalist framework to intuitively assess managed retreat policies. While all risk profile groups tended to express intuitive scientist concerns, the emotive expressions of intuitive theologians and prosecutors were evident and could undermine policy processes and adaptation initiatives. These findings reinforce the need for further public debate on how to respond to sea level rise. They emphasise that different individuals frame the purpose of those debates in distinct ways; to reach the most effective, equitable and socially legitimate or morally appropriate response, which depends upon what is inherently important to each individual. A major advantage of employing a social functionalist framework analysis is the flexibility to identify the range of positions (more than one worldview) that can be held by members in a community and to be cognisant of the importance of firmly entrenched beliefs, and hence the barriers to constructive dialogue.