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Politics of knowledge use: epistemic governance in marine spatial planning

Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning



We examined the application of knowledge in land-use planning as epistemic governance and explored how actors wield institutional power while legitimising the use of knowledge. By applying a neo-institutionalist analytical framework of epistemic governance to discourse analysis, we investigated how actors invoke institutions of science and law while constructing a legitimate rationality. Specifically, we asked how new knowledge of underwater marine areas was invited into a marine spatial planning pilot in Finland. We determined that, while legitimising the use of new marine-life knowledge, the actors invoked law and science by granting the new knowledge various and intermingled meanings that disambiguated and depoliticised nature values into tangible measures. Moreover, uncertainties about the new knowledge spurred doubts which facilitated a stronger political approach that applied precautions. We suggest that in the regulative context of planning there is an institutional demand for techno-legal rationality in which the institutional appropriateness of knowledge is crucial. The lack of legitimate ontological authority allows for a political yet institutionally fitfor-purpose interpretation of reality. Thus, our study contributes to the literature on planning as governance and provides insights of the politics of knowledge use in planning as something not necessarily strategic and conscious, but also routine and institutional.

Application in MSP:
Type of Issue:
Type of practice:
Stage of MSP cycle:
Cross-border / trans-national aspect:
Coherence with other processes:
Key words:

Questions this practice may help answer:

  • Which authorities are employed in epistemic governance?
  • How is the use of these authorities reflected in stakeholders’ discourses?
  • By what process is new knowledge legitimised in a maritime spatial planning process? 

Implementation Context:

Planning approaches are fed with multiple knowledge sources with a view to conducting democratic processes based on collaboration and dialogue between stakeholders. Planning as governance uses knowledge and rationality while defining what should be considered as reality.

Aspects / Objectives:

This paper aims to analyse how power operates in the definition of reality and its legitimation in a process of maritime spatial planning. Its focuses on the epistemic aspects of governance through the analysis of knowledge use.


The study provides a theoretical framework of epistemic governance and an analysis of official public documentation (available archives and website) from the MSP pilot in Kymenlaakso in Southeast Finland. 55 published documents, gathering feedback, letters, statements, plan commentaries, etc., were analysed using the NVivo software. Data was examined under four phases: (i) isolation of arguments reflecting the strategic use of scientific knowledge in the MSP pilot; (ii) analysis of actors’ appeals to the authority of laws and research; (iii) location of sections of data that were concentrated in terms of the research topic and appeals to authority and (iv) rhetorical analysis of actors’ arguments to reveal discursive patterns.

Main Outputs / Results:

The articles provides an analysis of how new knowledge about the specific case study of Kymenlaakso generates different discourses characterised by a specific kind of epistemic governance and reflecting the use of law institutions and research authorities. The three outcomes from the analysis were:

  • New knowledge about marine areas supports safeguarding nature values;
  • Producing and using new knowledge is important when balancing interests;
  • New knowledge is uncertain, and precaution should be applied.


This paper is based on the case study of Kymenlaakso in Southeast Finland, but the methodology implemented could inspire similar approaches to analyse epistemic governance in other cases.

Responsible Entity:

Environmental Policy Centre, Finnish Environment Institute, Helsinki, Finland;

Tampere Cultural and Political Sociology Research Group (TCUPS), University of Tampere, Helsinki, Finland

Costs / Funding Source:

Additional thanks to the Finnish Cultural Foundation (project: Scientific environmental knowledge and its effectiveness in regional planning) and the Academy of Finland (project No. 309979) for funding this research.

Contact person:

 Aino Rekola: a