Ever increasing and diverse use of the marine environment and consequent impacts on marine life, habitats and landscapes make prominent the need for policy and policy-making procedures that promote resilience and sustainability. In this paper, we focus on the Drivers–Pressures–State Changes–Impacts–Responses (DPSIR) framework, which seeks to represent and hence enable the management of key relationships formed between natural systems, designed systems and social systems. The DPSIR framework is widely used to assess and manage the impact of policy changes and associated problems; however, a change is evident in recent applications of the approach: an expert-driven, evidence-focussed mode of use is giving way to the use of the framework as a heuristic device to facilitate engagement, communication and understanding between different stakeholders. In this paper, an assessment is made of how holistic DPSIR practice is in the context of the marine environment and we argue that the paradigmatic turn from realist to interpretivist reveals the DPSIR approach's multiparadigmatic and holistic potential. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.