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Melissa Leach - Imagining and negotiating pathways in an age of anxiety and incomplete knowledge


Talk by Melissa Leach, STEPS Director, at the conference ‘Modelling Futures: Understanding risk and uncertainty’ on 28-30 September. …

Talk by Melissa Leach, STEPS Director, at the conference ‘Modelling Futures: Understanding risk and uncertainty’ on 28-30 September.

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  • 1. Imagining and negotiating pathways in an age of anxiety and incomplete knowledge Melissa Leach CRASSH Conference Cambridge, September 2010
  • 2. Complex global dynamics An age of anxiety and incomplete knowledge A search for ‘solutions’
  • 3. A pathways approach
  • 4. Narratives of crisis and threat
    • Epidemic outbreaks, pandemic threats
      • Amidst environmental change, outbreaks are threatening humanity
      • Emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases, zoonoses - Ebola, SARS, H5N1, H1N1, Henipah viruses
      • Rapid spread in a world of mobile people and microbes
      • Terrifying consequences, dystopias
  • 5. … and intervention
    • Epidemic outbreaks, pandemic threats
      • Identification of outbreaks at source, science and surveillance
      • Risk assessments, pandemic preparedness
      • Global co-operation, International Health Regulations (2005)
      • Roll-out of technological solutions
      • ‘ Active, aggressive’ responses (e.g. Obama 2009 on ‘swine flu’)
  • 6. Narratives of crisis and threat
    • Global food crisis, African hunger
      • Environmental change, growing population and low global food reserves
      • Threaten a "perfect storm" of food, water and energy shortages by 2030, triggering ‘major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration’ (John Beddington 2009)
      • Africa – hunger, low agricultural production
  • 7. … and intervention
    • Global food crisis, African hunger
      • Securing rapid, sustainable agricultural growth
      • Re-invigoration of ‘green revolution’ - technological solutions to production problems
      • Technology in the seed - modern plant breeding, genetic modification
      • Rolling-out, scaling-up
  • 8. Narratives
    • These crisis-and-intervention arguments not wrong but partial and sometimes illusory
    • Produced by particular actors and networks
    • Beginning – a dynamic system
    • Imaginary - futures desired or feared, specific goals ( anxieties ) for system change
    • Middle – a set of envisaged actions, that must deal with dynamics and incomplete knowledge
    • Construction of publics – who will act, who will change their behaviour, respond
    • End – catastrophe averted, outcome achieved
  • 9. Narratives involve particular system f ramings : Different ways of understanding or representing a dynamic system and its relevant environment
    • Dimensions of framing
    • - Scale
    • - Boundaries
    • - Key elements and relationships
    • - Dynamics in play
    • Outputs
    • - Perspectives
    • - Interests
    • - Goals
    • Values
    • - Notions of relevant experience
  • 10. Multiple narratives
    • A multiplicity of narratives is in play around any given issue
    • Political, institutional and power-knowledge processes
    • Some come to be ‘dominant’ – visible, promoted, interlocked with the interests and status of the contextually powerful
    • Some narratives justify and become interlocked with powerful pathways – trajectories of intervention and change
    • Alternative narratives, hidden narratives, exclusions….
  • 11. African seed systems – dominant and alternative narratives
    • ‘ The technology is in the seed, and modern plant breeding and genetic engineering can deliver solutions to hunger which need to be rolled out at scale’
    • Seed companies, international and national agricultural research institutes, plant breeders and biotechnologists, some funding organisations
    • Goals: crop productivity increases
    • Bounding: field and crop, extrapolated to national food security balances
    • ‘ No one size fits all. Socio-technological solutions must be diverse and adapted to ecological, market, social and institutional contexts. Farmer knowledge and local innovations have a central role to play’
    • Farmers, NGOs, other international and national agricultural researchers, agroecologists and social scientists, some funding organisations
    • Goals: agriculture for context-specific livelihood challenges
    • Bounding: the farm, community, the agro-ecological region.
  • 12. Epidemics – dominant and alternative narratives
    • ‘ Outbreaks are threatening humanity. They need to be controlled through effective surveillance and large-scale roll out of singular technological solutions’
    • Mainstream public health professionals and organisations; pharmaceutical companies; philanthropic organisations
    • Goals: global public health security (especially the health of northern populations, and business continuity)
    • Bounding: global
    • ‘ Underlying causes need to be tackled, requiring a rethink of surveillance and diverse social, cultural ecological and technological responses’
    • Diffuse networks of more field-based professionals, including epidemiologists, ecologists, social scientists; people living with disease environments
    • Goals: health systems that can respond to epidemic and endemic diseases, serving diverse needs.
    • Bounding: cross-scale (from local to ecosystem to globe)
  • 13.
    • Narratives differ in how they define and handle incomplete knowledge
    • Practices of handling incomplete knowledge – in interaction with other practices – are central to how narratives are created and sustained
      • setting agendas defining problems characterising options
      • posing questions prioritising issues formulating criteria
      • deciding context setting baselines drawing boundaries
      • discounting time choosing methods including disciplines
      • recruiting expertise commissioning research interpreting results
      • constituting ‘proof’ exploring sensitivities handling incomplete
      • knowledg e
    Handling incomplete knowledge Practices in narrative creation
  • 14. unproblematic problematic unproblematic problematic knowledge about likelihoods knowledge about outcomes Dealing with incomplete knowledge RISK AMBIGUITY UNCERTAINTY IGNORANCE
  • 15. unproblematic problematic unproblematic problematic knowledge about likelihoods knowledge about outcomes Dealing with incomplete knowledge In narratives about H1N1 RISK AMBIGUITY UNCERTAINTY IGNORANCE ostensibly definitive quantitative probabilistic models of risk pandemic or not? impacts of veterinary controls? behaviour change in crisis? interplay in viral ecology / genetics immuno -compromisation ? define ‘outbreak’: distributional consequences? mortality / morbidity? vulnerable groups? economic costs? livelihoods impacts? new strains of the virus? unexpected transmission vectors? unanticipated health outcomes? complex social interactions? entirely novel pathogens?
  • 16. unproblematic problematic unproblematic problematic knowledge about likelihoods knowledge about outcomes Dimensions of incomplete knowledge in narratives about GM crops in African settings RISK AMBIGUITY UNCERTAINTY IGNORANCE specified probabilities of Identified potential harms (toxicity, genetic escape) unknown probabilities of identified potential harms in particular African agro-ecological and social contexts different terms of discussion; e.g. production vs. political economy or gender relations unforeseen impacts; e.g. synergistic effects between seeds and diverse bodies/ environments
  • 17. unproblematic problematic unproblematic problematic knowledge about likelihoods knowledge about outcomes RISK UNCERTAINTY AMBIGUITY IGNORANCE decision rules aggregative analysis deliberative process political closure reductive modeling stochastic reasoning rules of thumb insurance ` evidence-basing agenda-setting horizon scanning transdisciplinarity liability law harm definitions indicators / metrics institutional remits Powerful pressures to ‘close down’ towards risk
  • 18. Why does closing down matter?
    • Dominance of narratives and pathways that represent and intervene mainly in terms of narrow notions of risk
    • Mutual reinforcement of narrative and action; some pathways become motorways
    • Sense of control and order may be fragile and illusory
    • Denies and suppresses key aspects of human-nature technology dynamism and implications
    • Denies and suppresses multiplicity of framings and goals
    • Interventions may prove unsustainable as politics or nature ‘bite back’ in unexpected ways
    • May worsen livelihoods and wellbeing of particular groups; felt injustice or maldistribution may provoke resistance and rejection
  • 19. From closing down to opening up
    • Addressing global threats in an age of anxiety will require opening up:
    • To recognise multiple narratives that incorporate specific imaginations of the future, anxieties about it and anxieties (goals/strivings for) system change;
    • To address multiple dimensions of incomplete knowledge, and their implications
    • Challenge dominant narratives/pathways; highlight alternatives
  • 20. Opening up in epidemics governance? Some suggestions
    • From risk-based rapid-response to a more inclusive, adaptive, learning-based approach amenable to dealing with incomplete knowledge – including surprise
    • Rethink surveillance from tracking disease events, to tracking system dynamics - modelling and participatory work
    • Deliberative approaches to debating disease ‘futures possible’, impacts and implications for different groups
    • New disciplinary mixes (e.g. epidemiology, ecology, anthropology), ethnographic understandings of disease dynamics and cultural logics
    • Professional mixes around new policy platforms (e.g. One World, One Health)
    • Organisational arrangements and procedures that can embrace diversity, flexibility, and learning
    • Citizen mobilisation around perspectives, rights and claims of people living with disease
  • 21. Towards a plural anticipatory research/politics for an anxious age
    • Analysis - openness, diversity, trans-disciplinarity, reflexivity
    • Designs – roles for new appraisal tools and methods
    • Governance – adaptive, reflexive, deliberative
    • Political engagement –
      • influencing policy processes and effecting policy change;
      • citizen mobilisation, network and alliance-building
      • shaping public discourse, information and communication flows in a multi-media knowledge landscape
    • Humility and reflexivity – taking positionality seriously