Thursday, July 29, 2010

Phronetic Social Science is on Facebook

Please note the new link to Phronetic Social Science on Facebook. This is a site run by Bent Flyvbjerg to help to promote the understanding and development of this approach in the Social Sciences. Well worth a look and a wander around the links to get a better understanding of the approach, its application and the debates surrounding it.

Hazards: The Developmental Approach

Way back as an undergraduate I eagerly read Hewitt’s 1983 book ‘Interpretations of Calamity’. An edited collection of papers from a number of authors it offered a different perspective, a new angle (to me anyway) on what hazards were and how to study them. The book fits into a more general trend at this time to analyse hazards differently from the then dominant, scientific approach (with, admittedly, a cardboard caricature of science being contrasted), hence the term ‘alternative approach’ used by Hewitt.

So what is so different that the approach deserves the tag ‘alternative’? Hazards are no longer seen as sudden breaks with normality, abrupt geophysical events that are unpredictable in their occurrence and impact. Instead hazards are viewed in context. They may be physical in nature but their impact is always differentiated and there is always a human element to them. Beyond the simple ‘without people there are no hazards’ aspect, the developmental approach, as the name might suggest, focused on looking at where the impact of hazards was greatest – the developing world. The claim was and is that this is no an accident. Hazards and disasters highlight an ongoing process of underdevelopment, of lack of access to resources and to economic and political structures to empower people to respond and resist the impact of hazards. Hazards are not breaks with normality, instead they throw into sharper focus the normality of vulnerability and underdevelopment of certain sectors of the population and of the world. Some authors even suggested that such underdevelopment was an essential component of the world economic system, ensuring that certain countries never got to the level to compete with developed countries.

As you might guess, this view of hazards has an acute political angle, a key concern with development and social justice. Hazards that are ‘natural’ are no-one’s fault; hazards that are a product of an unequal society can be blamed on someone or some group. Again not surprisingly, Marxist and structuralist researchers were and are very active in this field and research has tended to focus on the poor and underprivileged in both developing and developed nations. From a Marxist beginning, the importance of social, economic and cultural factors in understanding differential vulnerability to hazards and recovery from disasters is now firmly engrained whatever the political persuasion you happen to be (at least I think so!) The approach is probably best explained through a couple of illustrations.

One of the classic illustrations of this approach is the issue of soil erosion in developing countries. In a dominant approach study you might measure physical properties such as soil fertility, slope angle, rainfall erosivity (how powerful the rainfall is so how much it can erode), soil erodibility (how susceptible the soil is to being eroded) – all terms found in the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) which I will chat about in a later blog. You might then recommend that the locals change their ways to reduce environmentally harmful soil loss (conveniently forgetting that they have somehow survived for hundreds maybe thousands of years in this environment using their framing methods). You might even draw on a convenient list of crops that would bind and help prevent soil loss. This highlights a classic tactic or claim about the dominant approach. The victims become those responsible for the problem. It is the farmers fault there is erosion; it is the farmers fault he farms the land that gets flooded by the storms in Bangladesh. The developmental approach doesn’t assume this. It asks a different set of questions.

A farmer in Nepal has a difficult enough life as it is without a Western expert telling them to stop doing what has worked for generations. They have to pay rent, they have to pay for the fertilizer and farming equipment they need to use the new crops the expert told them to use and their landlord insists they grow because they mean he can put their rent up. His wife (in a very sexist caricature here) is always on about the latest things they should have that her cousin in Kathmandu has. The children need to walk to school and he needs to pay for their education if they are to escape the same trap as he. Is this painting a picture of an uncaring, deliberately environmentally destructive farmer? Or is this painting a picture of someone struggling to become part of a wider society with all the pressures, demands and aspirations that this means as illustrated in Figure 1. This is the view of the developmental approach, soil erosion isn’t a sudden problem, it is part of the system, it is an inevitable consequence of the farmer’s position within a capitalist society.

Figure 1 Web of RealtioNs Affecting the Farmer (Note scale not mentioned as yet)

A farmer is nested within a set of hierarchical relations all of which constrain how he (or she but that is fairly unlikely in this context) can behave. If the economy alone is considered then something like Figure 2 could illustrate the farmer being nested in his own farm within a local economy, which is in turn nested in a regional economy which is itself part of a global economy. The farmer is impacted by the regional economy where as a tenant he needs to pay rent to a landlord who may be absent. The landlord may be enmeshed in a regional economy where cash is vital to maintain his or her lifestyle forcing the local farmer to grow cash crops to pay the rent in cash rather than any other form such as labour or goods in lieu of cash. Instantly, this drags the farmer into the global economy. Cash crops may require different farming practices from traditional ones plus funds for seeds, fertilizer, etc. Now imagine a drought hits the area. The farmer can not response as they used to with traditional methods as now their land is growing cash crops that aren’t use to the extreme natural conditions. The farmer can’t grow enough food for his family nor to pay the landlord. What has caused the disaster? The farmer or the relatively powerless position of the farmer in the world economy?

Figure 2 Hierarchy of economic relations affetcing farmer

Adding other layers such as society (Figure 3) and some complicated interactions are bound to ensue. Institutions are regional or national level, such as the government or state religion, will impact on the day to day life of the farmer and so influence how he behaves. Equally, however, these institutions are dependent on the individuals for their existence, without people governments can’t exist, but it is accessibility to these institutions that determines whether individuals feel they have the power to alter their circumstances. Access is partly determined by money, so economics weaves into the social. I have drawn circles as global, regional and local. This is really just for convenience you could define other spatial units, such as nations, development boards or even continental organisations, and other sets of relations for these units. The important point is that there is a nested set of relations that can very soon developed into a very complicated web of relations that constrain the behaviour of an individual. In these cases placing the responsibility for a disaster at the feet of an individual seems a little harsh.

Figure 3 Combining hierarchies: Economic and social levels - note units can differ in scale and there are inter-scale linkages to consider - in other words it gets very, very complicated!

A very useful starting point for understanding hazards using the developmental approach is:

At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters by Piers Blaikie, Terry Canon and Ben Wisner (2003)

Monday, July 26, 2010



I outlined my initial view of environmental geography a couple of blogs ago. Since then I have been looking around for something that could clarify, expand and explain my view with a little more clarity and depth. I hope that my outline of the different approaches to studying hazards is beginning to show how environmental geography can be relevant.

I have been, however, loking for something that would serve as a reference for dicsussion; something that might need expansion and correction from time to time but one which readers of the blog might like to mull over and consider. A useful starting point might be the quote below taken from a book by Bent Flyvbjerg. I have just replaced the words ‘social science’ with the words ‘environmental geography’.

.. we must take up problems that matter to the local, national, and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we must focus on issues of values and power like great social scientists have advocated ….. Finally, we must effectively communicate the results of our research to fellow citizens. If we do this we may successfully transform [environmental geography] from what is fast becoming a sterile academic activity, which is undertaken mostly for its own sake and in increasing isolation from a society on which it has little effect and from which it gets little appreciation. We may transform [environmental geography] to an activity done in public for the public, sometimes to clarify, sometimes to intervene, sometimes to generate new perspectives, and always to serve as eyes and ears in our ongoing efforts at understanding the present and deliberating about the future.

(Bent Flyvbjerg, 2001, Making social science matter – why social science inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p.166.)

Bent Flyvbjerg is professor at the University of Oxford, in the Said Business School ( He has lead a debate calling for a rejection of the natural science model of research in the social sciences and making social sciences more relevant to people outside science such as citizens and policy makers. He has developed the phronetic approach to social sciences, i.e. studying of social phenomena with a focus on power and values. This approach asks four specific questions:

1. Where are we going?
2. Is this development desirable?
3. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
4. What, if anything, should we do about it?

(see Wikipiedia for more details:

Whilst Flyvbjerg focuses on a idealised model of how physical science is done culminating in a predictive model of reality that is not necessarily how mdoern science with one eye on complexity views or understands reality, he does make an interesting point that predictability as understood in the natural sciences may not be achievable in the social sciences. The application of a model with relaible equations or laws may not be that useful in trying to predict human behaviour or in answering questions of what ought to be, of what is fair, questions of value and judgement that natural science, in the view of many social scientists, has trouble with.

My own view is that the physical sciences (for want of a better term) ask important, but different types of questions of the environment than social sciences so it is not a surprise that different types of answers are produced by each type of study. What the above quote does emphasis is that study for its own sake will produce a sterile subject. Although environmental geography has not wandered down this cul-de-sac yet, it is vital that it is practised and practised in a relevant context for it to develop and to provide communities with the perspective and power to improve their circumstances. In other words environmental geography must be relevant.

So what would a relevant environmental geography look like? Could it square the circle of incorporating both natural and social science? Could it inform and empower communities? A possible example of this type of environmental geography is provided by the South Durban Environmental Alliance ( This is a community based organization, active since 1996, (an umbrella for 14 affiliate organizations) that lobbies, reports and researches industrial incidents in the South Durban area of South Africa. It is a good example of participatory science or democratic science where communities get involved in developing, logging, collating and interpreting scientific information and knowledge. The division between ‘expert’ and ‘local’ knowledge becomes deliberately blurred. The reporting of incidents, for example, is collated and mapped . A set of data reliant on local knowledge, presented in a format understandable to local people and available for local communities to lobby on the basis of ‘scientific’ information.
Geography is central to this alliance and they have produced a brochure on their use of GIS in developing this community based science.
Although this type of community based activity may not be translatable across the globe it does illustrate how individuals can use geography to monitor, interpret and lobby for action on their local environments. Environmental geography that really matters.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The risks raised by the ash cloud that swamped Europe in April/May 2010 could be thought of in terms of a set of actants (things, people, institutions anything entity really that has the ability to act upon and be acted upon by other entities). Relations between these actants are not fixed but change as the interactions between the actants change. Some relations and actants are harder to change, more entrenched, than others but all are capable of change even if this change is more painful to some than to others.

Figure 1 illustrates the main actants involved in the ash cloud story. The actants are presented as simple boxes but this hides a great deal of differentiation within each box. All airlines, for example, are not the same and or, initially anyway, were they response to the ash clod. Some airlines complained bitterly after a few days of grounding, others took the air in uninstrumented flights to ‘prove’ the safety of the airspace. Likewise, the government is likely to have had different factions pushing for grounding and for letting flights take place. All the actants relations end up focusing on airspace, the theatre in which the drama is played out.

Figure 1 Main actants in ash cloud drama

Importantly, none of the boxes is isolated; many of the boxes are intricately interlinked. Some of the links are relatively straight-forward. The Met Office and CAA, for example, are linked in a very formal manner. The CAA have set criteria for dust concentrations deemed safe. The Met Office provided that information based on computer modelling and data from instrumented flights. The Met Office may also provide the CAA with information on hazardous weather conditions but again the link is formal and highly structured. The link between the met Office and government is more of an economic link, the government paying for an impartial service, whilst the CAA has a regulatory link to the government in setting the legal parameters of responsibility for the airlines. Links need not be singular in nature. The airlines pay tax to the government (economic link), but also lobby on environmental issues and apply pressure when they interests are threatened.

The whole network trundles along, changing and developing as the actants interact, each trying to make the whole network function for their benefit. Each actant has a role in the network. The Met Office has a ‘scientific’ role of monitoring, the CAA a regulatory role, the airlines an economic role. This does not mean to say that each actant will not press into service different aspects of their character in pursuit of their goals, in their attempts to align the network and how it operate to their benefit. The Met Office tries to monitor the ash concentrations, measure and characterize the ash partilces and transmit this information effectively to all actants. The resultant grounding of flights, based on the CAA interpretation this information, meant the network wasn’t functioning in a manner that matched the desires of the airlines. The airlines tried to usurp the role of the Met Office by undertaking their own ‘tests’, flying unistrumented planes into the ash cloud and then transmitted this information through the network and beyond. The airlines tried to take on a role where they collected and transmitted information about the ash to parts of the network where that information could be understood in a way that benefited them. The general public could understand a plane going through an ash cloud and coming out the other side – could they understand complicated mathematically models that predicted ash concentrations? The airlines played to the general public, part of a wider network, to influence the government and CAA, part of the immediate network focused on the UK airspace.

Expanding the network out, it is relatively easy to include other actants (Figure 2). The CAA insisted that they were setting limits based on advice from VAAC and engine manufacturers. It didn’t take long before the economic relation between engine manufacturers and airlines resulted in the release of new information from the engine manufacturers as to the limits of operation in ash. Similarly, the wheel network could be expanded out to include the general public. There is however a danger with this type of analysis. You must always be aware that drawing a box around group doesn’t mean that that group is real or that that group is static. Entities evolve and are differentiated. Airlines are not all the same nor they necessarily behave in the same way to each hazard that they encounter. Likewise, the general public will not necessarily act as a mindless mass if given certain information. What this type of analysis does do is to help to clarify what entities are involved, how they are related and how they use these relationships to try to align the whole network to their benefit.

Figure 2 Expanding the network: VAAC and engine manufacturers

Hazards: Rational Choices

The dominant approach to the study of hazards doesn’t mean that the action of people can’t be studied, just that a particular type of behaviour is often expected – rational behaviour. Given a set of choices, you will behave in a certain way and numbers can be put to that predictability. It may be that this behaviour will be modelled statistically, 95% of the time you will choose A, 5% of the time B, or 95% of individuals in a particular set of circumstances will choose A, only 5% will choose B. you get the idea. Assuming the behaviour of individuals is predictable given a context, means that responses can be modelled and planned for.

An earthquake hits a major urban area in the US. You don’t really want the authorities to spend time trying to second-guess what people will do, you really want them to use their experience and insights from experts to rapidly rescue people. A plane shudders to a halt during take-off and the smell of burning fills you nostrils. Aren’t you glad experiments and computer models gave engineers the answers as to how people behave in such a situation and so where to put the exits to try to get as many panicking people out as possible.

But if people are rational then why are seemingly irrational choices made everyday and everywhere? Why do farmers persist on farming on the flood plain in Bangladesh, why are houses still built on the flood plain in Britain, why do fishermen set to sea when the weather forecasts a hurricane? These decisions can still be viewed as rational. Take the fisherman and the hurricane, a classic problem in rationality used by Burton, White and Kates back in the 1970s to illustrate the behaviour of individuals in hazards.

They suggest that understanding rational behaviour may be better understood if it is represented as a series of possible choices or alternatives given a particular or expected state of nature (Figure 1). For each state of nature and alternative action available, the individual will judge the consequences of their actions and choose the most rational option. The individual has to appraise what the state of nature is, not the easiest thing to do, as well as be aware of the range of alternative actions available. Assuming that the researcher can limit this choice depending on the individual’s experience and circumstances there are still problems with the simple application of this model.

Figure 1 Hazards, choices, state of nature

The individual and even the researcher may be operating in complete ignorance of how nature operates so there is complete uncertainty. In this case Burton, White and Kates suggest that ‘expected utility’ will be the rational mode of decision making – thus giving away the debt to economics and economic reasoning that this view of individuals has (Figure 2). In this case the numbers in brackets represent the payoffs of each alternative action. Rationally, the fisherman will be expected to remain at sea and fish.

Figure 2 Rational chocies for fisherman

Where there is a known probability of an event occurring then the payoffs can be altered to reflect this as in Figure 3. Here the 40% probability of a hurricane (0.4) changes the likely payoffs of each alternative action. (For the remain, no hurricane cell, for example, the new payoff is now the probability of no hurricane or 0.6 multiplied by the old payoff of +2 which gives a new payoff of +1.2). The remain option is still the rational one but the difference between it and evacuating is now a lot less, particularly if the payoff of 0 for the remain option is considered if the fisherman is proved to the wrong and a hurricane does happen.

Figure 3 Choices based on probabilities of events and alternative actions

The fisherman may not think in terms of scientific probabilities but may apply their own experience knowledge and subjective reasoning to the problem. This may alter the payoff again as in Figure 4. In this figure the fisherman has a high expectation of a hurricane, translated to a probability of 0.9. What this is based on is open to quesiton. It may be a general view amongst fisherman that hurricanes are likely at this time of year in this place or it may be more personal - a childhood memory of a major hurricane clouds the perception of an individual. Whatever the cause of this perception it is somehow translateable as a probability. Now it is clear from the matrix in Figure 4 that evacuation is the rational option but based on the subjective probabilities. This type of decision making might not be classed as rational by some experts. If the level of regret is considered, then the fisherman might evacuate at the first hint of a hurricane rather then even consider weighing up options.

Figure 4 Choices based on subjective probabilities

Do people act like this? Do you carefully weigh up the alternatives available to you every time you have to make a decision? Do you consider all the information available to you? Who you are, where you are, what you have been through have no bearing on what decision you make? Being flooded out one year has no bearing on what you do this year? Including or even working solely with subjective probabilities as in Figure 3 may seem a way around this problem of seeming irrationality in decision making but is it really just a fudge? Subjective probabilities still implies that a number, a probability, can be assigned to every alternative and that that number is based on something (and possible even consistent through time). People are a lot more annoying than that – after a decision I am sure virtually everyone can justify having made that choice. Ask them at the time, presuming they have time in a major earthquake with masonry falling all around them as they drag their family to what they hope is safety – and that individual will not be able to tell you why they make a certain decision and not another.

Most decisions are taken with limited information acquired because the individual is who they are and in the circumstances they are. A poor resident of New Orleans has different access to information sources than a rich resident. Information is not action. Individual will interpret and then act (or not) upon information in different ways. These differences could be dependent on their background, their class, their access to resources (real or perceived), their belief systems and a whole manner of complex and interacting factors that might just be amendable to statistically modelling (e.g. people from socio-economic group A are more likely to act in way B as they have access to resources, better information, more insurance, etc) but are unlikely to tell you why a specific individual, in a specific stressed situation made a specific decision. In a disaster the specifics are vital are they as important before and after?

The classic text on hazards by Burton, Kates and White is worth reading to help to understand these ideas.

The Environment as Hazard by Ian Burton, Robert Kates and Gilbert White (1993)