Disasters, Humanitarianism and Emergencies: A politics of uncertainty

Mark Pelling, Detlef Müller-Mahn and John McCloskey
Academic publication
July 2020
Risk Resilience

The Politics of Uncertainty: Practical Challenges for Transformative Action is an Open Access book exploring the theme of uncertainty in the science-society nexus.

This chapter, written by Tomorrow's Cities Co-Directors Mark Pelling and John McCloskey, with Detlef Müller-Mahn, explores Disasters, Humanitarianism and Emergencies. Long-standing research on disaster risk has tended to focus on physical science and directly connected and observable cause and effect between hazard and impact. More recently, work has extended into questions of complex causation and social construction, where cause and effect are disarticulated over space and time and coloured by an observer’s viewpoint and perception. This has drawn in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, including recognition of local or traditional knowledge. The chapter explores this transition and the ways in which the search for a more complete understanding of risk production and human action has brought both increased understanding and greater uncertainty to those who seek to use science for action. By drawing together viewpoints from social and physical science perspectives the chapter identifies four fundamental properties of knowledge production in the context of disaster risk and international development: (1) uncertainty is prevalent throughout disaster research; (2) as knowledge has grown, so awareness of the uncertainties that constrain this knowledge has also grown; (3) uncertainties are likely to remain into the future and so must be embraced; and (4) managing the presentation of uncertainty is a challenge for scientists working with policy-makers and the public, who look to science to reduce uncertainty.

The Politics of Uncertainty book, which can be found in full here, is a result of an international academic symposium of the same title, organised by the STEPS Centre and held at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK.