Presentation at ANU: Tapping the Turn Conference

Here is the Abstract for a Talk I am giving next week.

Bangladesh will experience another disastrous flood that will spark vociferous debate, but what is it that will be debated? The scale of events in Bangladesh makes floods difficult to imagine as anything other than catastrophic, but social and participatory research has shown that people distinguish between flood impacts that are harmful (Bonna) and flood impacts that are beneficial (Barsha). This distinction represents a cultural interpretation of what a flood is, which is informative for anyone contemplating living with floods. But important questions remain concerning the underlying assumptions concerning floods, particularly with regard to sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and resilience. For example, what does it mean for a flood manager to believe that floods are or are not a problem? Such questions are imbued with power and are as much about competing interpretations as they are about the water flowing down the Indo-Gangetic plains through Bangladesh.

Flood management in Bangladesh represents a problem with no solution. For this discussion I use the term ‘knowledge controversy’, which is an increasingly important conceptual basis for individuals exploring water’s social dimensions. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a knowledge controversy is that “different expert positions can be consistent with the available evidence yet incommensurable with each other” (Evans and Collins, 2008: 619). This interpretation is consistent with Irwin and Michael (2003: 13), who argue that modern problems and management are moving away from singular rational truths toward more pluralistic accounts in which “multiple rationalities co-exist”. In terms of flood management in Bangladesh, this means that multiple seemingly equal interpretations can substantiate multiple seemingly equal knowledges, arguments, and management strategies, which in turn raises the issue of having to choose between equally valid yet incompatible perspectives.

This research draws on semi-structured interviews with more than fifty decision making experts responsible for flood management in Bangladesh. The respondents include leaders from government, the academy, NGOs, donors, and international organisations. As part of the discussions, each expert was asked ‘whether flooding was a problem in Bangladesh?’ The findings show that opinions concerning the detrimental or beneficial nature of flooding are predetermined and bound to positions on four related issues: 1) governance, or the perception of Bangladesh’s economic and institutional ability to control floods; 2) geography, or the perception of the climatic and topographic factors that influence the sustainability of physical management; 3) society, or the cultural and historical factors wedded to seasonal flooding and flood mitigation; and 4) agriculture, or the recognition that food security is of prime importance, making the negative consequences of floods an unavoidable necessity.

The findings expose the underlying and sometimes hidden rationalisations that (pre)determine the positions that populate the flood management discourse in Bangladesh. By tracing [deconstructing] the issues that indirectly shape expert perceptions of flood management, the knowledge controversy that will inevitably follow the next catastrophe is shown to be a far more complex and socially grounded debate rooted in opinion, perspective, and power than is assumed within much of the discourse. Furthermore, this approach enables analysis and consideration of the ‘flood problem’ that is more representative of the rationalisations underlying (power-holding) opinion; the research shows that debates over flooding are more accurately highly complex debates that draw together numerous related topics and assumptions that need to be considered if a sustainable response to flooding is to be negotiated.

Evans, R. and Collins, H. 2008. Expertise: From Attribute to Attribution and Back Again? In Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M. and Wajcman, J., editors, The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (3rd Edition), London: MIT Press.
 Irwin, A. and Michael, M. 2003. Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Maindenhead, U.K.: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

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