Presentation at the AAG conference in Los Angeles (April 2013)

I’ll be heading to L.A. for the annual American Association of Geographers‘ conference this April. I’m looking forward to two specific activities. First, I will present a paper on the relationship between water and food production in Bangladesh. This paper is already drafted, and I think does a good job of integrating quantitative data from the FAO with my own qualitative data (the abstract is below). Second, I will participate in a panel discussion on the topic of risk and marginality – details to follow.

I look forward to engaging with other AAG participants. Please get in touch if you’d like to meet for a discussion or drink.

Water and Food in Bangladesh: swinging between opposing knowledge claims and the controversy over what should be done

For this paper I combine publicly available quantitative data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) with qualitative data from interviews with influential individuals in Bangladesh. These data sets are shown to be complementary, though the qualitative findings offer a substantially more pessimistic interpretation of future water and food management than is implied by the quantitative data.

The interview data helps to define periods within the FAO data based on an accumulation of technological innovations: beginning with flood control, adding irrigation, and later adding high-yielding varieties of rice. These periods are then used to explain the polarisation of opinions that populate current debates over water and food in Bangladesh, leading to my interpretation of the water-food relationship as a post-normal problem (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). For example, the periods help to contextualise the ‘polarised-and-fluctuating’ debate over the protection of agriculture from floods.

My reinterpretation of Bangladesh’s water-food history adds to debates over water/food security by showing how both Boserup– and Malthus-inspired analyses are accurate (Turner and Ali 1996): necessity has successfully driven innovation, though a collapse remains probable given current trends. Unfortunately, the analysis also shows that the benefits of technological innovations have been ‘consumed’ by population growth and development, leaving fewer options for Bangladesh as it struggles to meet food demands. In terms of post-normal problems, the research helps to explain: 1) why more knowledge can make controversies less clear and 2) how an emphasis on context can help differentiate competing knowledge claims.


Water; Flood; Food; Bangladesh; Controversy; Knowledge; Post-normal; Security; Sustainable

Funtowicz, S. O. and Ravetz, J. R. 1993. Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7): 739-755.
 Turner, B. L. and Ali, A. M. S. 1996. Induced intensification: Agricultural change in Bangladesh with implications for Malthus and Boserup. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 93(25): 14984-14991.

Presentation at the ANU Sociology Department

I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the ANU (Australia National University) Sociology department last week. I was a little worried about speaking to sociologists, but they were incredibly welcoming and the questions were extremely valuable.

Here is the abstract:

Amongst debates over the management of environmental risk, an important theme has been the involvement of publics (Irwin, 1995) and the legitimacy of public knowledge (Collins and Evans, 2002). In terms of flood management in Bangladesh, public knowledge has informed critiques of dominant practices by demanding the democratisation of the knowledges deemed legitimate. To date, the ramifications of this situation have gone unexplored. Drawing on interviews with more than fifty decision-making experts, this analysis finds that public knowledge has been accepted as legitimate, seemingly capitulating to a long-standing criticism. Local and expert knowledges are now commonly incorporated within flood management, blurring any distinction between the two. Unfortunately, in a somewhat absurd twist, the informal knowledge and experiences shaping flood management appear to be the recollections, opinions, and anecdotes of the power-holding experts. The experts have re-established their authority by deploying their own lay knowledges-experiences as a way of including lay knowledge without including ‘others’. In terms of the democratisation of governance, the flood management case study suggests that power-holders have been re-empowered by arguments designed to make flood management more representative.

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.

Another set of research opportunities – this time Honours-level

Department of Resource Management and Geography: research opportunities for prospective honours students

Brian is interested in supervising students exploring topics related to flood management, risk, knowledge, and/or human vulnerability. Proposals situated in Australia, Bangladesh, India, the UK, and Portugal are welcome, though other contexts may be possible. Brian has experience with both quantitative and qualitative research methods, for example including projects that explore flood impacts on homes or perception-based analyses. Brian’s recent research has emphasised the ‘power-holder’ or ‘decision-maker’, leading to research findings that explore how flood management occurs and how the people making decisions rationalise what they do. This type of research emphasises who benefits and who is negatively affected by flood management practices; ultimately, this informs critiques aimed at social justice and appreciation for the disproportionate impact of disasters on (often already) vulnerable individuals. As part of these projects he has collaborated with NGOs in the developing and developed world. Alternately, he has experience with analyses at the local scale that explore how people experience, perceive, and understand disasters.

Overall, his research tends to use controversies as entry points, allowing for analyses that prioritise the multiple, entwined understandings that fuel controversy, rather than attempts to ‘uncover a solution’. These methodologies can lead to policy-relevant findings, and it is hoped that future projects will follow a similar path. Brian asks that students seeking supervision consider: 1) what interests them, 2) what skills they wish to develop, and 3) how this project fits with their wider aspirations. It is hoped that projects will have purpose and will be student-driven.

Potential topics might include:

  1. Analyses of flood mitigation efforts by individuals, communities, groups, or local government in the context of the 2011 Victorian floods.
  2. Controversy over the Victorian desalinisation plant (Wonthaggi Desalination Plant) and questions over technical intervention compared to individual behavioural changes.
  3. Flood management in Bangladesh, India, or the wider Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin.
  4. The role of scientific knowledge within flood management relative to ‘alternate’ knowledges such as local, indigenous, or perceptions from people who have experienced disasters.

Please get in touch to discuss any potential ideas. For more topics, other academics in the department, or for ideas for potential co-supervision, please go here.

Research Opportunity for Masters-level Student

Sharing Responsibility for Disaster: Developing Subsidiarity Principles for Local Government

Dr. Alan March (Urban Planning), Associate Professor Louise Harms (Social Work), and Dr. Brian Cook (Geography) are seeking masters-level students interested in flood and fire management in Australia. This qualitative project seeks to identify the most effective level at which management of floods and fires occur within local Australian government. With support from the city of Whittlesea and the University of Melbourne, the project asks how authority shifts during catastrophic events, with an aim of better understanding how decision-making adapts and is adapted in response to floods and fires.

The researchers are seeking 1-3 masters-level students for complementary projects. They will have the opportunity to work alongside a Research Assistant employed for the project, who will provide additional support. Whether associated with a specific discipline or by drawing on supervision from the three disciplines, we are looking for motivated students, with experience with qualitative methods, and an interest in disaster and risk management. For consideration, students are asked to submit a proposal (no more than one page) and brief CV (outlining relevant experience and related expertise).

The projects are likely to start late 2012 or early 2013. For further information, please contact Dr. Brian Cook.