Researching ‘uncertainty from below’

Village meeting in Sundarbans

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


Ecological uncertainty has usually been theorized from ‘above’ by experts, natural scientists, and modellers who measure and make prognoses about water availability and variability, glacier movements as well as changes in temperature and their impacts on the soils, water and food systems.  Social scientists have also contributed to theorizing about uncertainty. But the focus on models, diagrams  and scenarios may have very little to do with how everyday men and women (poor or rich, urban or rural especially in the global South) live with, understand and cope with uncertainty and rarely have uncertainty from ‘above’ and uncertainty from ‘below’ been brought together.

While a rich literature has documented how herders, cultivators and local resource users live with uncertainty and scarcity, this literature has rarely made its way to the meccas of uncertainty and rarely do analyses of uncertainty from ‘above’ and ‘below’ come together.

Climate change is a good case in point.  The rich ethnographic material on seasonality, coping with floods, droughts, scarcity and local uncertainties and how these are socially differentiated rarely finds its way to the mainstream climate change literature on extreme events, climate change and resource patterns and their impacts on water, agriculture and the soils.  There is emerging research on how local perspectives on adaptation can be incorporated in more mainstream perspectives and it would be important to examine the processes of this incorporation.

This is why there is growing criticism of doomsday portrayals of rapid climate change impacts in some parts of Asia and Africa which often can be out of sync with local realities where uncertainty crises often appear to be the norm and where coping strategies have emerged.  Of course, it is true that many coping mechanisms may no longer be resilient to extreme events and major political and economic drivers of change and we must not romanticize ‘living with uncertainty. ’ Still, ignoring uncertainty from ‘below’ misses out on important opportunities to create synergies across different knowledge domains.

Another related problem is that uncertainty from ‘above’ rarely captures all the narratively rich diverse storylines around uncertainty and resilience which reveal diverse imaginaries, alternative futures and scenarios. Furthermore, resilience debates are often static and may not look at the political ecology and economy of resilience (i.e. resilience for what purpose and for whom? Similarly, thresholds, tipping points and limits are rarely viewed as socially mediated and constructed, instead they are viewed as universalist and absolute, leading to ‘perfect storm’ narratives and justifying acts of brutal and extreme power (e.g. forced resettlement). Similarly, modellers and others rarely bring together their analyses with those concerning political economy and macro economic and political changes which also have  impacts that may be more drastic than climate change (e.g. land grabs in Africa, changes in technology etc).

Project aims

This STEPS Centre Uncertainty from Below project seeks to:

  • Bring uncertainty from ‘above’, ‘middle’ and ‘below’ together – this would be by seeking convergences and divergences in diverse knowledge systems, infusing the world of imaginaries into the hard nose world of science around climate change and evidence and trying to facilitate dialogue between the world of measuring and the world of experiencing uncertainty.  By ‘middle’ we are referring to the knowledge brokers and intermediaries (such as street-level bureaucrats,  NGO workers and so on).
  • Mapping more systematically storylines of uncertainty, climate change, scarcity histories, ethnographies, political ecologies and try and understand a range of pathways (both dominant and alternative) from a range of stakeholders in particular places.
  • Examining patterns of resilience and coping – what works and why and why not? What are the limits to local knowledges of uncertainty? Which events undermine local resilience? How are these socially differentiated? (This refers to both adaptation and mitigation issues).
  • Bring together patterns of ecological uncertainty together with major drivers of social and political change to understand issues of path dependency

We examined these issues as they are framed globally and nationally and across different sites in India: two mega cities (Delhi and Mumbai), dryland Kutch and the Sunderbans.  The localities offer ecological contrasts, rural- urban-peri urban emphasis and allow us to examine climate change issues across all the STEPS domains. The cases build on past, existing and ongoing  intellectual and empirical work and also ongoing partnerships. These cases were examined in relation to wider development processes and trends in India.

Methods used

In the course of the Uncertainty project researchers generated knowledge through collecting implicit and explicit narratives from and communicating between ‘above’, ‘middle’ and ‘below’.  In the course of the research, the project used largely qualitative but also some quantitative methods to understand the dynamics of uncertainty across scales.  Particular methods include:

  • Detailed literature review of global level debates of uncertainty/ climate change as well as relevant literatures for the specific sites
  • Collection of secondary data on scientific assessments of climate change impacts for each of the sites
  • Three specific case studies (Sunderbans, Kutch and Delhi/ Mumbai) which will involve field level ethnographic work including interviews with a range of actors at the project sites. Detailed ethnographies of local imaginaries, knowledge, strategies to adapting with climate change
  • Semi-structured and key informant interviews as well as focus group discussions with a range of stakeholders across the sites and also amongst scientific experts
  • Seasonal calendars and Hazard Vulnerability and capacity mapping to understand local level dynamics of climate change and uncertainty
  • Quantitative surveys of local perceptions (Kutch only)
  • Knowledge encounters – (juxtaposition of scientific and local understandings of uncertainty, resilience, etc.)  workshop, comparing and contrasting      literatures etc.
  • Landscape, livelihood and political/policy histories of a particular place, using oral historical methods, complemented by archival and secondary literature resources. Notably all these cases are in sites with rich environmental history literatures
  • Archival historical work
  • Policy mapping and policy actor mapping from global, national to local levels to show the links/ disjuncture across different policies, knowledge and programmes
  • Judicious use of Photovoice to identify, understand and reflect on the perceptions of the community and the realise the triggers and barriers from the perspective of the community that has a direct co-relation with the Uncertainty due to Climate Change
  • An embedded communications strategy from the very outset through which we will involve stakeholders from the ‘above’, ‘middle’ and ‘below’ of our research and emerging findings. Through this process, we seek to facilitate dialogues with the key stakeholders, practitioners, end users and the larger community. A series of workshops, panel discussions, blogs, audio-visual reportage and focused fora were used.