Thursday, November 27, 2008

Towards a relational concept of uncertainty

As the Newater project is approaching its completion, results and products are appearing at increasing speed. One of these is a paper on uncertainty authored by Marcela Brugnach and Claudia Pahl-Wostl (University of Osnabruck), Tharsi Taillieu (University of Leuven) and myself. This paper on 'knowing too little', 'knowing too differently' and 'accepting not to know' was recently published in Ecology and Society.


Uncertainty of late has become an increasingly important and controversial topic in water resource management, and natural resources management in general. Diverse managing goals, changing environmental conditions, conflicting interests, and lack of predictability are some of the characteristics that decision makers have to face. This has resulted in the application and development of strategies such as adaptive management, which proposes flexibility and capability to adapt to unknown conditions as a way of dealing with uncertainties. However, this shift in ideas about managing has not always been accompanied by a general shift in the way uncertainties are understood and handled. To improve this situation, we believe it is necessary to recontextualize uncertainty in a broader way—relative to its role, meaning, and relationship with participants in decision making—because it is from this understanding that problems and solutions emerge. Under this view, solutions do not exclusively consist of eliminating or reducing uncertainty, but of reframing the problems as such so that they convey a different meaning. To this end, we propose a relational approach to uncertainty analysis. Here, we elaborate on this new conceptualization of uncertainty, and indicate some implications of this view for strategies for dealing with uncertainty in water management. We present an example as an illustration of these concepts.


Brugnach, M., A. Dewulf, C. Pahl-Wostl, and T. Taillieu. 2008. Toward a relational concept of uncertainty: about knowing too little, knowing too differently, and accepting not to know. Ecology and Society 13(2): 30. [online] URL: (open access!)