Of risk and uncertainty to ignorance and not knowing: Insights from a German debate on environmental decision making

20 March 2014, 12.30 PM - 20 March 2014, 12.30 PM

Room 3.13, Graduate School of Education, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol


Florian Neisser, Department of Geography, Bonn University and Erasmus Teaching Visitor, U. of Bristol.


Risk and uncertainty are now more than ever important societal concerns linked with conceptualising futurity and development. Even though we conceptualise risk by working with probabilities, recurrence periods, and scenarios, risk navigates the notion that the future will always be uncertain and contingent. When it comes to thinking concretely about uncertainty, however, we soon encounter the frontiers of knowledge. We are confronted by obstacles of knowing when and where an event will occur, as well as what the exact consequences will be (Kolliarakis 2013, p. 317). Recently, an influential and growing discussion in Germany has focused on ignorance (Wehling 2001) and 'non-knowing' (nichtwissen) (Beck & Wehling 2012) as ways of dealing with the limitations of concepts like 'risk' and 'uncertainty'. For Wehling, important aspects of ignorance and non-knowing refer to the unknown and unexpected consequences of social action and decision-making beyond calculable risk and uncertainty. In principal, this also implicates core issues in the quest for scientific knowledge and common risk management. For those risks prevalent in contemporary discussions, the usual accountabilities to decision making processes, and the idea of complete knowledge about structure and the effect of the risk phenomena are increasingly questioned. It is argued, instead, that the combination of thinking in terms of contingency, fused with insights of knowledge management around the question ‘what is viable knowledge’ could open up valuable contributions to ‘risk governance’ (Renn 2008). The seminar will present the growing debate within Germany, draw on relevant environmental examples, and raise comparative questions about decision-making and conflicts pertaining to EU and global contexts.

Those attending may wish to read the following recommended articles. (If you would like a copy of the papers, please e-mail Sally Smart < sally.smart@bristol.ac.uk> who will provide pdf copies.) 
Beck, U. & Wehling, P (2012)  'The Politics of Non-Knowing: An Emerging Area of Social and Political Conflict in Reflexive Modernity  '. In: Rubio, F. D. and Baert , P.(eds)  The Politics of Knowledge. London/New York: Routledge,  
pp.  33-57.

Renn, O. & Klinke, A.(2013) 
'Space Matters! Impacts for Risk Governance'. In: D. Müller-Mahn (ed.)  The Spatial Dimension of Risk. How Geography Shapes the Emergence of Riskscapes. Milton Park and New York: Routledge, pp.1-21  .

Other information

This event will run from 12.30 pm - 2 pm.

This event is open to all UoB staff and students.

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