Thursday, July 2, 2009

Postnormal Normal

I just happened upon the label “postnormal science.” It’s used in the article “Postnormal Science, Precautionary Principle, and Worst Cases: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century Catastrophes,” by Brent K. Marshall and J. Steven Picou, in the journal Sociological Inquiry (Vol. 78, No. 2, May 2008, 230-247). The label refers to using science to solve problems following catastrophes when “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent” and when everyone affected by the problems needs to join in the discussion about solving the problems [see footnote]. The article refers to the attacks on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Indian Ocean tsunami. These events had sudden, major, and in these cases, negative consequences.

So, can we use a similar approach to addressing issues resulting from major (positive?) changes taking place in Normal? Specifically, the consequences of the construction in Uptown Normal, the changing population, and changes in the Unit 5 school system.

Facts are uncertain: We do not yet know if some investors in Uptown will have the finances to complete their projects. We do not know what consequences redistricting will have on schools and students. We do not know what impact demographic changes will have on the community.

Values in dispute: Because of the economic situation, there is increasing debate about how the town’s money should be spent. Some people want most of it spent on basics (road repair, maintaining and upgrading the water system, police and fire services). Other people support spending money on improving Uptown (the central business district) and providing incentives for businesses to come to Normal.

Stakes high: Any major investment of resources by the town means that the stakes are high. If the new hotel is not successful and if the apartments and condos being built in Uptown aren’t rented and sold, the town will end up with empty buildings and not much new money coming in. If, on the other hand, these projects are successful, and people appreciate the new look of the streets and sidewalks, the town will reap some pretty big rewards.

Decisions urgent: The construction decisions are urgent to the extent that investors want a quick decision about their proposed projects. The decisions about the school system are definitely urgent because the students are here and need schools.

Everyone affected needs to join the discussion: I think this has always been the case but there wasn’t an intentional effort made to include everyone in the past because it wasn’t possible to get everyone the information and because social inequality created barriers that kept some people out of the discussion. Now, it is much easier to get the information out to everyone and because more people are aware of what is going on, those in power feel more obligated (or are more pressured) to include as many stakeholders as possible in the discussions.

Even though my application of the idea of postnormal science probably isn’t what the authors of the article intended, I think there are enough parallels to justify using the label “postnormal.” It will be interesting to see what postnormal Normal looks like.

[Footnote: the specific description of postnormal science comes from the article “Three Types of Risk Assessment and Emergence of Post-Normal Science” by Silvio O. Funtowics and Jerome R. Ravetz, in the journal Social Theories of Risk (pp. 251-74, 1992).]

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