3: What is uncertainty, and why does it matter?

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In this lecture, Ian Scoones explores different ways of thinking about uncertainty, reflecting on societal, political, cultural, practice and individual perspectives.

Thinking about pastoralism means thinking about uncertainty. However, the conventional approach is to construct challenges as risks – where the probabilities of future outcomes are known, or at least can be estimated. Risk assessment and management approaches are familiar, derived from engineering approaches. These are good for some challenges – such as the designing of a bridge or road – but not for others.


When future outcomes are not known, when there are disputes about what outcomes are desired and when indeterminacy prevails in complex systems, then such approaches fail. In this wider, and much more common, condition of uncertainty – or more broadly incertitude – greater humility is required.

This has huge implications for the practices of science, management and policy, with consequences for how institutions and governance arrangements function. A linear, modernist vision of progress is challenged, opening up questions about how we navigate the world under conditions of radical uncertainty.

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  • What are the differences between risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance? Think of some examples of each from pastoral systems.
  • What would be your critique of a ‘risk society’ framing from the perspective of pastoral areas that you work in?
  • What are the implications of moving from a ‘controlling’ (technocratic, managerial, risk-oriented) approach to a more ‘caring’ (open, flexible, improvised and embracing incertitude) approach to pastoral development?


The core reading is the first half of the PASTRES Working Paper, What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter? Contained in the bibliography of the paper is a huge body of literature that you may wish to pursue.

For a wider discussion of uncertainty, please see the open access book edited by Ian Scoones and Andy Stirling, The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation (digital version available from July/August 2020). And for a discussion of pastoralists as ‘high reliability professionals’, see the PASTRES Working paper by Emery Roe (PDF).

Further materials on uncertainty can be found on the STEPS Centre website. This includes the Esther Boserup prize lecture (35 mins) on Why uncertainty means we must rethink development, alongside a blog series, podcasts and short videos from key thinkers on the topic of uncertainty.

Photo credit: Linda Pappagallo

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