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 Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies

Competency Groups

The Competency Group (CG) experiment is a conscious attempt to translate the ‘generative capacity’ of environmental knowledge controversies into a research methodology. CGs involve the natural and social scientists in the project team collaborating with volunteer residents in localities in which flood risk management is already a matter of public controversy. At its most basic, the working practice of CGs is to ‘slow down’ reasoning in order to understand how local flood risk problems and solutions are framed both by the ‘experts’ (EA) and by university and local Group members. This methodology has three goals: - (i) to trace existing flood management policies back through to the scientific knowledge claims and practices that inform them; (ii) to enable those affected by flooding to try out alternative ways of framing and ameliorating the local flooding problem; and (iii) to produce a collective model of local flooding and associated proposals for action that enable the Group’s work to travel and, potentially to make a difference, in local civic and policy networks.

Our first Group was convened in Ryedale (running September 2007 to June 2008) and the second, in Uckfield (running September 2008 to May 2009). It was evident from local press coverage in Ryedale that flood risk management was a hot issue, intensified by the July 2007 flood event that occurred shortly after we advertised for local members to join the Group. In Uckfield the controversy was less intense, with the experiences of the 2003 winter floods receding as we began work there, but reignited by the news that the town had been declared ineligible for funds to provide adequate management schemes. Both controversies centred on the knowledge-base underpinning alternative flood risk management options.

In each case, the CG comprised some 5-6 project team members and 5-8 local members, plus a dedicated camcorder operator. Group activities centred on bi-monthly meetings in which hands-on modelling became the key practice through which ‘expert’ and Group members’ knowledge-claims about the local flood problem could be tried out. These meetings were supplemented by a variety of other activities which emerged in the course of the Group’s work such as field visits, video recording, interviews with local figures and personal testimony work. Each Group was supported by a password restricted website hosting a resource depository for materials collected by group members (eg maps, transcripts, photos/videos, newspaper cuttings, policy documents etc) and a group blog. Audio and video recordings were made of every CG meeting and transcribed for reference/use by all Group members.