Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at the University of Durham

An extremely useful website is the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience located at the University of Durham. They have just published their first on-line magazine, Hazard Risk Resilience that outlines some key aspects of their research and is well worth a look (also their blog now linked at the side of my blog). In addition the site contains podcasts on aspects of hazards.

An important research project for the Institute is Leverhulme funded project on ‘Tipping Points’. Put simply ‘tipping points;’ refer to a critical point, usually in time, when everything changes at the same time. This idea has been used in describing and trying to explain things as diverse as the collapse of financial markets and the switches in climate. The term ‘tipping point’ (actually ‘tip point’ in the sutdy) was first use in sociology in the 1957 by Martin Grodzins to describe the ‘white-flight’ of white populations from neighbourhoods in Chicago after a threshold number of black people moved into the neighbourhood. Up to a certain number nothing happened, then suddenly it was as if a large portion of the white population decided to act in unison and they moved. That this action was not result of co-ordinated action on the part of the white population suggested that some interesting sociological processes were at work. (Interestingly, I don’t know if the reverse happens or if research has been conducted into the behaviour of non-white populations and their response to changing neighbourhood dynamics). Since about 2000 the use of the term tipping point has grown rapidly in the academic literature, a lot of the use being put down to the publication in 2000 of ‘The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference’ by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell (who says academics don’t read populist books!)

Research suggests that the metaphor of a ‘tipping point’ is a useful one in getting across a lot of complex and complicated processes and changes that occur in socio-economic, political and physical systems. One of the foci of research in the project is on trying to assess if this metaphor does actually describe, quantitatively or qualitatively or both, real properties of systems. Another focus of the research  are concerned with exploring how the metaphor becomes an important aspect of the phenomena being researched, even taking on the character of an agent in the phenomena itself. Importantly, the project also considers what it means to live in a world where ‘tipping points’ abound and how important anticipatory understanding is for coping wit that world.

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

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