Successful PhD defence: “Constructions of flood vulnerability across an etic-emic spectrum”

???????????????????????????????On Tuesday 8th October Meghan Alexander, young researcher in the STAR-FLOOD UK team, successfully defended her PhD. Meghan examined how flood vulnerability is constructed from the perspective of emergency professionals and the public in selected UK case studies; the results from which, raise implications for assessments of vulnerability, as well as tailoring risk communication and activities in community engagement.

This research reinvigorated the etic-emic (outsider-insider) distinction previously developed in psychology. Whereas etic-orientated research describes how vulnerability may be studied by a neutral and objective “outsider”; emic-orientated research seeks the perspective of those able to offer accounts of the lived experience of vulnerability. Consequently, this latter form of research necessitates the identification of “insiders”, which is inherently challenging. Therefore, extending this debate, Meghan’s research critically examines the notion of “insiderness” and the extent to which this influences constructions of flood vulnerability.

Contents analysis of professional literature, semi-structured interviews and cognitive interviews facilitated by a GIS-based flood risk mapping tool (“KEEPER”; Figure 1), demonstrated the influence of professional roles, scales of decision-making and phase of emergency management upon professionals’ constructions of vulnerability; as well as the value of “professional outsiderness”. In turn, this revealed opportunities for improving area-wide assessments of vulnerability through more interactive and malleable forms of mapping.

Engagement with the public was similarly facilitated through a mixed methods strategy. Here, questionnaires, in-depth interviews and vignettes revealed evidence for hazard-centric, social-centric and existential constructions, which inform self-declared vulnerabilities. A number of variables and processes emerged as relevant for understanding the formation of these constructions and why some people embrace their vulnerability, where others reject it. For instance, this research revealed evidence for the process of “othering”, whereby residents distance vulnerability from the self onto a real or illusionary “vulnerable other”. Interestingly, analysis documented how this appears to be concentrated amongst “insiders” (i.e. those most at risk, aware and often experienced) and partly-motivated by the need to preserve ontological security. “Insiderness” is proven to be influential in shaping residents’ constructions and patterns of self-declared vulnerability. Insights from this research raise implications for cultivating household resilience, as well as tailoring risk communication and activities in community engagement.

This PhD was supported by a Doctoral Training Grant, jointly funded through Middlesex University and the EPSRC under the auspices of the Flood Risk Management Research Consortium (FRMRC). Now, as a post-doctorate research fellow on the STAR-FLOOD project, Meghan hopes to continue her research interest in flooding and arrangements for risk governance.

Screenshot GIS tool KEEPER

Figure 1: Screenshot of GIS-based flood risk mapping tool “KEEPER” used with emergency professionals to elicit views on flood vulnerability. Image displays a method whereby the user can select and subjectively weight indicators for social vulnerability mapping.