Forecasting matters

Sophie Haines

Institute for Science, Innovation and Society - University of Oxford

Convenor of Network on Anthropologies of Forecasting Weather and Climate (AnthFOR)

Current anthropological engagement with weather and climate covers an enormous range of questions and topics, as this website attests. Much of this work focuses on how communities - particularly in the global south - perceive and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Our Network for Anthropologies of Forecasting Weather and Climate (AnthFOR) seeks to draw attention to anthropologically informed work on the production, circulation, negotiation and application of weather and climate information by people, societies and organisations across the world.

Anthropologists have long engaged with questions of how people make, articulate and act on predictions of the future. Divinations, prophecies, extrapolations from historical records, local and indigenous knowledges, simulations and hazard maps are just some of the processes and devices used by human groups to anticipate changing environments and consider possible responses. Futures are envisaged through strategic processes involving modelling, scenario-building, ritual divination, warning, foresight and risk assessment; and through less formalised, everyday imaginaries, fiction, and other articulations of hopes and fears. Our ethnographic attention to forecasting emphasises the entanglement of weather/climate impacts and influences with anthropologies of knowledge, non-knowledge (uncertainty, ignorance), anticipation and world-making.

Through a series of 5 international conference panels between 2015 and 2017, and an inaugural workshop in Oxford in 2016, AnthFOR has brought together anthropologists and colleagues/collaborators in other disciplines to discuss weather and climate forecast production, circulation and use. How are different types of evidence, institutions and experts produced, perceived and recognised? What can an anthropological lens contribute to our understanding of prediction, anticipation and intervention with respect to weather and climate?

At the Oxford workshop, which followed on directly from the 2016 RAI conference, 17 researchers participated in a series of roundtable discussions about different dimensions of forecasting weather and climate: times and spaces of forecasting; working across disciplines and domains; governance and accountability; and impacts and interventions.

Having started the series of round-table discussions from the common starting point of weather and climate forecasting, I was fascinated and intrigued by the ways our conversations expanded and shifted to explore profound, significant and reflexive questions about knowledge, social justice, and world-making.

In my mind there was much potential generated to think beyond discussions of the usability of forecasts in terms of their credibility, salience and legitimacy.i We could consider forecast ‘value’ more broadly, considering dimensions such as integrity, aesthetics, ethics, and empathy.

While our network is convened around applying an anthropological sensibility to weather and climate forecasting research and application, our members are not only anthropologists. Our conversations also benefit from the insights of geographers, historians, STS scholars, and physicists. Studying the production and negotiation of expertise across disciplinary divides and also with practitioners requires reflexivity about whose narratives are heard and taken seriously in different contexts, not only in terms of the forecast knowledge we are tracing but also our own interpretations and analyses.

At several points in the discussions I was reminded of Barry et al.’s paper on diverse logics and modes of interdisciplinarity.ii This paper sets out three logics: accountability (social science as a spokesperson for society), innovation (focusing on problem solving) and ontology (challenging ways of thinking and being). It also outlines three modes of interdisciplinarity: integrative-synthesis (as referenced in our discussions of e.g. integrated modelling); subordination-service (as referenced in our discussions of hierarchies among different disciplines and knowledge types), and agonistic-antagonistic. This last mode seemed to come through strongly in discussions touching on incommensurability, equivocation, and the potentially productive frictions between different ways of knowing, valuing and being. The nearest we came to consensus was probably around the idea that we shouldn’t be trying to work towards consensus, but should remain open to (and indeed, promote) diverse knowledges and values, and the unexpected and complicated things that emerge from these encounters.

Members of AnthFOR work around the world, and explore topics spanning the historical production of El Niño knowledge, the use of forecasts for humanitarian early action, the provision and politics of climate services, the perception, construction and communication of risk in flood and drought forecasting, data practices in weather, climate and pollution modelling, and the practical and political implications of bringing diverse forms and sources of weather/climate foreknowledge into conversation with one another.

Following on from the inaugural workshop and an ongoing series of conference panels, we have now launched the AnthFOR website as an online resource for news, events, blogs, references and other updates on activities relevant to anthropologies of forecasting weather and climate. Our first blog post is a summary of our roundtable session ‘Future Matters’ at last November’s (2017) American Anthropological Association meetings.

i Cash, D. W., Jonathan C. Borck, and Anthony Patt. ‘Countering the Loading-Dock Approach to Linking Science and Decision Making: Comparative Analysis of El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Forecasting Systems’. Science, Technology & Human Values 31, no. 4 (1 July 2006): 465–94.


ii Barry, Andrew, Georgina Born, and Gisa Weszkalnys. ‘Logics of Interdisciplinarity’. Economy and Society 37, no. 1 (2008): 20–49.