The Post Normal Science on Water and Sanitation


The age of “normal” science has come to its edge as contemporary world that we are living now is loaded with complexity. That sense rose from the first two lectures on Research Practice. Despite of “normal” science contribution to the advancement of modernity, it is considered insufficient in addressing present-day issues where level of uncertainty and decision stakes are high (S. O. Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993). An intriguing quote by Glen McGregor suggesting that – post-normal – science should move forward into subjectivities judgment. Perhaps, acceptance to plurality of objectivities, a key feature distinguishes Post-Normal Science (PNS) than the normal-science, is the main attraction around knowledge development debates between those two contested research approaches. This essay describes and compares characteristics of each approach. Afterward I draw reflection as rural water supply and sanitation engineer in developing country to back up my argument.

In order to address complexity, PNS offers comprehensive view to bridge gaps on knowledge production process between laboratory scales research and the real policy-making situation. It recognizes some complexity elements which are meant to focus on problem solving, namely; facts are uncertain, values are in conflict, stakes are high and immediate action is required (S. Funtowicz & Ravetz, 2003). In contrary, knowledge which is produced under normal science is such a controlled experimentation and based on computer simulation. It was Kuhn (1970) who introduces “normal science” conception which is based on assumption knowledge on policy context is free of value. According to this model, any scientific fact or knowledge that created by specific group with expertise is instinctively trouble-free and therefore determine correct policy (Liberatore & Funtowicz, 2003).

PNS as an alternative to “embrace ambiguity” (phrase quoted from Robin Kench) is an enlightening idea. It provides an analyses framework to understand “wickedness” as well as proposes guidance for participatory decision making. Healy (1999) advocates that involvement of ‘extended peer communities’ on the knowledge production process will generate trust among stakeholders. It is obvious that legitimation built upon participatory decision making process will increases responsibility and accountability. Later on, this sense of belonging will produce quality sound of sustainability knowledge (Colucci-Gray, Camino, Barbiero, & Gray, 2006; Frame & Brown, 2008; J. R. Ravetz, 2006). As consequence of this participatory approach, PNS is open for plurality of objectivity rather than come up with ‘a single truth.’

Recent development in water and sanitation shows identical trend as it comes to post-normal situation. Evidence gathered from developing countries confirms that most of the water supply and sanitation system failed to operate in sustainable way. This is happened mostly due to lack of integrated knowledge on environment, technical, social, financial, and institutional aspects (Mukherjee, 1999). For instance, engineers are usually reluctant to work with community, probably because they have limited skill and knowledge in community related work. Likewise, social workers are incapable to address community need in term of appropriate technological option for provision of water and sanitation. This kind of complexity needs PNS as a way to find solution. Utilizing PNS framework, extended peer community involvement across various disciplines, such as natural sciences (geography, ecology, hydrology, and climatology), civil and environmental engineering, and the social sciences (law, political science, sociology, and human-environment geography) are needed to ensure quality sound of sustainability knowledge. On that account, Wiek & Larson (2012) suggest all stakeholders to develop personal and institutional responsibility to achieve sustainable water practices. Similarly in sanitation sector, productive interaction among stakeholders such as engineers, government and community has been able to increase the sustainability (Paterson, Mara, & Curtis, 2007).

In field of water and sanitation, extended peer community participation could be recognized in various forms and level. At the community level, Methodology Participatory Assessment Participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Transformation (MPA-PHAST), and Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) are two among of most used participatory tools. Field experience shows that stakeholders’ involvement on the whole policy and development process will increase sustainability of knowledge that has been produced. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, it was found that institutional and technical capacity, political will and cultural diversity on sanitation provision process will impact on the balance between rights and responsibility (Allison, 2002). In Indonesia a community based approach, such as CLTS, has been transforming into national scale policy through alliance between government at central and local leve as well as non-government organization. The transformation will not be happened without extended peer community participation at the higher level.

Funtowicz and Ravertz (2003; 1993) define PNS differs than normal science based on its motive. The more traditional science is driven by curiosity and the need to seek for the truth. Whereas, PNS is an issue-driven approach which is possible to accept diverse of perspectives. PNS provides logical framework to issues by assess facts and values into problem solving oriented. It does not come up with ‘the truth’ but rather option of solution. It is not about ‘what is the truth’ but rather ‘what is the most feasible option’. The motive approach significantly changes the way of scientist perform study or research on the post-normal times. A study by Lach et al. (2005) showed similar trend on water and sanitation sector, from infrastructure-intensive strategies to social interaction-intensive strategies.

During last decade, PNS application has been studied on number of area; namely ecology (Colucci-Gray, Camino, Barbiero, & Gray, 2006), technology (Frame & Brown, 2008), Fishery Management (Röckmann et al., 2012) and water management (Ison, Röling, & Watson, 2007). Looking at those examples, we can say that scientific research is not simply influencing the way practitioner work, likewise in reverse, as showed by Martinez-Alier et al. (2011) the work of non-scientist contribute significantly on the production of knowledge and development of environmental policy. Thus, PNS, specifically through extended participation model has made all of stakeholders involved as users, critics as well as the producers of knowledge (Liberatore & Funtowicz, 2003).

In conclusion, provision of water and sanitation requires more than interdisciplinary approach in the post-normal times.  Extended peer community involvement could enhance knowledge production processes when it has to cope with complexity. PNS is found useful and all of stakeholders involved can get benefit from its process.



Allison, M. C. (2002). Balancing responsibility for sanitation. Social Science & Medicine, 55(9), 1539-1551.

Colucci-Gray, L., Camino, E., Barbiero, G., & Gray, D. (2006). From scientific literacy to sustainability literacy: An ecological framework for education. SCIENCE EDUCATION, 90(2), 227-252.

Frame, B., & Brown, J. (2008). Developing post-normal technologies for sustainability. Ecological Economics, 65(2), 225-241.

Funtowicz, S., & Ravetz, J. (2003). Post-normal science.

Funtowicz, S. O., & Ravetz, J. R. (1993). Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 25(7), 739-755.

Healy, S. (1999). Extended peer communities and the ascendance of post-normal politics. Futures, 31(7), 655-669.

Ison, R., Röling, N., & Watson, D. (2007). Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: investigating the role of social learning. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(6), 499-511.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions / by Thomas S. Kuhn Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lach, D., Rayner, S., & Ingram, H. (2005). Taming the waters: strategies to domesticate the wicked problems of water resource management. International Journal of Water, 3(1), 1-17.

Liberatore, A., & Funtowicz, S. (2003). ‘Democratising’ expertise, ‘expertising’ democracy: what does this mean, and why bother? Science & Public Policy (SPP), 30(3), 146-150.

Martinez-Alier, J., Healy, H., Temper, L., Walter, M., Rodriguez-Labajos, B., Gerber, J., et al. (2011). Between science and activism: learning and teaching ecological economics with environmental justice organisations. Local Environment, 16(1), 17-36.

Mukherjee, N. (1999). Measuring sustainability – recent lessons from Indonesia. Waterlines, 18(1), 13-16.

Paterson, C., Mara, D., & Curtis, T. (2007). Pro-poor sanitation technologies. Geoforum, 38(5), 901-907.

Ravetz, J. R. (2006). Post-Normal Science and the complexity of transitions towards sustainability. Ecological Complexity, 3(4), 275-284.

Röckmann, C., Ulrich, C., Dreyer, M., Bell, E., Borodzicz, E., Haapasaari, P., et al. (2012). The added value of participatory modelling in fisheries management – what has been learnt? Marine Policy, 36(5), 1072-1085.

Wiek, A., & Larson, K. L. (2012). Water, People, and Sustainability-A Systems Framework for Analyzing and Assessing Water Governance Regimes. Water Resources Management, 26(11), 3153-3171.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *