SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.106 issue9-10Bacterial profiling of casing materials for white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) using denaturing gradient gel electrophoresisCobalt(II) removal from synthetic wastewater by adsorption on South African coal fly ash author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google


South African Journal of Science

On-line version ISSN 1996-7489
Print version ISSN 0038-2353

S. Afr. j. sci. vol.106 n.9-10 Pretoria Sep./Oct. 2010




Integrating qualitative methodologies into risk assessment: insights from South Durban



Shirley BrooksI; Catherine SutherlandII; Dianne ScottII; Heli GuyIII

IDepartment of Geography, University of the Free State, South Africa
IISchool of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
IIISchool of Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Correspondence to




In the field of risk management, there is growing recognition that traditional tools of analysis may be limited in their ability to arrive at a textured understanding of risk as it is actually experienced by communities. This paper begins with the premise that risk is socially constructed by lay people, as well as by scientists, and that this recognition has important implications for the development of risk management approaches. Technical risk assessments can be complemented by qualitative methodologies that are designed to reveal lay or local knowledge of risk. Such research tools were employed in working with respondents from residential communities in the highly industrialised South Durban Basin in KwaZulu-Natal. Here, as in other urban industrial contexts, risk is constructed by residents through their own experience and histories, their understanding of science, and their response to technical management tools. The qualitative approach adopted in this research provided new insight into residents' responses to chronic and acute risk, drew attention to a widening gap between people's actual experiences and the claims of science and risk management experts and exposed currently hidden, everyday risk narratives that are not directly related to the dominant environmental hazards connected with industry, but which significantly impact people's living environments.

Keywords: risk management; urban risk assessment; qualitative methodology; lay knowledge; science and society




In recent decades, there has been a growing recognition of the limitations of technical risk assessment tools in arriving at a textured understanding of the way people living in a particular environment, experience and consider the risks they face in their everyday lives. Despite the fact that risk assessment is a multidisciplinary field, qualitative methodologies tend to be under-represented in risk assessment practice. Scientists often rely on established methodologies, such as the source-exposure-response approach which includes techniques like exposure assessment, hazard assessment, dose-response estimation and risk characterisation, to assess the probability and magnitude of risks to human health from exposure to environmental hazards.1,2 Such methodologies have been used in most work on environmental hazards in the urban context of Durban,3,4,5,6,7 and, while they are certainly useful, we argue that they may constrain thinking about risk within certain predictable channels, possibly blinding scholars to other perspectives generated by local people's understanding of, and response to, the risks they face. We believe that this 'lay knowledge' of risk is best elicited through qualitative methodologies that can be used to enhance and deepen the knowledge of risk produced by the application of technical risk assessment tools.

This study draws on qualitative research carried out in communities in or adjacent to the South Durban Industrial Basin. In broadening the debate to include lay knowledge of risk, this research highlights the importance of trying to understand the lived landscape of risk in South Durban. To gain a better understanding of this 'riskscape',8 we explored constructions of risk in the community from the perspective of lay knowledge and provide new insights in three areas. Firstly, we show how and why chronic risk is 'normalised' by residents who, for different socio-economic reasons, have not moved away from the polluted environment of South Durban. Secondly, we reveal a growing disillusionment amongst 'ordinary' South Durban residents with the promises of science and its relationship to state responses. Science is regarded by these residents as an inaccessible domain far removed from their everyday lives and they have limited faith in the technical management tools employed by industries and the municipal authority to address the environmental hazards in the area. This situation presents a challenge to scientists who are now required to engage in the politics of environmental governance, rather than merely being responsible for producing knowledge for these debates. Thirdly, we reveal the dominance of one particular narrative about risk - the 'industrial risk' narrative. Conventional scientific assessment methods have played a significant role in constructing and reinforcing this narrative, which has become fixed in the minds of researchers and the media. Lay people living in the area are eager to open up the debate and talk about other notions of risk. Qualitative methodologies, we argue, can reveal hidden or discounted risk narratives that also need to be taken into account in assessing risk and vulnerability.



The importance of lay knowledge

Scholarship in the field of risk assessment has begun to move beyond what Irwin9 termed the 'public deficit model' of scientific citizenship. This model assumes that 'ordinary' people are, in Wynn's words, 'incapable of respectable reasoning about science'10 and simply require factual information, which is to be supplied by knowledgeable scientific experts. One proffered alternative has been the 'dialogue model',9 which assumes that people have some existing knowledge together with the ability to engage with and learn from scientists. This model, while it allows the public a more active role, still tends to marginalise local experiential or lay knowledge in environmental management processes. As a result, understanding of the importance of lay knowledge in risk assessment remains somewhat limited.

Kasperson et al.individual and community experiences of risk'. One which does is the work of risk theorist Ortwin Renn,12 who has recently argued for greater integration of natural science and social science approaches (i.e. 'realist' and 'constructivist' positions) on risk. Renn argues that the enterprise of risk assessment - and subsequent risk management - must be able to deal with both the 'physical' and 'social' dimensions of risk. In his view, risk practitioners urgently need to find ways to 'expand the set of criteria for assessing, characterising, evaluating and managing risks beyond the largely technological or scientific factors that have dominated earlier models of risk governance'. Renn's new risk governance framework is a step in this direction and is important for several reasons.

Firstly, in order to understand how and why people respond as they do to risk, both chronic and acute, lay knowledge must be taken more seriously. Acute risk results from short-term, intense hazardous events and usually demands a disaster management response, while chronic risk is more pervasive and may become normalised within certain environments. It is important to understand that the degree of risk tolerance displayed and the expectations people have of the national or local state in terms of protecting them from risks, are necessarily shaped by cultural expectations, socio-economic circumstances and historical experience.8 Renn12 expresses the danger in relying only on technical risk assessment tools as, '[t]he price society pays for this methodological rigour is the simplicity of an abstraction from the culture and context of risk-taking behaviour'.

The experience of risk is socially mediated and needs to be taken into account in risk assessment and management. South Africa's history of apartheid and authoritarianism, for example, helps to explain the apparent passivity of some poor Black communities in the face of environmental hazards. On one hand, they are trapped in poverty and based on their past experiences of the state, expectations remain low and people may feel they have little choice but to put up with the conditions.13 On the other hand, many poor communities in South Africa (and elsewhere) have strongly resisted environmental pollution and the failure of the state to deal with environmental hazards in their living environment, leading the way in social activism in support of environmental rights.14,15,16,17,18 Perhaps ironically, the positive factors emerging from such resistance, such as community cohesion and a sense of history and belonging, can result in communities remaining in polluted environments while fighting for a change in environmental quality in their area.

Secondly, scientific knowledge produced in the risk assessment field is clearly knowledge produced for, and consumed by, the state and society. As a pre-eminent example of science serving the interests of society, risk assessment research is generally applied research that often leads to specific interventions in people's lives. It is thus important that the public have confidence in the promises of science. But science can easily be mystified, regarded as existing in another realm and only comprehensible to 'experts'. The work of scientists can seem remote and frustratingly opaque to ordinary people, who may become sceptical of its claims.19,20,21 Furthermore, researchers need to be aware that science is not value-neutral; in the real world, scientific knowledge is strategically employed by various actors (e.g. the state, businesses and non-governmental organisations) in order to frame environmental issues and make particular authoritative claims.12,22,23 The process of generating and communicating knowledge about risks and hazards to affected communities, produces an often politically loaded 'distillation' or framing of environmental problems. Repeated exposure to the same messages attached to the same predictable agendas, combined with a lack of success in effecting any real change, can result in communities becoming jaded and losing confidence in the ability of science to solve problems.24,25

There is doubt that scientists actually identify the risks that are of concern to people. By tapping into lay knowledge,26 scientists should feel more confident that they have at least understood the wider terrain of experienced or lived risk. Even if the concerns expressed by the lay public appear to have little evidence-based connection to the real world, they are 'social facts' and are therefore important. As Renn12 points out, addressing such concerns may be beneficial - not only in enabling practitioners to take into account previously unrecognised risks that are regarded by the public as important, but more significantly in 'improv[ing] trust in the risk operating systems', as well as providing affected people with a greater sense of 'personal control over the extent of the risk'. It may be challenging for researchers more familiar with the universal principles of positivist science to take lay or local knowledge, in the form of what Eden27 calls '"extended facts" [,] including beliefs, feelings and anecdotes', more seriously. Nevertheless, these 'extended facts' are important and they can be drawn out using qualitative methodologies that take risk assessment (and environmental management in general) on new and innovative paths.28

The context of African cities and the practice of risk assessment in such spaces illustrates these points. In African countries, many of which are not functioning democracies, there is an even greater tendency to sideline the concerns of the lay public, who are typically less able than vocal Westerners to set the research agenda. A recent study by scholars working on urban risk in Africa29 has highlighted the critical importance of the experience of 'everyday risk' in people's lives. In thinking about risk in African cities, these scholars propose a 'hierarchy of disaster', from everyday disasters (the high incidence of death from traffic accidents in a Kenyan city, for example), to small disasters (fires in informal settlements in Cape Town), to large disasters such as urban flood events. These case studies suggest that for those working in the field of risk, it is important that a special effort is made to engage with the everyday and smaller-scale risks that combine to create an experience of African cities as unsafe spaces.

In summary, an uncritical adherence to well-trodden paths in risk assessment means that the totality of people's experiences - what we call here the broader 'riskscape' - may not be fully understood or incorporated into the risk knowledge produced by scientists. The resulting gulf between lived experience and the scientific activity of risk assessment is potentially disastrous for what Kasperson et al.11 call 'the societal management of risk'. Qualitative research from South Durban is presented in this paper to show how these issues are made manifest in the particular context of one African city. Firstly, a brief background to the history of South Durban is given.



The South Durban industrial zone, located south-west of the Durban harbour, emerged in the early 20th century as an urban landscape planned by the local authority in concert with powerful industrial interests. By 1938, it had been agreed that the future of the South Durban Basin was as a productive zone for the city;30 Durban saw its future as an industrial city. In the post-war planning of the city and in the subsequent demarcation of 'group areas' in line with the Group Areas Act promulgated in 1950 by the newly elected apartheid government, a series of residential areas was planned around the productive zone to supply labour for this emerging industrial zone. Within this South Durban area, Merebank was zoned for Indian occupation while the Wentworth/Austerville area was demarcated for occupation by people of mixed race. (Note that in the lived experience of residents, there is no sharp distinction between 'Wentworth' and 'Austerville', although Austerville is often used to refer to the poorer area of Wentworth). African townships had already been set up in the adjacent area of Lamontville, while on the eastern side, the Bluff was zoned for White people.

In his research on the history of environmental regulation in Durban, Sparks31,32 traces post-war struggles over the siting of petroleum industries in the city. The American-owned Standard Vacuum (Stanvac) oil company located its refinery at Wentworth in the 1950s (Figure 1), giving South Africa its first experience of domestic petroleum refining. In the 1960s, Shell Oil applied to locate a refinery in Durban Bay. Based on the Stanvac experience, the Durban municipality knew that, despite the assurances of engineers, petroleum refineries inevitably would produce significant amounts of pollution. They therefore reacted with caution to the proposal. Sparks31 traced the subsequent tussle between competing interests, those of 'the central apartheid state, the local municipal state, international petro-capital and local communities living in the vicinity of the refineries'.

The outcome was that the new Shell Oil refinery was relocated from Durban Bay to Isipingo in the South Durban Basin. It was noted at the time that strict pollution controls needed to be put in place because of the 'large Indian and Coloured Housing Estates [which] are being erected in close proximity to the proposed site' (at Merebank and Wentworth).31 However, it would not be cynical to doubt the commitment of Durban's White-dominated city administration to ensuring the enforcement of such controls.

Since the 1960s, in addition to housing two of South Africa's four oil refineries (today owned by ENGEN and SAPREF), the South Durban Industrial Basin has also attracted other sectors of industry including pulp and paper (the Mondi plant), beverages, textiles, plastics, and motor vehicle industries. This industrial core has been strengthened by the construction of the largest container terminal in the southern hemisphere and a number of recent investments in the chemical sector.

The process of industrial expansion in the South Durban Basin generated local resistance. In 1996, air pollution became the key focus of resistance as a diverse group of individuals and community organisations came together to form the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA). SDCEA, an alliance of 14 civic and residents' associations, practises a brand of environmental activism that draws on experiences of anti-apartheid social protests to mobilise the communities in South Durban across race and class lines.14,16,33,34,35 international prominence.16 Communities have also organised around the issue of relocation, rejecting suggestions that the solution would be to move residents out of South Durban and relocate them elsewhere. Residents of South Durban thus live in a context in which they are exposed to chronic environmental hazards (such as pollution) and, at times, acute environmental hazards (such as industrial accidents).

Understandably, conventional risk assessment work in South Durban has focused on documenting and managing the industrial pollution risks posed by this environment. A large body of research on this topic now exists, some of it undertaken by bodies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a parastatal research organisation.3,4,5,6,7,36,37,38,39,40 The industrial risk narrative also dominates the activism of the SDCEA, which has made strategic use of scientific knowledge to try to mobilise local communities against large industrial interests as well as the local state.34,35 This research tries to approach the issue from a different angle - one sensitive to the lived experience of residents of South Durban, and one that tries to open up the question of lay knowledge of environmental risk so as to reveal a more complex riskscape.



Most qualitative research methodologies focus on entering, as far as possible, the lifeworlds of those involved in the research. The philosophical approach taken to knowledge construction in such research is the assumption that 'social re