Working with Uncertainty: An Interview with Limor Samimian-Darash

Photo by Israel Defense Forces.

This post builds on the research article “Practicing Uncertainty: Scenario-Based Preparedness Exercises in Israel,” which was published in the August 2016 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Ned Dostaler: When did you first learn about the Turning Point scenario-based exercises that you describe in your article, and why did you decide to take them up as an object of anthropological inquiry? Is this work part of a larger project?

Limor Samimian-Darash: My interest in scenarios grew out of my concern with analyzing and conceptualizing uncertainty. I was first drawn to the issue of uncertainty during my research on pandemic flu preparedness in Israel. Although literature in both sociology and anthropology thoroughly discusses the concept of risk, including its cultural perceptions and its roots in modernity, I found that uncertainty was understudied, at best.

In preparing for pandemic flu, Israeli authorities were forced to deal with what I term potential uncertainty. This type of uncertainty differs conceptually from what I call possible uncertainty and reflects a distinctive perspective on the future, the present, and the relations between the two. Whereas possible uncertainty derives from experience-based knowledge, that is, information based on past events, potential uncertainty derives from events that emerge from the virtual realm—from situations unaccounted for by known possibilities.

The authorities charged with preparing for pandemic influenza brought a variety of technologies to bear on the problem. During my research, I observed the application of three such technologies, two of which approached the problem from a risk-based perspective. The third, the syndromic surveillance system, seemed to be bringing something new to the table in terms of its underlying conception of uncertainty and its mode of operation: it was attempting to work “with” uncertainty, rather than against it. My encounter with this new mode of governing uncertainty inspired my interest in governing technologies that operate on principles other than risk, which, in turn, led me to scenarios.

This interest is consistent with my belief that, as anthropologists, we should not limit ourselves to constructing general or grand narratives of contemporary social processes. Important though such efforts are, we also need to look at the actual mechanisms that drive those processes. For me, that means examining existing mechanisms that govern risk and uncertainty, considering how new mechanisms emerge, and how—through their use—they mold conceptualizations of uncertainty in contemporary societies. Rather than focus on the appearance of new risks in the world, which is the basis of the risk-society approach, or on the impossibility of calculating these risks, a fundamental point of science and technology studies, I tackle uncertainty through the empirical study of the techniques that govern it, through their extraction and rigorous conceptualization.

Since heightened security consciousness is a fact of life in Israel, it was perhaps natural that my interest in the imagination and construction of future uncertainty would come to focus on security preparedness. Israel’s annual Turning Point exercise provided me with a tailor-made opportunity to explore the design and operation of mechanisms intended to govern security-related uncertainty. As the entire exercise is scenario-based, it offered me a means of studying the scenario as a practice of imagining the future, of tracing the role of the scenario in emergency preparedness and perception, and of understanding how it envisions and translates future uncertainty more generally.

The Turning Point exercise is part of Israel’s overall program of preparedness for war and disasters. Previous studies of scenarios have focused on relatively small-scale (e.g., table-top) exercises. Turning Point offered a novel view of a national-scale exercise within which multiple scenarios enacted at varying organizational levels are incorporated into one master narrative event. I was extremely excited to get access to such a field site and to be able to comprehensively explore the scenario exercises through ethnographic fieldwork. My study enabled me to follow the months of preparations for the annual exercises and all the fronts on which they take place.

The flu scenarios I had studied earlier were merely scripts and thus drew heavily on past events—the story lines were very limited and were not put into actual practice. Turning Point gave me a chance to fully explore the scenario as a form of thought and practice. I was interested in understanding whether the practice of scenarios opens up something new in thought and in actuality, whether it promotes an emerging and a becoming beyond the already known and existing. It seemed likely to me that both the content of a narrative and the particular way in which it is enacted affect how the scenario works as an uncertainty-based technology.

ND: I am interested in understanding how and why scholars choose their analytical interlocutors and concepts. Thus, I was wondering if you might be able to say something about who you consider to be your closest or most influential interlocutors.

LSD: My work draws analytically and methodologically on the anthropology of the contemporary, as developed by Paul Rabinow, on certain of Michel Foucault's studies and his elaboration of modes of thought and experience, and the philosophical approach of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Disparate as these thinkers are, they have all provided me with valuable analytical approaches and tools.

The primary influence within anthropology on my research is Paul Rabinow’s work on the contemporary: its problem focus, analytical mode, and anthropological ethos. Rabinow’s work profoundly shapes how I approach anthropological inquiry, identify problems, and formulate concepts.

Foucault’s writing on governmentality, as presented in the three forms of sovereignty, discipline, and the biopolitical security apparatus, provides me with both an analytical framework highlighting the heterogeneous structure of power and a methodological blueprint for identifying problematizations. His three governmental forms emerged historically in response to specific problems, each enacted with a certain aim and through certain practices. They are not mutually exclusive, however, and the emergence of one does not imply the disappearance of another. The biopolitical security apparatus, a technology of governing the population through normalization (of circulation and freedom), has been especially relevant to my work.

I initially took up the concept of the security apparatus during my analysis of Israel’s 2001–2002 smallpox vaccination project. During that project vaccination, a security prevention measure, became a new technique of governing, of preparedness, enacted through the novel temporality of a new problem. Whereas, historically, the governmental means and end of the security apparatus was to constitute and manage the population in relation to actual events, in the contemporary form of preparedness, a problem of temporality emerges, the need to operate on both present and future risk simultaneously and thus to govern through time. In following Rabinow's work, I am investigating contemporary forms of governing beyond those specific (historical) forms presented by Foucault. Thus the task is not to literally re/present what Foucault has extracted as part of a particular historical contingency, but to grasp his effort as an analytical approach that enables us to observe other forms of experience in the contemporary.

The philosophy of Deleuze both complements Rabinow's work on concepts and helps to bring Foucault's (historical) constructs into the contemporary. One can plug into Deleuze and Guattari’s work from many different angles: their discussion of events versus accidents (The Logic of Sense), the virtual and the actual, difference and repetition (Difference and Repitition), the rhizome, assemblages (A Thousand Plateaus), and the idea of concept (What is Philosophy?). In adopting a Deleuzean approach, the researcher has a dual task: to establish virtual events (concepts, problems) from current events (solutions to existing problems) and to show how, in their actualization, problems are not swallowed up or suppressed by the solutions given to them. In other words, the researcher’s goal is not only to explore the solutions created for particular historical problems (as in a Foucauldian problematization) but also to pull the problem out of the solutions, from actual events. Doing so constitutes counteractualization, the process whereby the investigator establishes a virtual event. The idea of counteractualization or countereffectuation appears in various forms in Deleuze and Guattari’s writing, especially when they discuss the creation of concepts. I draw generally on these ideas in my own conceptual work. In particular, Deleuze’s differentiation between subjective and objective uncertainties in referring to two forms of the event has been useful to me in formulating the concept of potential uncertainty and in distinguishing it from risk.

ND: In thinking through the Turning Point scenario-based exercises, your article describes a shift that “move[s] us from one mode of governing, via biopolitical security apparatuses and risk-based technologies, to another mode, of preparedness and uncertainty-based technologies.” Do you have a sense of how that shift is experienced by the subjects of the latter mode of governance that the article traces?

LSD: I get at subjects’ experience largely through the atmosphere I observed during the exercise, especially in the emergency situation rooms. To really understand their experience of the Turning Point exercise as an uncertainty-based technology, I need to bring another concept into the discussion: affect. Different types of technologies, my research has shown me, can be distinguished in terms of their relationship (or lack thereof) to affect.

Turning Point involves preparations by governmental ministries, local municipalities, and the population at large for a wide array of threats. As far as the exercise’s bureaucrats are concerned, the main experience is one of uncertainty, reflecting an intrinsic aspect of the scenarios they devise and are charged with managing. Israeli citizens, however, do not deal with scenarios but are mainly involved in simulation-like practices, which entail a different mode of experience.

Whereas scenario technology, as a practice of uncertainty, gives rise to alertness and urgency among participants, the simulation, through the practice of repetition and order, leaves no room for uncertainty to develop. The simulation elicits a known, predictable set of reactions that constitutes the event as one of certainty, one with prescribed solutions. Participants’ task is to precisely follow given instructions or to repeatedly practice the same actions, never deviating from protocol. The scenario, by contrast, requires participants to face something new as it is emerging and to adapt to that emerging reality.

A simulation involves the realization of a problematic future possibility and the implementation of known solutions to that problem in order to routinize responses to it. A scenario, by contrast, is triggered by the threat of the unforeseen and involves the practice of uncertainty. Since a simulation is a closed event that aims to prevent uncertainty and disorder, it cannot generate affect (but can manage emotions); affect, following Brian Massumi, can only occur through activation of an uncertainty-based mechanism such as the scenario. In that context, affect is produced not only by the identification of an external threat or uncertainty but also, and mainly, by the spontaneous creation of uncertainty during the exercise. Scenario technology produces an affective situation among its participants precisely because of its inherent capacity to create uncertainty.

ND: Finally, what can you tell us about your next project?

LSD: Scenario techniques are varied, have proliferated in many areas of practice and research (e.g., military, policy, energy, and, more recently, health and business), and are in widespread use around the world. However diverse, they share a common mode of thought and practice: they commonly present or perform “stories about the future aimed at helping people break past their mental blocks and consider ‘unthinkable’ futures” (Ringland 1998, 12). Although scenarios have grown in popularity over the past several decades, their social-scientific study remains limited.

My next research project tackles global scenarios. I will be examining how scenario thinking has emerged historically in relation to other responses to the problem of the future, such as prediction. I want to look at scenarios as enacted in three fields—health, cybersecurity, and business—and analyze them from national, international, and global perspectives. This global focus is, I believe, essential to furthering understanding of the scenario form, and forms of imagination more generally, especially as studies thus far have been limited in scope—usually focused on one field of activity within one country. Moreover, the three fields I want to examine also emphasize different temporalities in their scenario thinking and planning. As part of this effort, I plan to explore the particular relationship between the past and the future that characterizes temporal thinking in each of the three field sites.


Ringland, Gill. 1998. Scenario Planning: Managing for the Future. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley.