Brief project overview

EMERSA (Epistemic Mobilities and the Governance of Environmental Risks in Island Southeast Asia) explores how governance policy interventions and social practices, together with standardized 'recipes' and solutions for living with the effects of sea level change in coastal megacities (that are advocated by states, international donors, and civil society organizations) are taken up, contextually translated, politically legitimized and at times re-circulated internationally by local actors.

Furthermore, by analyzing coastal megacities as laboratories for anticipatory processes of collective un/re-learning for risk governance, the project contributes to new currents in transformation research and practice. It does so by exploring how diverse socio-natural knowledges and epistemologies (i.e. ways of seeing, sense-making, and place-making), together with material infrastructures, shape localized ways of perceiving and living with coastal change.

With a focus on three Southeast Asian megacities, namely Jakarta, Manila, and Singapore, the project entails close collaboration with local partners crosscutting Universitas Indonesia, the University of Asia and the Pacific, and the National University of Singapore.

The interdisciplinary study combines several core conceptual and thematic currents crosscutting the sociology of knowledge, human geography, urban planning, coastal anthropology, and political ecology.

Download the project poster here.

What are Epistemic Mobilities?

The travels of material artefacts, discourses, imaginaries and social practices across multiple levels and scales are referred to as 'epistemic (im)mobilities'.

These circulating discourses and practices are important in themselves for understanding the governance of environmental risks and uncertainties, for they possess the agency to influence policy trajectories, break timeworn path dependencies and push for transformative change on the one hand, or to legitimate known orthodoxies on the other. Thus, the project also focuses on patterns of immobility, as traveling policies and institutional infrastructures chart not only multiple pathways for transformation, but also lead up to processes of collective unlearning, as older ideas and practices may be recurrently questioned.

Research questions

The study asks the following questions: how (a) significant mobile policies and government programmes (dispositifs), (b) standardized socio-technological practices of change adaptation that are communicated by donor and civil society organizations, and are politically legitimized, (re)interpreted, culturally translated and at times re-circulated, in ways that enable or hinder localized anticipatory learning trajectories in the face of projected sea level rise. In this light, the project also traces how diverse coastalscapes are socio-politically imagined and 'futured' across Island Southeast Asia.

The focus lies on how travelling policies (i.e. flood management plans) and practices (i.e. construction of seawalls) structure trans-local social learning for change adaptation, and further guides action towards the implementation of risk governance in and between the three cities of Jakarta, Manila, and Singapore.

Conceptual approaches

The conceptual approaches we iteratively work with include:

Communicative and Discursive Constructivism (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Reichertz, 2010; Knoblauch, 2013);

the Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse or SKAD (Keller, 2005 & 2011);

Political geographies of travelling ideas and models (McCann, 2011; Cochrane & Ward, 2010; Behrends et al. 2014; Weisser et al. 2014; Hornidge & Mielke, 2016) and;

Sociological theories on processes and practices of socio-cultural translation for collective un/learning.

Furthermore EMERSA aims at mid-range concept development by theorizing on what epistemic mobilities could be taken to mean, and by elucidating the many ways of studying them.


EMERSA researchers bring a range of diverse methodologies and analytical frames into the project, including discourse and narrative analysis, in-depth ethnographic approaches, oral and life history work, Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) frames, as well as other geographically inspired modes of inquiry. Moreover, the project aims at advancing a ground-up approach that we term as 'follow-the-moving-target' methodologies, which enable the tracing of multiple mobilities and influences of material and non-material, tangible as well as intangible subjects that travel - from infrastructures and technologies to imaginaries and discourses.

Work Packages of the EMERSA project

EMERSA entails three Work Packages (WPs):

WP 1: Policy Mobilities and Translations (led by Prof. Dr. Michael Flitner)

WP 2: Practices of Risk Governance and Local Meaning Constructions (led by Prof. Dr. Anna-Katharina Hornidge)

WP 0: Mid-range concept building on Epistemic Mobilities and Social Learning for Change Adaptation (co-led by Professors Hornidge & Flitner).