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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Heike Egner

“I benefited greatly from being a fellow at the IAS; I found it a marvellous experience.
The intellectual and interdisciplinary richness, the range of perspectives and impressive characters among the fellows and staff has been very stimulating.”

Professor Heike Egner, Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt

IAS Fellow at St Mary's College, Durham University (October - December 2015)

Heike Egner, who is Professor of Geography and Regional Studies at the Alpen-Adria-Universität in Klagenfurt (Austria), has a strong interest in the interrelations of society, humans and their environments, based on the theoretical grounds of second-order systems theories, complexity theories as well as theory of observation. She has been exploring these themes since her doctoral research at the Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz (Germany), though the subject of matter of her research over the last 20 years has been diverse. That has included: the development and role of modern outdoor sports in functional differentiated societies and their spatial specifications; tourism and sustainable development; leisure and individualization; the interactions of society, humans and environments; systems as environments and environments as systems; systems theories and their contribution to bridge the gap within science; complexity and systems; risk and space from an observation theoretical perspective; risk, space and natural disasters; societal learning from and for disasters; knowledge production and the role of science in a sustainable society.

Professor Egner has published widely on the interrelation of society, humans and environments, and her book Gesellschaft, Mensch, Umwelt – beobachtet. Ein Beitrag zur Theorie der Geographie (Society, humans, environments – observed. A contribution to the theory of Geography, 2008; Steiner Verlag)won the Hans-Bobek-Award of the Austrian Geographical Society (ÖGG – Österreichische Geographische Gesellschaft). Her work on risk research and the spatial construction of risk and security has been perceived widely, and notably her edited book Geographische Risikoforschung. Zur Konstruktion verräumlichter Risiken und Sicherheiten (Geographical Risk Research. On the construction of spatialized risk and securities; 2010; Steiner Verlag; together with Andreas Pott), which emphasized the specific spatial aspects of risk research and their societal consequences, has coined the term “geographical risk research” within the German-speaking risk research community.

Professor Egner has been a stand-in professor for “Urban Geography” at the Goethe-University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany); for “Applied Human Geography” at the University of Kassel (Germany) as well as at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich (Germany). She has been appointed as a visiting professor for “Human Theoretical Geography” at the Department of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Vienna (Austria) and as a visiting lecturer for “Integrative Geography” at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). In 2010, Professor Egner has been invited as a research fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich (Germany) where she worked on the topic of “Nature as a cultural challenge”; and co-chaired (together with Jörg Bergmann and Volker Wulf) the interdisciplinary research year “Communicating Disaster” at the Centre of Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld (Germany) in 2011/12, from which the book Learning and Calamities. Practices, Interpretations, Patterns (2015; Routledge; together with Marén Schorch and Marin Voss) evolved. In 2012, Professor Egner took charge of the international Masters Programme (MSc) “Management of Protected Areas” at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt as its academic director.

While at the IAS, Professor Egner will be working on the question of observation, evidences and causes in the Anthropocene – the controversially debated new geological epoch of human mankind. If we accept the Anthropocene as a serious and reliable description of the role of human mankind within time and space on this planet, the fundamental understandings of ourselves, of nature and society (as clearly separated spheres in our conceptions) as well as the practices of sciences has to be reconsidered.

Public Lecture - How Can Societies Learn From or For Catastrophes?

This lecture will show different examples to point to the difficulties of societal learning in general and to the specifics of learning in reference to disasters and catastrophes.
The maxim “learning from damage” refers to the general assumption that we, as individuals, are capable of learning from experienced calamities. We take it for granted that this also holds true for groups, enterprises, or the respective society as a whole, as well as the (disaster-) management organisations and institutions for prevention and mitigation involved. The idea of learning from disasters is expected to be better prepared or to be more efficient the next time. Thus, we assume that the results of these learning processes are preserved as "knowledge" in the collective memory of a society, and that patterns of practices of learning have been adopted on this basis. However, looking closer at post-disaster learning, there is some evidence for the opposite: Analysing past calamities fairly often reveals hardly any societal learning (e.g. Fukushima) and, if so, “learning” often turns out to consist of quick fix solutions with unintended side effects (e.g. the suicidal Germanwings pilot), or the disaster memory rarely lasts more than two generations (e.g. South Pacific-Tsunami 2004).

Listen to the lecture in full

Professor Heike Egner Publications

Egner, H (2017), 'Neither realism nor anti-realism: How to approach the Anthropocene?' in Kanzian, C., Kletzl, S., Mitterer, J., Neges, K. (eds.) Realism - Relativism - Constructivism. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 153-166.

Egner, H (2015) 'Kausalität in Kärnten. Ein Essay übergesellschaftliche Differenzierung, Entwicklungspotenziale und und erstaunliche Bildungsblockaden' in

IAS Insights Paper


An ambitious goal of 1.5°C in average temperature change was set by the global climate treaty at the Conference of the Parties in Paris 2015. To meet that goal, it has become clear that the social sciences need to contribute more to the IPCC’s interdisciplinary project. Despite this consensus, however, natural science approaches and practices continue to dominate the debates on climate change. In particular, social sciences are expected to contribute viable and highly synthesised concepts for managing the transition to low-carbon societies. This approach, however, asks for something the social sciences alone cannot deliver. Rather, a different mindset is called for. In physics, for example, there coexists a plurality of competing, yet equally valid, paradigms. Both Newtonian and quantum physics offer valid perspectives on the world, even though they cannot be unified in a single standard model. Just as in physics there exist paradigm differences between natural sciences and social sciences/humanities which, although equally valid, cannot easily be bridged. It is argued therefore that mutual recognition and acceptance of the differences would be an essential step towards interdisciplinary cooperation facing the necessary transition.

Insights Paper