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Making a case for disaster science and technology studies

Kim Fortun (
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Scott Frickel (
Washington State University

As illustrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and the uncontrolled radiation release at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, technoscience is implicated in disaster in myriad ways. These two disasters were not only technoscientific in their origins, but also unleashed torrents of technoscientific activity, directly and indirectly. These activities have included basic and applied research, policy innovations, technology development, the creation of new funding mechanisms, expert-lay collaborations, and the reorganization of scientific networks. These recent examples leave little doubt that large-scale disasters have wide-ranging impacts on technoscientific practices, knowledge, institutions and communities. They also suggest that the social dynamics of science and technology are deeply implicated in how governments, industries, legal systems, affected communities, and other social institutions deal with disaster, risk management, emergency response, and longer-term recovery. To date, however, a synergistic body of STS research on disaster has not emerged.

This inattention to disaster is disconcerting because STS theory and empirical findings clearly have great relevance in efforts to better understand how technoscientific knowledge, experts, and institutions condition and respond to catastrophic events and impact disaster policy. Similarly, a focal effort to develop DSTS holds promise for moving STS in important new directions. The sudden and large scale changes that disasters trigger in ecosystems, societies and knowledge practices offer STS scholars unique opportunities to study the social dynamics of technoscience under highly atypical conditions.

At present there is newly visible and growing interest among STS scholars in investigating the increasingly significant but vastly understudied relationship between technoscience and disaster. This interest is reflected in a new edited volume on STS and disasters with contributors from North America and Europe (Dowty and Allen 2011), two recent books on disaster science and expertise (Knowles 2011; Button 2010), no fewer than six independent panel sessions devoted to disaster and disaster-related topics at the annual meetings of the Society for the Social Studies of Science convened last November in Cleveland, Ohio, and a forthcoming panel on “Crisis: Disasters/Epidemics/Traumas/Catastrophes” organized for the Science, Knowledge and Technology section of the American Sociological Association meetings scheduled for August 2012. There also is a vibrant effort underway to build collaboration between U.S. and Japanese STS scholars concerned with the Fukushima disaster. STS scholars involved in these various projects – hailing from universities in Europe, Japan, North America, and South America – represent a potential leadership core that can advance a coordinated research agenda for the development of a new subfield of Disaster Science and Technology Studies, or DSTS.

In this essay we make a case for DSTS. We identify disasters as a topic of broad theoretical and practical importance that, while generally overlooked in STS research to date, holds great promise but also poses important challenges. Key among the challenges will be developing a set of orienting research questions that can facilitate the coordination of critical studies and generate cross-case understanding of factors and conditions shaping science and technology in the context of disaster. Toward that goal, we end the essay with a series of questions that are organized around three central themes – concepts and methods, cross-case comparisons, and organizational infrastructure. We offer this emerging framework as an invitation to others to collaborate in building a vibrant, open, and responsive field of inquiry into the social dynamics of disaster and technoscience.

Background: Disaster, Science, Technology and Society

The Problem
Disasters are catastrophic events that disrupt eco-, political, and socio-cultural systems. Regardless of whether they are typed as natural, technological or “natech” (Mileti 1999; Quarentelli 1998; Steinberg et al. 2008), it is clear that disasters are regular events, not rare ones. In 2010 alone, an astounding 950 “natural” disasters generated some $130 billion in aggregate economic losses to nations and communities around the world (National Research Council 2011). While 2010 may have been a bad year for disasters, it was not unique. Globally, disasters are increasing in rate of occurrence, intensity, and impact (Vos et al. 2010). Moreover, planet-scale changes in climate systems, socio-economic inequality, and geopolitics will likely exacerbate these trends into the foreseeable future ( Appropriately in this context, disasters are now increasingly recognized as problems of pressing international significance.

Although less often recognized as such, disasters are also epistemic events (Frickel and Vincent 2010). Deeply implicating experts, knowledge and knowledge systems, disasters unfold in dynamic and complex relationship to technoscience in ways that are little understood. Most apparent is that many disasters are caused by technological and organizational failures (Beamish 2002; Fortun 2001; Perrow 1984; Vaughan 1996), and many trigger technological system failures (Steinberg et al. 2004). The destructive capacities of disaster events also can wreak havoc on scientific infrastructure in regions proximate to the event itself – damaging laboratories, classrooms, and information systems, displacing faculty and students, and destroying in-process experiments and other research.

At the same time, however, disasters create unrivaled opportunities for scientific and technological advancement, both basic (e.g. in setting conditions for “natural experiments”) and applied (e.g. investigative teams organized to identify causes of specific system failures). This, in turn, can fundamentally alter the organization and substantive content of existing scientific fields. For example, hurricane Katrina’s direct impact on the field of wetlands ecology since 2005 has been to double the number of researchers studying Louisiana wetlands, double the number of published articles on the topic, and usher in a new “elite” of top article producers (Frickel 2011).

Disaster research has also itself become a notable research field in itself. Since the Second World War, disaster experts have professionalized and developed a distinctive identity, with supporting journals, conference and research centers (Knowles 2011). This expert community is now routinely called upon by governments at all scales, and by bodies such as the National Research Council. In a report on NSF at its 50th anniversary (in 2001), disaster and hazard mitigation research was highlighted as a key accomplishment of the agency, carried out across Directorates, often in collaboration with other federal agencies (NSF 2001).

On a global scale, however, there is a striking mismatch between the relatively even distribution of disasters as they occur across the planet and the highly uneven distribution of science and engineering resources (the U.S., China and Japan accounted for more than half of global R&D expenditures in 2009; NSF 2012: 4-41). Given the critical role of technoscientific expertise in assisting governments and communities to better understand the nature of disaster events, honing effective responses to disaster, and reducing social vulnerabilities to disaster, this mismatch arguably constitutes a form of global inequality that can have profound geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian impacts. Clearly, sustained analysis of the ways technoscience is organized and implicated in disaster is needed.

The Opportunity
Important work on disaster by social scientists has, of course, been carried out for decades. Much of this critically acclaimed work has focused on how proximate communities are affected by disaster, on efforts to manage and reduce disaster risk, and on patterns and consequences of emergency response (important reviews include Comfort 2005; Glik 2005; Oliver-Smith 1996; Tierney 2007). For the most part, this work has not developed within STS and neither have disaster research scholars really leveraged the body of STS theory that has developed in recent decades to advance understanding of the ways science and other forms of knowledge develop, interrelate, secure legitimacy, and are sometimes discounted when disasters strike.

Conversely, disaster has been a blind spot in STS. Scholars working at the top of the field have conducted important studies, for example, on how knowledge is produced and legitimated in different contexts (Shapin and Schaffer 1985); on changing ways of representing scientific findings (Daston and Galison 2007); on different scientific cultures and forms of collectivity (Knorr Cetina 1999; Traweek 1988); or on institutional conditions that delimit knowledge and professional expertise (Hess 2007). Yet little of this theoretically and methodologically advanced work informs understanding of the social dynamics of science and technology specifically in relation to disaster.

These mutually reinforcing blind spots represent an important opportunity to deepen theoretical and methodological insight, advancing STS and making STS relevant to new audiences. For this to occur, STS researchers focused on disaster need to cohere as a community, critically evaluating and drawing on each others’ work, collaborating when the situation calls for it. The real challenge is to facilitate cross-fertilization of ideas and information and to organize on-going peer review and support.

The Promise and Challenge of DSTS
Extant studies that examine science and technology as they relate specifically to disaster demonstrates the subfield’s great potential for deploying STS theories and methods comparatively and reflexively across a broad range of disaster case studies. They also suggest how disaster studies could advance STS insight on the workings of science, technology, and the many systems within which they are entangled

Some of these studies interrogate the institutional and organizational conditions that precipitate disaster and conditions disaster response. For example, in recent work Lakoff (2010a, 2010b) examines the institutional configurations and logics that shape government responses to “catastrophic risk”, arguing for a broader, systemic approach to regulatory reform that reduces social vulnerability to collective risks. Buttressing this argument, Clarke (1999) analyzes how “fantasy documents” (e.g. plans for evacuating Manhattan in the event of a nuclear strike) provide little more than political legitimacy for largely unworkable “civil defense” policies. And Vaughan’s (1996) study of the space shuttle Challenger launch decision describes how organizational culture shaped internal decisions about what knowledge and what levels of uncertainty mattered to NASA administrators, engineers, and risk analysts.

Related work examines political epistemologies of science conducted in response to disaster. Shrum (2010) analyzes processes of conflict and closure between two engineering teams – one composed of engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the other composed of academic engineers – who developed competing claims about the causes of systemic failure of New Orleans’ levee system in the wake of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Focusing on the regulatory response to the same disaster, Frickel and colleagues (Frickel and Vincent, 2011; Frickel et al. 2009) show how the Environmental Protection Agency’s post-flood hazard assessment produced new inequalities in the form of “regulatory knowledge gaps” as sediment sampling and testing practices were deployed unevenly across city neighborhoods. More recently anthropologists Bond (2011) and Olsen (2011) have examined how marine biologists and ecological economists, respectively, are grappling with problems of scientific representation, categorization, and valuation in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still other studies follow science from disaster sites into newsrooms, courtrooms, and local communities as attributions of cause, responsibility and liability are constructed and contested in media and legal systems. For example, Kleinenberg’s (2002) “social autopsy” of the 1995 Chicago heat wave investigates the ways in which city reporters covering that story used science selectively to elaborate particular narratives developed to advance these journalists’ pet theories. Fortun (2001) analyzes the aftermath of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, paying close attention to how environmental health science was reconstructed through legal developments in the wake of the disaster. Her study introduces the concept of “enuciatory communities” to understand how disaster provokes the emergence of new subject positions and social formations. Kirsch (2006) and Button (2010) similarly study the interaction of corporate science, government regulators, and local knowledge in political and legal battles that result from industrial disasters. McCormick (2011) and Frickel et al. (2011) are studying similar dynamics between experts and local Gulf Coast communities impacted by the 2010 oil spill.

These studies illustrate some of the ways in which close analysis of disaster can deepen and extend STS theory. For example, work cited above by Kirsh, Fortun, and Frickel call into question arguments about, respectively, the relationship between scientific authority and other forms of expertise (Wynne 1996; Collins and Evans 2007), processes of inclusion and exclusion in the governance of science (Epstein 2007; Reardon 2005), and the cultural production and reproduction of ignorance (Gross 2010; Proctor and Scheibinger 2009). This is just the beginning, however, as many other important areas of STS theory and empirical study remain largely untapped by existing DSTS research. –Work on thethe dynamics of interdisciplinarity (Frodeman et al. 2011), on science and state theory (Carroll 2006), and on regulatory regimes (Parthasarathy 2007), has much to offer DSTS, for example.

Thus, by paying close attention to the complex ways in which disasters and technoscience are mutually constructed and conditioned, DSTS can make a significant contribution to the development and elaboration of STS theory and methods. We believe the field also holds great promise beyond STS because of the pathways it will open for critical engagement between STS scholars established disaster research communities, policy makers, and leaders and residents of areas impacted by disasters. Yet many challenges remain before we can hope to fulfill these promises. In order to coordinate and communicate DSTS research and outreach effectively, it will be necessary at a minimum to build an organizational foundation for mobilizing committed scholars toward developing and pursuing a coordinated research agenda. The recently inaugurated STS Forum on Fukushima ( represents an important step in the organization of a broader community of DSTS scholars. Another immediate need is to begin developing a basic set of research questions that can serve as conceptual anchor for DSTS research that is reflexive, comparative, and collaborative.

Toward an Emerging DSTS Framework
Through our own research, and a survey of both STS and disaster studies beyond STS, we have begun to develop a set of questions to support reflexive, comparative and collaborative STS studies of disaster. We have begun to test the cross-case relevance of the questions, focusing particularly on the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In launching this comparative exercise, our goal is to build an open source framework that diverse researchers can use, modify, extend and refine. The online STS Forum on Fukushima provides an opportunity to vet and iterate the framework as we have developed it thus far, with questions organized around three sets of thematic issues:

Framework I: Perspective, Concepts and Methods
• How have varied STS researchers conceptualized disaster, and delimited the time and space of disaster in particular cases? What are the advantages and limitations of different ways of circumscribing disaster?
• How have STS researchers positioned themselves relative to disaster contexts? What are the advantages and limitations of top-down vs. bottom-up perspectives? Or of affiliating with various stakeholders as a research strategy?
• What strategies for identifying and categorizing relevant actors and stakeholders in disaster settings provide optimal nuance and analytic purchase?
• How have STS researchers accounted for entwined systems and dynamics – of science, law, media, governance, etc. – in disaster?
• What STS concepts and theory can contribute productively to DSTS?

Framework II: Empirical findings across cases
• How do technoscientific systems, infrastructure, and relations precipitate disaster in particular cases, conditioning vulnerabilities?
• What kind of science, knowledge, and expertise emerges, and is utilized, in the wake of disaster? What is noteworthy about who becomes involved in knowledge production in the wake of particular disasters? Have particular government agencies or universities played significant, perhaps unexpected, roles? What knowledge production roles have social science and humanities scholars played? Citizens and workers? What has constrained the involvement of different social groups?
• What epistemic cultures and influences shaped diverse perspectives among different expert communities? Which perspectives tend to be granted authority, and which more likely to be discounted? How, as disaster unfolds, do both perspectives and cultural hierarchies evolve?
• Who plans and pays for “disaster science”?
• Through what processes and delimitations does disaster become an object of knowledge?
• What new knowledge practices and forms emerge in the wake of a particular disaster – through new collaborations and types of collaboration, though efforts to mobilize basic science for applied ends, through the urgency of moving research findings into policy decisions and practical programs?
• How are scientific claims and other forms of knowledge mobilized in legal responses to disaster?
• What role does disaster science play in either reducing or deepening social and environmental inequalities?
• How do varied social institutions – the state, media, academy, the NGO sector, religious organizations, community groups – respond to disaster, demonstrating both habitual ways of working, and particular forms of responsiveness brought out by the urgency of disaster?
• How does region and context affect disaster-focused science and technology?

Framework III: Future research contexts and DSTS infrastructure
• What arenas of industrial development – established and emerging (e.g. deep water offshore drilling, carbon sequestration, natural gas fraking) – call for special STS consideration because of disaster risks?
• What social, cultural and political economic trends will shape potential for and response to future disasters?
• How can linkage and collaboration between DSTS researchers be facilitated? .
• How can linkage between DSTS researchers and the established disaster researcher community be facilitated?
• How can DSTS be mobilized to inform disaster prevention, preparedness and response?
• How can DSTS be supported financially and organizationally?

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  1. Kim, Scott, thank you both for this timely and highly productive piece that I hope will spur a broad and significant response from the STS community. I have been asking some of the same questions about why there hasn’t been a greater and more organized endeavor by scholars of science, technology and the environment to direct attention to disasters as an object of study. You cite some very important and noteworthy examples, such as Allen and Dowty’s book, of how such an endeavor seems to have begun, albeit not by design, and with little institutional recognition or instantiation. I would love to see more collaboration on “disaster studies” between STS and allied fields of environmental sociology, anthropology and history, as well as with those who study hazards (e.g., the Colorado Workshop crowd) and disaster mitigation and recovery, etc.

    Let me just say: Count me in!

    • Kim Fortun permalink

      Tyson, We’ll count you in! Thanks for the feedback. In the near term, let us know if your material suggests additional questions that should be added to our list. Also think about examples from your material that answer the questions already on our list. This forum has inspired me to think about a similar forum in which we quickly (collectively) produce a rich set of comparisons, using the list of questions to organize ourselves.

      Kim Fortun

  2. Hi Kim and Scott,

    A very interesting idea you guys share in this essay. I am starting a similar topic of research, which is to examine the epistemological implications of Fukushima on nuclear science and engineering. It is a project to observe, as I put it my proposal, “how disaster ignites knowledge change in nuclear technoscience”. I am interested in knowing how other researchers see the same issue and what you guys wrote here gave some directions to pursue that.


    • Kim Fortun permalink

      Hi Sul, I’m glad to hear about your new project. Even the very brief description here has suggested an additional question to add to our evolving list:

      “What kind of change — in knowledge, perspective and process — has been ignited by a particular disaster?”

      Let us know if additional questions come to mind. Kim

  3. Hi Kim and Scott, I am even sorrier now that I missed Scott’s talk and Kim’s discussion of the four Deepwater Horizon talks at 4S. However, this cogent introduction to disaster and STS hits the spot! I look forward to hearing more from this research focus in the future 🙂 Logan

  4. Sharon Traweek permalink

    I think these are excellent suggestions for STS research, interdisciplinary communication with colleagues, and teaching. I have found that teaching case studies of multiple kinds of disasters in various countries from an STS perspective immediately engages undergraduate students; they actively join in class discussions and their papers are strong. I ask students to find readings in STS, literature, engineering, disaster studies, etc, as well as in their major fields. In each class there have been students who have had either personal experience or close ties to those in disasters; that intensifies the interest of all.

    Here are a few of the disaster studies links I have been scanning:
    International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters
    Journal of Disaster Research
    Tohoku University Disaster Control Research Center
    University of Delaware Disaster Research Center
    World Institute for Disaster Risk Management
    Yokohama National University Center for Risk Management and Safety Sciences
    Yokohama National University Center for GIS Applications for Disaster Reduction

  5. Kim and Scott,

    Left field reply . . . I wonder what you WOULD have written if you had of read Lewis Mumford’s 1961 essay “History: a neglected clue to technological change”, published in Technology & Culture? Back when T&C allotted less space to straight historical analysis of how cogs in wheels came to be cogs in wheels.

    Mumford argues for the role of social and cultural milieu in shaping technologies, and often it is that aspect of that little piece that gets quoted, usually in consort with citing The City in History and discussing megamachines and authoritarian technologies. But buried in that little essay was a serious rebuke of archeologists and anthropologists. Mumford claims those disciplines were really the first to study technology seriously and, lacking much data other than left-over artifacts, we ended up with stories of bronzed man and so on. That is, technology assumed more a role in history, such as defining an age, because the artifact was left to analyze not the aspects of culture – from the itty bitty corners of culture accounting for children’s toys to the powerful religious and political orders accounting for weapons and the like.

    This – Kim & Scott’s – essay has many comments on why STS has mostly over-looked disasters, but a transposed Mumford(ian) question is whether there is anything systematic going on in the neglect? Just like Mumford’s charge leveled against the archeologists and anthropologists. Is that a question that could be in the list of questions a Disaster STS ought to grapple with?

    And using Mumford even further, is there something to some technologies rendering them the likely suspects in future disasters involving technical contraptions? Mumford thought some technologies were outgrowths of particular kinds of cultural endeavors, such as authoritarian politics producing hard to (democratically) control artifacts, a line of thinking we see in Ellul, Winner, and Perrow. Surely that line of thinking is relevant to an STS set of questions about nuclear reactors and their disaster potential? Of course, this means the systematic neglect Mumford thought sometimes infects a discipline might be a kind of inverted one from the kind Mumford thought afflicted the archeologists and anthropologists. Mumford thought they were too obsessed with the artifact, and not enough with cultural milieu. But for STS, have we become not interested enough in the artifact, and overly involved with the cultural milieu? Ellul, Winner, Perrow and Mumford do not make the extensive list of writers noted in a position paper on disasters and STS, in a forum discussing disaster stemming from a nuclear reactor.

    If Mumford were here, I wonder if he would think we were neglecting the artifact a bit much?

    Just being provocative. Why not?

    Darrin Durant
    Department of Science & Technology Studies
    York University

  6. Kim Fortun permalink

    Hi Darrin, Thanks for the comments. Questions about why particular disciplines/fields of study — in particular times and places — have it in them to engage disaster, or are prone to ignore/disavow them — certainly should be on our list of questions (and to some extent is implied by the question about epistemic cultures). And both anthropology and STS should be subject to the same inquiry. A persistent frustration for me in anthropology, for example, is the lack of attention to infrastructure — particularly industrial and information infrastructure — as a powerful determinant (among many others) in the making of society, culture, life chances, etc. This is changing, and promises to produce a new kind of anthropology of disaster, as well as good anthro of science and technology, and just good anthro. Attention to what you (and Mumford) call “the artifact” will be critical. The question on our list which asks about how disaster vulnerability is produced is meant to get at this (and other things). The questions about the areas of industrial production that deserve special consideration — because prime for disaster — is also related. Often the “ready for disaster” quality is a result of material design and workings (in deep water offshore drilling, fraking, nuclear power, for example), coupled with political economic forces, cultural logics, etc.

    So I think we share your interests and concerns, and hope our evolving framework can accomodate them.

    Kim Fortun

  7. Kim and Scott,

    Thank you for this piece. Some of the questions that you pose are particularly relevant for me as I carry on my fieldwork!

    On the question of what other events should be in our radar, I think food safety failures might be an interesting arena to analyze from this point of view. Just last summer in Japan, there were a few fatalities because of E.Coli and raw beef. I did some research before with salmon producers, and it is amazing the strict procedures and traceability measures taken to ensure the safety of the fish. When these break down, it can lead to re-arrangements in not just the science and logistics of food, but also how consumers and retailers perceive entire regions. In 2008, there was a poisoned dumpling incident in Japan, where pot dumplings from China had some compound that made people sick. The response to this incident was incredible, with some supermarkets pulling all their Chinese-made products from the shelves, and uneasiness about Chinese products continues to this day.

  8. Kim Fortun permalink

    The food safety arena should indeed be on the list of those ready-for-disaster — with interesting similarities and differences with other (more obviously industrial) arenas. With this arena in mind, what could you add to our list of questions?

  9. Scott Frickel permalink

    Hi Tyson, Sul, Darrin (nice to ‘meet’ again!), Logan, and Nico.

    Sorry for joining the conversation late. I’m glad to see that our essay has resonated with you all and am looking forward to the discussions that I will grow from this forum. The ideas Kim and I sketched just scratch the surface, so I really appreciate your input and enthusiasm; there is so much to do with respect to disaster and STS….

    A few quick thoughts in response to Darrin’s and Nico’s comments:

    Darrin: I am very much in favor of thinking beyond the artifact, as Darrin (channeling Mumford) suggests. Indeed, disaster contexts really challenge standard STS propensities to focus on the micro-level. Disasters move everything — macro and micro, institutions and local practices. For me, this means that we/researchers don’t have the privilege of assuming that larger structures ‘hold still’ but have to take the rapid and often unpredictable changes in organization, built environment, and institutions (rules, laws, norms) literally into account. Here’s an example: I’ve got a new project on how hurricane Katrina changed wetlands ecology research in South Louisiana. My initial entre into this was to examine bibliometric data identified through keyword searches, with which i can study change (pre- and post-hurricane) in rates of scientific production, population of scientific producers, and geographic and institutional composition of the field. In brief, every measure I’ve looked at thus far changes radically — except the average number of article co-authors. Wetlands ecology remains a field organized by small research teams, as it was before the hurricane. A micro-level focus on research practices conducted within those teams would not, by itself, capture any of the broader field-level changes that are emerging from analysis of the bibliometric data. Disasters are big, and i think we need to go big as well if we’re to have any chance of capturing causes and consequences in meaningful ways.

    Nico: I agree — there is a broad range of events/processes relevant to DSTS. Given that diversity, my preference is to use those theorized similarities to develop comparative research projects — to study how certain types of events cohere (or not) in relation to other types of events/processes. that is, I favor coming at this issue empirically and inductively. I’m not well-versed in the traditional disaster research literature, so i could be wrong about this, but my sense is that a lot of ink has been spilled trying to re/define disasters/hazards/accidents and there’s been lots of hand-wringing about what should and should not ‘count’. Personally, I’m not interested in taxonomic exercises. I’d much rather see hard-nosed comparative work — and this is what Kim and I are trying to promote with our essay. For example, it would be interesting to compare food safety emergencies that emerge from failures endogenous to agro-systems (e.g. tainted Chinese dumplings) to emergencies precipitated by exogenous failures (e.g. Louisiana oyster beds contaminated by the BP oil spill). Do actors and institutions behave/respond differently to processes that have similar outcomes originating from different causes?


  10. Kim Fortun permalink

    Sharon, Thanks very much for the teaching suggestions, and references. We need place to archive and curate links like the ones you sent. I’ll work on this. Kim

  11. Lydie Cabane permalink

    Hi Scott and Kim

    First of all thank you very much for this very interesting and innovative piece, full of exciting questions and ideas. It’s great to see that an sts approach to disaster and disaster studies is becoming more and more popular- (maybe popular is a big word, but at least, there interests popping up here and there. I am myself a student of disaster science from a science studies point of view (though in another setting : South Africa). I work in France in networks of people interested in risk and science, but there’s just me and another good colleague (an anthropologist) who are developing critical research on disaster science (as far as I know). So coming from another setting, I have a few reaction to your paper that I would like to share (I don’t know if this discussion is still on, but I will still join as it’s so interesting).

    My main remark is that your stance on disaster and disaster science is quite situated in the American (important) research traditions on disasters. This is quite a normal remark in a post colonial era, but it is still an important one as disaster studies unfolded a bit differently in the rest of the world. I may suggest you that reconsidering disaster science and their different networks will give a different view. From various conversations with American scientists, I had had the impression that disaster research in America is quite isolated from the rest of the world, especially from Latin America, Africa and Asia – that have been very dynamics field for the past 20 years – and your paper seems to confirm this intuition (it’s not a personal critique as you are you’re self trying to take some distance with an sts approach, I am just trying to map disaster knowledge).

    At the risk of being provocative, you may risk to re-invent the wheel with your call on interdisciplinarity, and the sense of urgency stemming from contemporary environmental change. This is exactly what disaster risk science has been doing in Africa, Asia (and Latin America ?) : advocating for “transdisciplinary perspectives on disaster” to answer urgent ecological problems and the complexity of disaster (Helen Tilley’s recent book also suggest that this discourse has a long history). For the anecdote : I found this site while looking for Scott Frickel’s papers on inter-disciplinarity. Now I find a call for interdisciplinarity when I was hoping that some of his insights could help me to de-construct the interdisciplinarity discourse in the disaster science I am studying. This is funny and puzzling, but also revealing of knowledge gaps, separate streams of knowledge productions, and networks in disaster science-S. I may not solve my interdisciplinarity problem after reading your paper but it will definitely convince me that an sts approach to disaster is relevant.

    Another example of knowledge gap : I am quite struck by your comment on the power of technology vs the disastrous world in the South as this was the discourse of American engineers at the end of the 1980s to promote a Decade for Disaster Reduction at the UN that was set in the 1990s and that was heavily criticized by social scientist, notably from the South for not taking into account local knowledge and capacities that should be keys in disaster risk reduction and for being yet another manifestation of power from the North. From the mid-1990s, UN based reports then accepted the idea that technology transfer was not the only solution and started to work much more with South based social scientists. There are indeed mismatch in scientific infrastructure, but disaster science in Africa seems to me much more progressive than US one as is rely on, guess what : interdisciplinarity, community engagement, participation, etc. This is also quite true for Asia and Latin America. In particular, they have been militating for a shift towards the study of root causes and not just community response (as disaster science in the US mostly did), for taking into account vulnerabilities and “everyday risks”, not just “big disasters”.

    Another suggestion here is to look beyond big techno-scientific disasters : for example, drought and famine in Africa have been a very important site for the construction of disaster knowledge, “feeding back” in international agency and disaster science in the North ideas about the necessity to look at local vulnerabilities (to make it simple).

    If you read French I have a couple of paper to suggest you – there should be an interesting one by Sandrine Revet in the next edited book by Soraya Boudia (and I will write some in English once my dissertation will be over). I also have lots of weblinks and journals from the South to share, but this comment has already been too long so that will be for another time.

    I subscribe to your call for sharing and pooling STS works on disasters and would happily like to stay in touch. My dissertation (soon to be finished) deals with the goverment of disasters in South Africa which led me to consider the role of disaster knowledge and science in this process of governmentalization and in connection with the rise of a global government of disasters driven by the UN since the 1990s. I am currently trying to set up a post doctoral project on disaster knowledge and the institutionalisation of “disaster risk science” in Africa, much more in an STS perspective.

    Lydie Cabane
    Centre for the Sociology of Organizations / Sciences Po

  12. Kim Fortun permalink

    Lydie — Thanks very much for these comments. They are very useful and helpful. I look forward to working through them with Scott F. One point of clarification: thus far, neither Scott nor I have studied the disaster research community in the US. Rather, we have done our own (ethnographic, STS) work in disaster settings and are looking to understand how our work can make a broad contribution. This of course implies that we need to develop a good understanding of the how the relatively codified “disaster research” community works, both in the US and elsewhere — so that we can imagine how our research will be received. It doesn’t surprise me that the US disaster research community has developed somewhat in isolation. We’ve certainly sense that it has pretty hard walls around it. I’m sure there is much to be learned from this story.

    Please stay in touch as your work progresses and you have more feedback for us.

    thanks again, Kim Fortun

  13. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to
    be really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely broad
    for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the
    hang of it!

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