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2012 SHOT Workshop Synopsis

Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters: Placing Chernobyl, 9/11, Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima Dai-Ichi and Other Events in Historical and Contemporary Perspective*

2012 Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) Annual Meeting
Copenhagen Business School
7 October 2012

(*Co-Sponsored by the SHOT Prometheans (Engineering) SIG, SHOT Asia Network, and Teach 3.11)


Atsushi Akera
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


So what I’d like to offer here is the first of what will hopefully be a two-part summary of the two 2011 Fukushima / East Japan disaster related events held during the recent 2012 SHOT / 4S annual meetings in Copenhagen. We consider both events to be preliminary to the inaugural meeting of the “STS Forum on the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan Disaster” to be held at the University of California Berkeley on 12-14 May 2013, with NSF Sponsorship. (See the attached call for papers, below.)

This summary reviews the co-sponsored* workshop at SHOT, which took place on 7 October 2012 during the Sunday SIG time slot of their annual meeting. This workshop produced a complex discussion that aspired to match the complexity of the subject. While what follows is based on the conversations and the many insightful comments made by those attending the workshop, please regard this only as a personal reading of this event.

Disciplinary Perspectives & Comparative Study

To start out with, let me point all readers to the workshop’s website, which remains the best comprehensive introduction to the papers discussed during this pre-circulated papers workshop. Most of the manuscripts remain online. (See It is worth noting that we organized the workshop around four themes, each of which were designed to inform the subsequent discussions and culminate in an interpretation of the 2011 disaster in Japan. Specifically, we focused on the natural/anthropogenic disasters dichotomy; disaster preparedness and response in global perspective; contemplating nuclear technologies; and understanding Fukushima Dai-Ichi and the broader 2011 East Japan disaster.

The very intent of the workshop was to approach the study of disasters from multiple, disciplinary perspectives, and to use comparative study as a means of strengthening our understanding of the events in Japan and of disasters more generally. As noted by multiple participants in reflective comments collected after the workshop (this was required of all participants), approaching disasters from the point of view of history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, environmental studies, and social theory helped shed light on the many different contributing factors that shape disasters and the social responses that follow. It was noted that while it was impossible to pull together and synthesize all of the different disciplinary perspectives offered, it was nevertheless immensely productive to have such a dialogue, especially in revealing the complexity of disasters. To draw on the remarks of one participant, “I think it is particularly important to stress the interconnections and entanglements that appear in the Fukushima disaster” and other disasters, as politics, technoscientific imaginaries, engineering expertise, disaster response strategies, hubris, mass media and social networking, and do-it-yourself movements interact in ways that produce “the event.” Such remarks seemed to resonate with the Japanese scholars present, who experienced firsthand the conflicting dialogues that unfolded after the disaster, and whose concern with the “triple disaster” has brought them to seek an integral understanding of the disaster in ways less familiar to those observing the event from outside Japan.

While I do not wish to privilege any particular disciplinary perspective, given that the event took place during the SHOT annual meeting, let me foreground, for a moment, the historical dimensions of our discussions. The intent here is to simply illustrate, through one example, what the different disciplines brought to the table. Two remarks, both related to the notion of historicity, stood out, at least for me. The first was the importance of placing contemporary understandings of disasters in the context of industrial labor history, and of (late 19th and) 20th century industrial accidents in particular. From the industrial accidents at steel mills and coal mines, to exploding chemical plants in Bhopal, it is clear that technological disasters are, at one level, planned events whose risks and consequences are anticipated by the industrial societies that both produce and rely on these technologies. Historic precedents also makes it clear that during the responses following a disaster there are various established discursive scripts that shape whose voices are heard and whose gets silenced or sidelined in the policy discourses that follow; this being said, cross-cultural differences in political culture and the social constitution of experts and expertise produce quite interesting variations in these articulations and silences.

Second, with regards to François Gemenne, Reiko Hasegawa, and their colleagues’ ethnographic work on the Fukushima region’s evacuation patterns, one of the participants drew our attention to the migration patterns that already existed within the Tohoku region’s history. Pre-existing patterns of internal colonization offered the social fabric that enabled and facilitated the region’s evacuation, but it has also produced expressions of regional loyalty, and both filial and patriotic obligations that have complicated resettlement and recovery. It was noted that similar patterns have been observed with respect to the Post-Katrina Diaspora, and some of the work that Kim Fortun and her colleagues are doing on the geographic distribution of FEMA trailers across established networks of poverty (this is a network that can be mapped across the Southern United States) seemed to offer fertile soil for cross cultural comparisons.

Turning to at least one of the other contributing disciplines, we can also consider the contributions made by those with a background in anthropology. Actually, it is certainly true that several of those present already worked from a perspective that spanned more than one discipline, beginning with the anthropological insights embedded into this last observation about historic migration patterns. (It was, in fact, offered by Sharon (Traweek), an anthropologist teaching in a history department.) Anthropological insights were also instrumental to our engagement with the notion of technoscientific imaginaries—the political and nationalistic goals made evident in works such as Gabrielle Hecht’s The Radiance of France, and clearly relevant to several talks presented at the workshop including Okuda’s work on the installation of a Calder-Hall type reactor in Japan, and Hristov’s account of Bulgarian nuclear reactors. However, our conversation also departed from Jasanoff and Kim’s (2009) conceptualization of sociotechnical imaginaries. As opposed to a focus on the state, the cultural anthropologist’s use of “imaginaries,” which has become a kind of substitute for the “culture” concept more generally, can be used to analyze such things as the public fears and reactions embedded in societal memories of a historic event such as Hiroshima. It helps unveil how historic memories can serve as a powerful operator in steering public conversations following an event such as Fukushima Dai-Ichi. A similar process was found to be at work in France the nation’s own response to Hiroshima in the period immediately following World War II.

Nearly all of the participants took note of the value of “reasoning in cases.” The participants seemed to concur that studying disasters in comparative perspective—from studies of environmental disasters wrought by the use of defoliants in Vietnam (Hay); to the engineering aspects of terrorism in the past and present (Fridlund); to temporally extended disasters such as arsenic contamination of water supplies in Bangladesh (Johnson); to the various forms of nuclear policy making and disasters studied by multiple authors—all helped draw attention to the multi-layered, multi-faceted nature of the contexts within which disasters unfold. While the technical aspects of the disaster were less often the focus of our discussions, I presume that these complexities also extend into the technical aspects of the technological systems that produce major accidents. We saw some of this in Brown’s account of riparian built environments, and the way in which expertise exacerbated disasters in ways unforeseen by the system’s designers. There was a sense, in turn, that the individual case studies that people brought to the table, as isolated by disciplinary assumptions and often a specific national context bounded each study in ways that were usefully stretched through comparative analysis. It was said that “understanding disasters in comparative perspective seems necessary to deep understanding [and] achieving the critical distance and vantage point from which [to carry out meaningful analysis]” (Anonymous). On the other hand some remained skeptical that there were easy “lessons” to be learned from such comparisons. While still supporting comparative study as a means of opening up a field of inquiry, some cautioned against generalizations, while yet others directed us to be clear about the reasons for comparison, with the accompanying implications about how we select our comparisons. Ultimately, the efficacy of comparative study may manifest itself only through the individual effort of each participant to draw on the approaches, perspectives, and insights gained from the other case studies; the reflective responses submitted by the participants after the event exhibits some real promise in this respect.

Conversations and Insights

Turning from broader patterns to specifics, we can describe some of the concepts that we spent time discussing during the workshop. For instance, the opening discussion on anthropogenic and natural disasters led immediately to the observation that there was nothing exclusively natural or anthropogenic about any of the major disasters discussed during the workshop; and certainly not with the triple disaster in Japan. Returning again to Brown’s paper, the built environment of a century and a half of riparian control along coastal Japan served to channel and accelerate the Tsunami’s waters in ways that exacerbated damages, even as it helped anchor prevailing assumptions about the technological control over nature that affected the East Japan disaster in more profound ways. I should also note that various participants found Brown’s conceptualization of “built environments” to itself be a useful concept for understanding how disasters are prefigured through the physical and rhetorical manipulations of the natural environment.

But of course, the potential for nuclear reactor failures, and the potential violence of natural event such as a tsunami were themselves designed into the built environment of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear facility through the calculating if also careful assessments of risk performed by engineers. Clearly the technical an political, and natural and anthropogenic are interleaved in highly complex ways within the complex technological systems and built environments that we rely on and inhabit. The first session was indeed prefigured on the postmodern slash (“/”) construct to point to the inextricable relationships that exist between human being and their natural environment. This being said, one of the participants reminded us that what we call natural and anthropogenic disasters are not one in the same; and how one can become the other and vice versa through historical decisions and events. While complex technological systems enfold both elements in ways similar to our invocation of “technoscience,” we need simultaneously to maintain analytic distinctions that allow us to characterize the specific nature of the relationship as it relates to specific disasters and specific classes of disaster events. One participant also noted the critical role that expertise plays in maintaining the natural versus anthropogenic disaster dichotomy.

A second concept that drew considerable attention was the notion of “environmental coherence” advanced by Matthias Heymann in his paper, “Technology and Natural Disaster.” Japan, for instance, is said to have a unique attachment to, and appreciation for nature, and yet the daily manifestation of this value system entails a complex set of interrelated commitments and silences that are exhibited in Japanese attitudes towards remote lands, natural resources, energy, and nuclear technologies. These value systems find different expressions in different localities, even within a single country. Consider, for example, how different attachments to nature, the outdoors, health, and safety play out among the upper-middle-class mothers in the wealthy Setagaya district of Tokyo, as opposed to the rural farm cooperatives or the nuclear workers’ communities in the Tohoku region. Several of the papers made evident the complex cultural constructs that undergird patterns of “environmental coherence” (and the broader concept of “values coherence” that was discussed in relation to Heymann’s), which may extend from attitudes about the body, to attachments to the land, to modernist imaginaries and current conceptualizations of regional and national economic well being. While this was clearly evident in the Japanese case, the concept proved fruitful in many other contexts—for explaining, for instance, how the British and French national responses to Chernobyl differed (Kalmbach).

A third concept that drew considerable attention was that of “regimes of trust.” I reproduce with permission, one of the participants’ reflections about how this concept served to tie together so many different aspects of our conversations during the workshop:

The most interesting sequence of insights I gained from this workshop is the one encompassed by the concept of “regimes of trust.” First of all, talking about regimes of trust enables us to analyze the situation preceding the disaster and identify the elements that created a fertile ground for a state of emergency to evolve into a disaster. These regimes can be shaped by technological optimism, by financial considerations (calculations of cost and gain), or by lack of awareness about the change of environment. All these contribute to a certain psychological disengagement from known risk, and create a specific configuration of “risk tolerance,” which varies in different cases. During the disaster, however, existing regimes of trust collapse and leave a void, which is then filled with alternative “meshworks” of trust, leading to such phenomena as DIY movements. (Frumer)

In subsequent reflections, I also took note of the parallel between the concept of “regimes of trust” and “regimes of truth” as found within the Foucauldian notion of governmentality. The difference between the two seems to lie in the more explicit focus on the ruptures that occur when regimes of trust are violated as they are during a disaster. The Japanese public’s (sic) tendency to accept partial truths turned into widespread disillusionment, followed by societal-scale anger, producing new pathways for action and potential social and political change. As contrasted against the synchronic study of different regimes of authority, a focus on a rupture in trust places explicit attention to how authority disintegrates, and how alternative and supplemental knowledge regimes emerge in their wake. If a social fabric is “restored” following a disaster, then a close study of this process might reveal how knowledge and authority are reconstituted—something that at least traditionally has been regarded as a void in Foucauldian scholarship.

Specific Ideas & Issues

Let me turn from the concepts we discussed more to some of the substantive conversations that we had on specific issues. From my notes, I note that we spoke about:

  • Resilience, risk, and local knowledge
  • Engineers and engineering
  • Psychology and voids
  • Cultural framing
  • Media environment
  • Fantasies and simulation

So related to our discussions about regimes of trust was a conversation about resilience, risk, and local knowledge.  First, let me just say that Ulrik Beck’s Risk Society was brought up at multiple points during our conversations. In echoing our earlier discussion about industrial history and the history of industrial accidents, it was clear that societies (and not just those in a position of authority) develop a tolerance for risk. Someone during the workshop speculated that the field of economics defines the acceptable limits of risk within a given society; beyond it is the sphere of ethics and morality. It is perhaps better to say that experts, whether engineers, physicians, radiologists, public health experts, or public utility economists, also wield other forms of expertise that also defines the space for dispassionate deliberations over risk calculations. Several of the participants were quick to remind us of the politics that undergird such risk assessments, and the hazards associated with interested actors who participate in these dialogues.

When disasters—which some of those present asserted were events that by definition occurred outside of these risk calculation—occur, local communities are initially left to their own devices to cope with an unfolding event, and part of our conversations focused on the resilience often exhibited within the affected communities. It was said that those who trusted God fared better than those who trusted human control (this should at least be accepted as ethnographic data); we also saw, in different contexts, the community-building that occurs in a moment of crisis; and the fact that the thickness of relationships in rural areas can translate into a capacity to organize both during a disaster and after the evacuation. Someone noted that there is a broader literature on resilience and resilience theory that was not yet reflected in our conversations. Meanwhile, the topic of local knowledge also came up in this context—the archetypal story of the stone cairns used to mark the height of a previous Tsunami, which designated the point of evacuation. However, as observed by one of the participants, such cairns ought to be viewed not only in terms of a useful, historic memory, but as one expression of the trauma encountered by an affected community and their attempt to recover from the trauma that disasters inflict upon individuals, families, communities, and nations.

At various points, the focus of our conversation turned to engineers and engineering. It was asserted that it was the engineers who performed the kind of risk calculations involved in establishing regimes of trust, and that the responsible management of risk was part of the engineer’s professional identity. In a reflexive comment it was also noted that we as social analysts had the pedagogic responsibility to draw the correct lessons and cultivate the appropriate outlook and ethical perspectives in defining these professional identities. There were other points at which a focus on engineering was made explicit: Fridlund’s focus on engineers and engineering as providing a foundation for terrorist acts; or Brown’s focus on civil engineers and “built environments” and how, as already noted above, they contributed to a regime of trust that was disrupted by disaster.

Meanwhile, the discussion about resilience and local knowledge brought us to also talk about psychological responses to disasters and the trauma that they bring about. Disasters are notable for the symbolic value that we attribute to the event—to the problem of poverty and racial injustice that Hurricane Katrina made evident; the purported heroism, but also the occupational abuse inflicted upon the contract labor force (i.e. “nuclear nomads”) at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear facility; the long shadow cast by Hiroshima and how it shaped the interpretation of, and responses following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In a different version of the sentiment expressed above, one participant noted that a disaster is where life does not recover; it was asserted that, by definition, disasters are events that reside outside of the “normal,” and that they therefore provide analysts with an opportunity to locate seemingly “odd” responses that point to human efforts to cope with the unfamiliar. This would include (it was noted) the reactions of the rich mothers of Setagaya-Ku; the effort by communities to reach out to local knowledge as a way of coping with a collapsed infrastructure that frustrated evacuation; those found to already have been going against the established regime of trust prior to a disaster, and their actions and fate (in some cases, further marginalization) following a disaster; and in other ways where there appeared, at least from the outside, that there was a seemingly irrational response to the disaster. One person noted that psychological responses should not be regarded as (merely) pathological, but that it can easily serve as a resource for communities undergoing recovery. While some of the participants clearly found the notion of psychological response to be useful for their work (see, for instance, Paglia & Parker), and others advocated for further exploration of the concept, at least one participant pointed to the hazards associated with any effort to understand the psychology of historic actors. Such studies can easily be marred by our lack of knowledge about what is known about psychology; moreover different cultures are known to understand and approach psychology in quite different ways.

We also discussed, for a while, something about the vacuums and voids that emerge following a disaster. There was discussion, for instance, about the different trajectories of the communities that underwent voluntary versus mandatory evacuation. There are parallels, for example, between what happened in the Tohoku region and what happened in Love Canal. We also spoke of the very different moral ground that these different patterns of evacuation produce: one example of this would be the phenomenon of the “vanishing foreigners” which occurred in Tokyo following the accident.

My notes are less complete on the substantial discussion we had on the topic of “cultural framing.” The discussion about environmental coherence was clearly a part of this conversation. With regards to the 2011 Fukushima/East Japan disaster, participants felt that it was necessary to both understand what was unique about the Japanese response to the disaster, but to then resist the tendency to regard it as simply unique (e.g., placing it in the context of a wider history of industrial disasters and labor relations). With respect to a focus on what was distinct about different disasters, one important factor seemed to be the proximity or distance between the experts and the state. This applied to the differential responses to Chernobyl found in the U.K. and France (Kalmbach), as well as to the East Japan disaster. There was also discussion of the different extent to which individual agency—the actions of a prime minister, for example—could contribute to the course of events. Various participants also drew inspiration from the suggestion that it is important to keep in mind the “big picture” of national identity and politics in engaging with, and making choices between different nuclear technologies (Okuda, Kalmbach).

There was also considerable discussion about the media environment that conveys information about, and constructs a disaster. For me, the most insightful comment lay with the invitation that one participant gave to compare the global news coverage and social media based communications following the East Japan disaster to the work of Barry Commoner and his cohort in discussions about radioactive fallout during the 1950s. National cultures and national norms can shape public and governmental attitudes about transparency, and their broader sense of obligations to the public. In Japan, there appeared to be significant cultural and institutional barriers to open communication, barriers which could perhaps be analyzed in terms of the distinct way in which the separation between public and private sphere was constituted through both customs and policies. (Similar issues exist with regards to the restraints placed on embedded journalists in U.S. military campaigns.) The Japanese social-mediate based DIY (do-it-yourself) movements that erupted in the wake of the 2011 disaster were clearly a response to a rupture in trust, but the tendency among these efforts to frame their work within the dominant image of scientific discourse points as well to continuities in prevailing patterns of authority; this arguably served to restore pattern of authority and trust in the wake of the disaster (see especially Abe). Those present linked this discussion to the established literature on the public understanding of science. It was also noted that disaster responses, and not simply limited to DIY movements, were often about actions that operate within the civil sphere that has the effect of transforming individual actors into citizens—it was noted that the role of the “first responders,” and the reconstruction of this role following 9/11, might offer an interesting point of comparison.

Finally, there was a separate thread associated with the role of fantasy and simulation in both preparing for and coping with disasters. In commenting on Parihar’s paper, several people noted now policy articulations often follow from disasters, and that much of disaster preparedness can serve to produce fantasy documents that generate a false sense of security, thereby undermining the very purpose of disaster preparations. It was nevertheless suggested by Robert that simulations, including video-game based simulations, could help sensitize a public by “making real” a scenario that could not be enacted in reality. Seeing is believing, even as beliefs shape both perceptions and actions. While some felt that there remained a danger in that simulations could just as easily desensitize as well as sensitize a citizenry (e.g. it’s “only a game”); and that even worse, such tools could be used intentionally to mislead through the value systems that are embedded into the simulation, it was argued that where positive and desired outcomes were known (e.g. societal awareness of global warming and climate change) simulations could sensitize a public to important issues in a manner consistent with Kant’s notion of “reflective” versus “determining” judgments (Robert).

Reflexivity, Academic Responsibility, and Voids

There was a different kind of void that that we discussed during the workshop, namely the things we found, on reflection, to be missing from or underdeveloped in our own conversations. For example, it was noted that the criticality of our scholarship was predicated on shifting the focus from remediation to prevention, and from responses to causes (the value of doing so is demonstrated, for example, by Spezio), but that this in turn tended to leave silent the experience of disaster victims, which seemed curiously absent in much of our discussions. This meant as well that there was relatively little discussion of issues related to race, class, ethnicity, and gender; and the experience of disaster within the Global South as opposed to in advanced industrialized countries. Some examples of things that people noted ought to draw much more attention include, for instance, the invisible emotional and physical labor that women provide during evacuation; aspects of Orientalism and race that just begin to emerge in Belot and Chauvet’s account of the French historic response to Hiroshima; and attention to the passive victims of humanitarian, “developmental” aid which can serve as a second tidal wave that decimates the social fabric first disrupted by a natural disaster. As one participant put it,

…while the workshop provided many interesting perspectives for comparisons, it also showed how much still needs to be done in the field of disaster research: not only did aspects of race / gender / ethnicity and power relations in general not play a central role in the discussion, also the cases presented reflected a geographically limited scope with a very strong focus on highly industrialized countries. (Kalmbach)

Indeed, it was clear that the scope of our scholarship was still quite limited. While we exhibited distinct disciplinary strengths, much of the scholarship emerged out of our established work and disciplinary habits that produced, in the end, an eclectic tapestry notable as much for the voids in our coverage as for what we covered. Speaking from a different angle, one of the participants noted, in subsequent reflections, the absence of key literatures and historiography; we ourselves seemed to be captured by the present without recognizing (though with notable exceptions) the necessity of couching our interpretations within the substantial body of literature on nuclear disasters and other disasters that have emerged since the 1980s, especially after Three Mile Island. It was also suggested that we ought to embed our studies of disasters within the broader academic currents of environmental history, and presumably, of other established lines of scholarship.

Another line of reflexive discussion, held quite early on during our conversations, led us to speak about the scholar/activist’s quandary—we rely on esoteric language to do our work, yet need to reach wider audiences to have an impact. Our own positionality as experts can also complicate our relationship to our publics, as many Japanese scholars found in the wake of the disaster there (Kita). Meanwhile, others spoke about our pedagogic responsibilities as educators. An event such as the East Japan Disaster provide ample opportunities for teaching, and it also introduces ethical responsibilities on our part. From the conversation held during the workshop, it was noted by one participant that using DIY movements to teach students about the potential for (and limits of) civic engagement; and a comparative discussion of media environments as a means of getting students to understand the regimes of trust and risk tolerances that operate within their own societies was, for her, some of the most promising ways in which the conversations at the workshop could find its way into her teaching. We were also advised to take heed of our own self-interested conduct as academics (to which I would also add the altruistic dimensions of scholarship).

This is all of course the kind of work we hope to launch into with the inaugural meeting of the STS Forum on the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan Disaster. Again, the event will take place from 12-14 May 2013 at the University of California Berkeley, as supported by a generous NSF workshop grant. We also invite scholars studying other disasters who are interested in thinking about the East Japan Disaster from a historical and comparative perspective. We hope to receive your abstract in response to our call for papers, which I attach below.  (Current information on the Berkeley Workshop may be found instead here.)

Atsushi Akera
Workshop Organizer and Program Committee Chair

External References

References to papers by workshop participants may be found with the manuscripts from the workshop posted at the workshop website:

Jasanoff, Sheila and Sang-Hyun Kim, “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea,” Minerva 47/2 (2009): 119-146.

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