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Closing Reflections-Question 4

How might the study of disasters reinvigorate and/or challenge Science and Technology Studies? Can the study of specific disasters provide a basis for new work in Disaster STS that can help us understand other disasters, and intervene, in turn, in our material and emotional preparations and response to future disasters? (And please feel free to reformulate this last question, if a different question needs to be posed instead.)

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13 Comments
  1. I still feel that I have only a very limited understanding of the parameters of STS, so I am not able to really comment on the ways in which study of disasters will change the field.

    That said, study of specific disasters across a wide temporal and cultural range can help us understand much about anticipating and dealing with disasters in the future. The cross-cultural element is essential given the increasingly international response to a wide range of events; anything less would lead to a significant reification of culturally specific issues and outcomes as “general theory.” Both cross cultural and historical studies can illuminate the broadest possible range of potential responses to the threat of disasters and actual disasters. Such studies provide us with a sense of alternatives that opens up new options that might not otherwise occur to planners, respondents, etc. Beyond the specific options, understanding that there ARE alternatives helps prevent rigid planning and responses that fail to reflect the “emergent” nature of events that end up as massive tragedies as well as of the response trajectories once a disaster is under way.

  2. Disaster STS is a new development, as far as I understand it and came to learn during the workshop…

    Particularly powerful to me was the critique of technoscientific practices, imaginaries, and platforms as inherently prone to catastrophic (multi-scalar) failure. Disaster STS seems productive in pushing STS towards more problematic (and fundamental) aspects of science and technology that some might be not willing to fully address, such as negative long-term effects. It resonates with me as an engaged and updated version of the critique of modernity and its (inherent) adverse effects.

    Another powerful contribution of Disaster STS seems to reside in the idea that new research designs must emerge out of our engagement with engineers, scientists, local communities, and training programs in particular fields of science and technology. Our theoretical and methodological frameworks are not lacking in explanatory and interpretative power, but we are falling short of research designs that actually problematize risk, security cultures, risk management, and training of technoscientific practicioners. Disaster STS seems to be helpful in recasting the political (within STS) in a more productive way through the recreation of our research design and ‘circumstantial’ / ‘situated’ forms of activism.

  3. Aya Okada permalink

    Coming from non-STS background, I cannot contribute fully in elaborating this question, but I can say that I recognized many overlaps between the STS framework, public policy, and disaster management studies during the workshop. An interdisciplinary group like ours, I think, is really a great starting point in identifying what can be learned from different disciplines.

  4. Studies of disasters strike me as an extreme form of “controversy” study that has been a core component of STS. Rather than challenging STS directly, I’d like to see a sub-branch focused on disasters bring the insights of the field to other audiences, particularly policy-makers. There are already some good examples of this: Andrew Lakoff’s recent edited volume (Disaster and the Politics of Intervention) as is a piece on Fukushima I co-wrote with Sheila Jasanoff, Sebastian Pfotenhauer, and Kris Saha (“Learning from Fukushima” _Issues in Science and Technology_ (Spring 2012): http://www.issues.org/28.3/pfotenhauer.html). I think it’s less about conversations within STS and more about spreading these messages to other audiences.

  5. Norio permalink

    Disaster study is very much natural hazrd, and expanded the trget to terrorism. I should say specialits on each hazard such as earthquake, tyhoon, chemical, etc, did research on their interests. So I think people don’t have interests in particular hazard would be very appriciated to get or rearch to new horizon.

  6. Jen Schneider permalink

    This is a provocative question, and one I don’t feel fully equipped to answer yet. My initial knee-jerk response is: yes, of course, disaster studies has this potential. If STS could be excused of being too “high-church” or theoretical, the study of Fukushima brings theory to bear on something immediate and urgent.

    I keep thinking of Kim’s keynote, and about the possible evolution of the risk society to a disaster society, and would echo Luis’s comments that, if this is the case, STS has a lot to offer in terms of interrogating technocratic or scientistic regimes.

    I’m not as familiar with strains of STS that work on engaging with communities, beyond, say, Citizen Science projects. My own field–Environmental Communication–is heavily invested in such work, and I could see some cross-disciplinary collaboration being very fruitful in this sense.

  7. I;d say there’s lots of potential for STS to engage with the timely and consequential issues raised by our topic. I wouldn’t define the topic exclusively as disaster STS–I think that limits our scope too narrowly. It’s part of what we’ve been examining, but questions of disaster prevention, regulation, and deeper issues of technological attitudes and choices are equally important. All of these questions have rich practical, theoretical, and methodological implications. By keeping the scope and definition of what we;re doing more broad, we create broader opportunities for engagement.

  8. During the 2010 session of 4S, which was in Tokyo, there were some outspoken pro-nuclear advocates. I haven’t seen yet any self-amendment but I’m afraid STS at large, as well as societies at large, DO NOT LEARN FROM DISASTER.

    Some members of affected communities in Fukushima are now engaged in struggle for compensation or punishment of corporate or state exucutives responsible for the disaster. so, like for Bhopal, Minamata and Chernobyl, here we are again condemned to listen for decades to the Deleuzian ritournelle of the “Never More” (“Never more Minamata!”, etc, oh, by the way, this followed on “Never more Hiroshima-Nagasaki”).

    We can however learn from this strong tendency of our hyper-industrial societies for denying the bads of science and technology. There is still much to borrow from the theoretical foundation of STS analysis of the “social construction” of science and technology S&T, to look at S&T-related disaster. This descriptive task of locating where is the social of social construction has evoluted toward the combination of S&T with politics into “techno-politics” (Jasanoff & Kim 2009, Hecht 2012, see also Chris’ article mentioned above). We will need to push further this descriptive task.

    In her keynote at the Berkeley workshop, Kim Fortun emphasized that disaster might have become the most frequent situation. The difference with the time Perrow published “Normal Accident” is perhaps that time has come for STSers to bear a particular responsibility not only for description, but for a more radical value-added engagement with those most affected by S&T expected or unexpected risks (unknown unknowns). This is where the 1980s movements for Environmental Justice or Popular Epidemiology meet again with STS to address the situation of post 3.11 Japan and other nuclearized societies, and beyond the nuclear issue, of other “controversed” S&T risks.

  9. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    I agree with Chris, but also think DSTS is necessarily a cross-cultural project, and as such, can help challenge STS, Western-centric conceptions of risk, trust, democracy, citizen engagement, and other notions we take for granted. DSTS should also be flexible in how it defines disasters, and see if it has room for structural, technological violence, as well as how disasters begin.

  10. Reiko Hasegawa permalink

    I cannot agree more with Paul’s comment. A severe nuclear accident is not an exceptional event in today’s world. Despite the Fukushima accident, more and more nuclear power stations are constructed in the world, particularly in emerging countries. With the effect of climate change, we need to constantly review the worst case scenarios and risks for nuclear accidents among other industrial disasters. If we do not seriously learn from the Fukushima nuclear accident and influence the policy makers to implement the lessons learned (due to some excuses such as Japanese cultural specificity, or an exceptional tsunami disaster…etc.), the raison d’être of STS or Disaster studies will be at stake in the years to come.

  11. Scott Knowles permalink

    I’m in agreement with both Chris and Paul. In my view DSTS extends STS research on expert communities, science and public understanding, and S&T policy in useful ways. The fact is that disaster is not something that happens unexpectedly–it is now a condition of life around the globe. As such, our analytical tools need to be sharpened to understand how disaster experts acquire and deploy knowledge, and how institutions of risk management and disaster management function–and how they might function better and more democratically.

  12. The study of disasters can certainly strengthen the field of STS. As Chris says, it belongs to the long STS tradition of studying controversy and failure. As this workshop has demonstrated, disasters — including the pre-, post- and “in medias res” phases — are an empirical site for the fruitful study of many of the core concerns of STS: the role of experts, how they relate to non-expert publics, how their expertise is constructed and challenged; which kinds of knowledge come into play before, during and after disasters, and how (and by whom) is this determined; the ways that technologies shape risks and responses to hazards (whether it be exacerbating them or enabling life-saving responses), and how those technologies came to acquire their present forms; etc. Disaster studies provides a rich and, sadly, inexhaustible source of empirical cases to “test” STS ideas and frameworks. It involves a vast array of actors and institutions and focuses attention on issues of spatial and temporal scales, so that studying disasters necessarily entails social sciences as well as historical approaches.

    In addition, as Jen said, STS has historically had a tendency to take the “high church” road; even though there is also a strong tradition of ethical engagement with it, STS scholars have often struggled with practical engagement on specific issues — though there are notable exceptions such as those scholars who have become involved in instituting public engagement and deliberation programs, mostly on “emerging” technologies. It is extremely difficult to stake out a purely “symmetrical” or even a principled but purely theoretical position when it comes to disaster studies. There is too much at stake in terms of lives and livelihoods and social inequality and so forth. Thus, disaster studies represents an excellent opportunity for STS scholars to find their way as “public intellectuals,” as Wiebe Bijker has exhorted us to do.

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