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Session 2: “Institutional Perspectives: Governing, Preparing, Responding”

Everyone is encouraged to post a comment at the end of each manuscript. You may also post a comment on the papers and substance of an entire session by posting a comment at the bottom of this page. 


“Call it A ’Wash’? Conundrums of Technological Modernization and Flood Amelioration in Early 20th Century Niigata Prefecture, Japan
Philip Brown (Department of History, Ohio State University)

Civil engineering projects that shaped the outcomes of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku disaster extended well beyond those that affected the safety of nuclear power plants per se and encompassed dilemmas with which Japan has contended long before the advent of nuclear power generation. Flood amelioration efforts represent an especially apt case in point. Modern approaches to river control – lining rivers with cement and construction of dikes – in fact did much to channel Tohoku tsunami waters and accelerate their speed as they moved inland.  Designed to protect and permit the development of lowland areas, these modern civil engineering projects represent the current end-point of an extended Japanese tradition of riparian control. This tradition was enmeshed in trade-offs between different economic and political interests, and new and older technological approaches…[Read More]


Designing Collective Action to Build Community Resilience: The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, March 11, 2011
Louise K. Comfort (University of Pittsburgh) & Aya Okada (Doshisha University)

Large-scale catastrophic events that have global consequences, such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor Explosion of March 11, 2011, demand an equally large-scale global response in seeking explanations of what factors contributed to this event and how risk from such sociotechnical, ecological, physical, economic interactions can be avoided in the future. Such a catastrophic event demonstrates vividly the degree of uncertainty and lack of knowledge that characterize the design and implementation of advanced sociotechnical systems such as nuclear power plants in physical systems subject to seismic risk that interact with economic and social systems of communities and neighborhoods.  Only by mobilizing a systematic inquiry into the interactions among these different systems, each of which is only partially understood, will it be possible to achieve reasonable confidence in the human capacity to define, design, test, implement, and evaluate the responsible use of nuclear power in environments exposed to multiple and interacting risks…[Read More]


Resituating Radiation in Japanese Genetics Research
Lisa Onaga (Nanyang TU, Singapore)

For those who follow the history of biology, March 11, 2011 pointed to a need to understand how scientists resumed the use of radiation to induce mutations in Japanese genetic experiments after World War II. This abridged paper aims to comprehend why enthusiasms for the deliberate irradiation of non-human organisms in Japan occurred in the 1950s, considering the ongoing studies of atomic bomb survivors’ health. The discourse surrounding ongoing uncertainties about the low dose effect – the extent to which minute levels of radiation exposure would cause genetic effects harmful or otherwise – flags a critical aspect of an uncertain period that preceded the normalization of mutagenesis studies in mid-twentieth century Japan that has remained relatively understudied in the humanities...[Read More]


Histories (and Futures?) of Nuclear Disaster Expertise
Sonja D. Schmid (Virginia Tech)

March 11, 2011 started and ended with television footage of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I watched in horror as over the following days, one reactor building after another exploded. When images of the first helicopter dousing water appeared on the screen, I could not help but remember the plight of thousands of Soviet soldiers and civilians trying to contain another nuclear nightmare, some 25 years ago. Where were those people now who had dealt with the Chernobyl disaster? Could someone dispatch them to Japan and let them help fix things up? But with every explosion that shook the Japanese plant it became clearer: there was nobody—not in Japan, nor Russia, nor the United States—who had the relevant know-how, equipment, and strategy to handle a nuclear disaster. If there ever was expertise on how to handle nuclear disasters, we have either managed to lose it, or have no way of accessing it to respond to a nuclear emergency. Today, there simply is no international nuclear emergency capability…[Read More]


The Making of the Map, the Making of Risk
Charlotte Cabasse (Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées)

This paper addresses the elaboration of two maps, the USGS National Seismic Hazard Map and the USGS Community Internet Intensity Map. A look at the production of these two widely used documents forces us to rethink the definition of the earthquake risk, adding to the usual elements of definition some unexpected actants. Making connections between what is considered scientific ‘knowledge’ and lay people ‘perceptions’ has always been a challenge for risk experts and scholars. The study of the elaboration of these maps shows that experience and perception play a major role in the definition of the earthquake risk. I argue that these maps’ complex associations and reticular connections make visible a network of risk awareness also at stake in Real World. Creating bridges between forms of actants will help us grasp the multiple and moving dimensions of the risks we face…[Read More]


  1. During this session, and within the papers, a huge number of interesting threads of discussion were raised, from specific, empirical questions to big, meta-theoretical themes. File this comment under the latter category, as a theme that connects the subjects and objects of our study with the interdisciplinary enterprise in which we ourselves are engaged.

    Whether it is trying to assemble an international nuclear event response team, integrate subjective and objective information into risk maps, compile diverse forms and sources of data into a centralized “knowledge commons,” or establish an interdisciplinary community of disaster and STS scholars, all of these endeavors highlight the challenges of making sense of, and acting upon, diverse knowledges. Phil’s paper points to a time and place in which knowledge production and responsibility for action were both local and coextensive, and suggests that the splintering of the former from the latter is a (perhaps not unique, but notable) characteristic of modernity (if I may use that loaded word), at least in Japan. Lisa’s paper, as well, depicts a community of experts considering diverse influences and sources of information as they struggle to figure out the goals, methods and common framings of their particular regime of knowledge production. Arguably all of these projects (as well as others discussed at this workshop, such as Safecast) involve knowledge production and organization with the expectation that these knowledge-centered activities will lead to some kind of *action* more directly applicable to the public, motivated by ethical conceptions of “doing good” in the context of risk and disasters.

    In this context, I found one of the strands of discussion today, on what we might call “the uses of history,” particularly interesting. I would imagine that historians often get tired of being asked to spell out exactly how their studies are relevant to contemporary events and issues. (In my interdisciplinary department, more than once I have seen some of our historians wince at being asked such questions in some form or another.) Of course, this particular workshop is organized around 3.11, and while we may not aim to produce specific policy recommendations, I think that we all agree that the development of DSTS and these kinds of studies promises both (in the language of our generous funder) intellectual merit and beneficial broader impacts, so it is understanding that the historians in our number have been asked for more details about contemporary connections. This is not improper, but today’s discussion, prompted initially by Chris Jones’s comments, did make me consider “scholars of the contemporary” can learn from our historian colleagues regarding perspectives on the value of history, since I do think that there are probably ingrained differences in the ways that historians think about the role of history vis a vis contemporary issues, relative to (other) social scientists.

    As we work to establish an interdisciplinary community of DSTS scholarship, I think it is important to reflexively consider these subtle (or perhaps sometimes not so subtle) interdisciplinary faultlines, what we can learn from our colleagues in other disciplines, and what these lessons might mean for our larger enterprise as well as for our own disciplines and projects.

    Postscript: another set of fault lines that came up in discussion during the following day (sessions three and four) was the differences in styles, norms, assumptions and approaches between traditions of scholarship in different national and cultural contexts. Distinctions between primarily Japanese and American traditions were discussed, but I think that we can also identify certain distinct qualities of French scholarship, British scholarship, etc.

  2. Sharon Traweek permalink

    During our discussions I mentioned this group:
    Fukushima Saisei no Kai/Fukushima Resurrection Association
    co-founded by Yoichi TAO, physicist now affiliated with the Center for Continuing Professional Development, Kogakuin

  3. Sharon Traweek permalink

    I mentioned the work of Ryoichi WAGO. In another context I posted some information about artists’ engagement with Iitate-mura following the events of 3.11!topic/fukushima-forum/JArgZabDAog

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