Social containment of disaster

An anthropologist friend of mine kindly sent me some articles I asked for.  One has a great title (I’ve pinched it for this blog post).

It’s by Hugh Gusterson, in “Anthropology News”, May 2011

Top quotes (hyperlinks are mine)-

“One might assume that background radiation would be reasonably stable but, shortly after the Fukushima disaster, without explanation, the NRC quietly doubled its estimate of background radiation from 360 millirems to 620 millirems per year in a March 16 press release. Background radiation is supposed to be the grounded constant against which one calibrates risk, but suddenly it grew.”

[I seem to recall the British pulling a similar change-the-baseline stunt in 1986]

“The sociologist of science, Stephen Hilgartner, writing on Hurricane Katrina, said: “Disasters evoke horror not only because they make chaos and suffering visible, but also because they reveal shocking disorder in socio-technical systems. Tangled communications, failure to act on available knowledge, and socially constructed ignorance make the crisp linearity of the organizational chart seem like a naïve fantasy” (“Overflow and Containment in the Aftermath of Disaster,” Social
Studies of Science 37[1]).
“Hilgartner argued that socio-technical disasters like Katrina (and Fukushima) create breaches akin to those in Victor Turner’s social dramas [see bottom of this post], and that society then rouses itself to contain and repair these breaches.”

[Reminds me of that classic Onion story about “Smart, Qualified People Behind the Scenes Keeping America Safe: ‘We Don’t Exist’ Onion, 25 August 2010. And also reminds me of something I wrote about the comfort of forensics/special investigations shows… it’s called NCIS: Now Come Indispensable States.]

And a final quote from Gusterson –

Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Bhopal. The Exxon Valdez. The levees after Katrina. The Deepwater Horizon. And now Fukushima. Such sociotechnical disasters and their aftermath of social containment are a phenomenon inherent to late modernity. The cracks get repaired, but never completely. The toxic anxiety released is never fully contained. Thus we stagger on toward our next disaster.

See also:
my review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell

From “Social Drama: There’s nothing funny about black and white

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who died in 1984, coined the term “social drama,” which describes what’s going on here. Turner defined a social drama as a process that has four stages: breach, crisis, redressive action and reintegration.

Let’s walk through the stages.

First, there’s the breach: a rupture between society and one of its participants. In each case — Richards, Gibson and Imus — the breach was triggered by an ethnic slur or ethnic joke, and decent people in the larger society became aware of the incident.

Next, the crisis. According to Turner’s theories, the crisis cannot be ignored, lest society threaten to come undone. As Americans watched the coverage of the Imus incident, they had the feeling that something must be done.

The third stage is redressive action, “the culturally defined process that resolves the crisis,” according to Brown University anthropologist William O. Beeman. Although he had already been fired, society didn’t begin its collective sigh of relief until after Imus’ apology to the Rutgers women was accepted.

Finally, there is reintegration, which, Beeman writes, “eliminates the original breach that precipitated the crisis. This can be done in two ways — by creating a permanent split in society, or by healing.”

This compares neatly with Anthony Downs’ Issue Attention Cycle” – I should do a youtube sometime…


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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