33. Slow disasters: epistemologies of risk in contested domains

Kyle Cleveland is Associate Professor of Sociology at Temple University’s Japan Campus and founding Director of TUJ’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, through which he has organized a series of public lectures, workshops, and symposia on Japan’s 3.11 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. He is co-editor (with Scott Knowles and Ryuma Shineha) of “Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context,” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

Pietro Saitta is Associate Professor of Sociology at Università di Messina, Dipartimento di Scienze Cognitive, Psicologiche, Pedagogiche e degli Studi Culturali. He taught and worked for several universities and research institutes in Italy and abroad. He is mostly interested in urban issues, conflict and risk. Among his works in the field of disasters: “The Endless Reconstruction,” (with D. Farinella, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

Contact:   Kyle Cleveland: kylecl@temple.edu  |  Pietro Saitta: pisait@gmail.com

Disasters resonate in time, upending lives, provoking political discord, and transforming societies. Slow-onset disasters such as climate change and epidemics incrementally accrue to pass a threshold, demanding attention, whereas episodic events such as typhoons, earthquakes, floods, environmental and nuclear disasters announce themselves dramatically with a brute force that cannot be denied. The physical destruction that is wrought, the economic cost rendered, the emotional trauma incurred, the unraveling of communities and loss of life are readily evident. 

“Accidents” have long “tails,” precursors that exist before we recognize them and legacies that remain, often long after media attention fades and the disaster recedes into history. As is the case in both earthquakes and climate change, the long-term impact fades from memory under the slow grind of geological processes. How then can we attribute responsibility when it is diffused not only among organizational entities but between institutional actors on a longitudinal time frame that may exceed the attention-span of individuals who inhabit these domains?  Adding to this difficulty in addressing disasters with some degree of specificity and objectivity is that they are all too often explained away as “Natural” Disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires), or are attributed to “Acts of God” which are deemed to be beyond human control. It is the nature of Black Swan events that in retrospect things snap into focus as a more nuanced understanding becomes available, and yet a proper accounting may be avoided as new narratives emerge to deny what had seemed undeniable. 

Disasters vary in scale, but irrespective of their magnitude they inhabit a social space in which risk cultures define their meaning and social significance. This presents epistemic challenges of interpretation for how we calibrate risk in a given social context.  Disasters are often reified, eliding historical context, and thus obscuring the conditions that lead to their emergence. After the crisis phase ends, disasters enter a new, more drawn-out phase in which the meaning of the accident itself becomes contested. During this trailing phase, powerful actors can come forth with clashing narratives or even a furious rewriting of history to neutralize the threat that the original accident posed to their positions of privilege and institutional interests. 

In this session we contemplate how disasters are framed in political discourse and contested in decision-making arenas. How do we infer causality in disasters when their structural complexity defies straight-forward attribution of responsibility and organizational entities strategize ways to avoid blame by mounting rear-guard actions to evade reputational damage and incur legal consequences? 

For this session, we welcome ethnographic research and qualitative analyses, theoretically grounded framing and explanation, historical examination, sociological theory, social-psychological evaluation, and discourse analysis of the following:  

  • How do cultural values, political priorities and parochial concerns define the parameters of acceptable risk in public health pandemics? (Christakis)
  • How are decision-making arenas controlled by authorities to frame public discussion on what they deem to be relevant issues and mobilize bias against “non-issues” that may challenge their agendas, vested interests, and institutional priorities? (Gaventa)
  • How do civil society actors and NGO/Activist organizations engage institutional and state-level authorities and challenge their authority by creating forms of resistance and counter-culture social networks that compete with hegemonic power? (Fortun)
  • What are the political dimensions of legal claims by victims who suffer from disasters, as they bring litigation against authorities deemed to be liable for their actions? (Parry)
  • What role does mass-media – whether institutionally vetted mainstream media or social media – play in defining the nature of disasters and associated issues and agendas? (Jacobs / Parry)
  • How has the emergence of social media and the power of social networks transformed the nature of public discourse in politically charged disasters such as the debate on Climate Change, the Covid Pandemic, and the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis? (Christakis)
  • How are risk parameters and trust socially constructed through media discourse by, or on behalf of, institutional entities and maintained under crisis conditions that may undermine their authority? (Jacobs)
  • How are technologies (Artificial Intelligence, Consequence Analysis Assessment Systems) implemented by government authorities in disaster analyses and used to predict, explain, and reassure the public to achieve credibility and legitimate policy? (Fortun / Porpora / Smits)
  • How is victimhood defined (legally and morally) in the aftermath of calamity and negotiated in relation to state or institutional authorities in environmental disaster, (Minamata, Katrina); nuclear crises (Chernobyl, Fukushima); war and terrorism (Hiroshima/Nagasaki/9-11 NYC Terrorist attacks/Ukraine vis a vis Russia)? (Alexander / Erikson / Petryana)
  • How is “slow disaster” evident in the continued litigation for victims of Minamata Disease and those who suffer the chronic long-term effects of radiation exposure in Chernobyl and Fukushima? (Brown / Fortune / Jacobs)
  • How can we adjudicate between competing claims to clearly and unambiguously understand why disasters happen and appropriately attribute responsibility when disasters are inherently complex and often over-determined by multiple factors that may be meaningfully relevant? (Aven / Downer / Porpora)

Chernobyl, Civil Society, Climate Change, Earthquakes, Environmental Justice, Fukushima, Hibakusha (Downwinders), Hurricanes/Typhoons, Nuclear Disaster, Tsunami, Viral Pandemics

Political Anthropology, Critical Realism, Environmental Epidemiology, Environmental Justice, Disaster Ethnography, Nuclear Disasters, Political Ecology, Sociology of Complex Organizations

Alexander, J.C., 2013. Trauma: A social theory. John Wiley & Sons.

Aven, T., 2015. Implications of black swans to the foundations and practice of risk assessment and management. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 134, pp.83-91.

Brown, K., 2019. Manual for survival: A Chernobyl guide to the future. Penguin UK.

Christakis, N.A., 2020. Apollo’s arrow: The profound and enduring impact of coronavirus on the way we live. Hachette UK.

Downer, J., 2014. Disowning Fukushima: Managing the credibility of nuclear reliability assessment in the wake of disaster. Regulation & Governance, 8(3), pp.287-309.

Erikson, K.T., 1995. A new species of trouble: The human experience of modern disasters. WW Norton & Company.

Fortun, K., 2011. Technoscience and environmental justice: Expert cultures in a grassroots movement. MIT Press.

Gaventa, J., 1982. Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. University of Illinois Press.

Jacobs, R.A., 2022. Nuclear bodies: The global Hibakusha. Yale University Press.

Parry, R.L., 2017. Ghosts of the tsunami: Death and life in Japan’s disaster zone. MCD.

Petryna, A., 2013. Life exposed: biological citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton University Press.

Porpora, D.V., 2015. Reconstructing sociology: The critical realist approach. Cambridge University Press.

Smits, G., 2014. When the Earth roars: Lessons from the history of earthquakes in Japan. Rowman & Littlefield.

(*Note: References are associated with specified questions above by author name)

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *