Making a case for disaster science and technology studies


As illustrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and the uncontrolled radiation release at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, technoscience is implicated in disaster in myriad ways. These two disasters were not only technoscientific in their origins, but also unleashed torrents of technoscientific activity, directly and indirectly. These activities have included basic and applied research, policy innovations, technology development, the creation of new funding mechanisms, expert-lay collaborations, and the reorganization of scientific networks. These recent examples leave little doubt that large-scale disasters have wide-ranging impacts on technoscientific practices, knowledge, institutions and communities. They also suggest that the social dynamics of science and technology are deeply implicated in how governments, industries, legal systems, affected communities, and other social institutions deal with disaster, risk management, emergency response, and longer-term recovery. To date, however, a synergistic body of STS research on disaster has not emerged.

This inattention to disaster is disconcerting because STS theory and empirical findings clearly have great relevance in efforts to better understand how technoscientific knowledge, experts, and institutions condition and respond to catastrophic events and impact disaster policy. Similarly, a focal effort to develop DSTS holds promise for moving STS in important new directions. The sudden and large scale changes that disasters trigger in ecosystems, societies and knowledge practices offer STS scholars unique opportunities to study the social dynamics of technoscience under highly atypical conditions.

At present there is newly visible and growing interest among STS scholars in investigating the increasingly significant but vastly understudied relationship between technoscience and disaster. This interest is reflected in a new edited volume on STS and disasters with contributors from North America and Europe (Dowty and Allen 2011), two recent books on disaster science and expertise (Knowles 2011; Button 2010), no fewer than six independent panel sessions devoted to disaster and disaster-related topics at the annual meetings of the Society for the Social Studies of Science convened last November in Cleveland, Ohio, and a forthcoming panel on “Crisis: Disasters/Epidemics/Traumas/Catastrophes” organized for the Science, Knowledge and Technology section of the American Sociological Association meetings scheduled for August 2012. There also is a vibrant effort underway to build collaboration between U.S. and Japanese STS scholars concerned with the Fukushima disaster. STS scholars involved in these various projects – hailing from universities in Europe, Japan, North America, and South America – represent a potential leadership core that can advance a coordinated research agenda for the development of a new subfield of Disaster Science and Technology Studies, or DSTS.

In this essay we make a case for DSTS. We identify disasters as a topic of broad theoretical and practical importance that, while generally overlooked in STS research to date, holds great promise but also poses important challenges. Key among the challenges will be developing a set of orienting research questions that can facilitate the coordination of critical studies and generate cross-case understanding of factors and conditions shaping science and technology in the context of disaster. Toward that goal, we end the essay with a series of questions that are organized around three central themes – concepts and methods, cross-case comparisons, and organizational infrastructure. We offer this emerging framework as an invitation to others to collaborate in building a vibrant, open, and responsive field of inquiry into the social dynamics of disaster and technoscience.

Background: Disaster, Science, Technology and Society

The Problem
Disasters are catastrophic events that disrupt eco-, political, and socio-cultural systems. Regardless of whether they are typed as natural, technological or “natech” (Mileti 1999; Quarentelli 1998; Steinberg et al. 2008), it is clear that disasters are regular events, not rare ones. In 2010 alone, an astounding 950 “natural” disasters generated some $130 billion in aggregate economic losses to nations and communities around the world (National Research Council 2011). While 2010 may have been a bad year for disasters, it was not unique. Globally, disasters are increasing in rate of occurrence, intensity, and impact (Vos et al. 2010). Moreover, planet-scale changes in climate systems, socio-economic inequality, and geopolitics will likely exacerbate these trends into the foreseeable future ( Appropriately in this context, disasters are now increasingly recognized as problems of pressing international significance.

Although less often recognized as such, disasters are also epistemic events (Frickel and Vincent 2010). Deeply implicating experts, knowledge and knowledge systems, disasters unfold in dynamic and complex relationship to technoscience in ways that are little understood. Most apparent is that many disasters are caused by technological and organizational failures (Beamish 2002; Fortun 2001; Perrow 1984; Vaughan 1996), and many trigger technological system failures (Steinberg et al. 2004). The destructive capacities of disaster events also can wreak havoc on scientific infrastructure in regions proximate to the event itself – damaging laboratories, classrooms, and information systems, displacing faculty and students, and destroying in-process experiments and other research.

At the same time, however, disasters create unrivaled opportunities for scientific and technological advancement, both basic (e.g. in setting conditions for “natural experiments”) and applied (e.g. investigative teams organized to identify causes of specific system failures). This, in turn, can fundamentally alter the organization and substantive content of existing scientific fields. For example, hurricane Katrina’s direct impact on the field of wetlands ecology since 2005 has been to double the number of researchers studying Louisiana wetlands, double the number of published articles on the topic, and usher in a new “elite” of top article producers (Frickel 2011).

Disaster research has also itself become a notable research field in itself. Since the Second World War, disaster experts have professionalized and developed a distinctive identity, with supporting journals, conference and research centers (Knowles 2011). This expert community is now routinely called upon by governments at all scales, and by bodies such as the National Research Council. In a report on NSF at its 50th anniversary (in 2001), disaster and hazard mitigation research was highlighted as a key accomplishment of the agency, carried out across Directorates, often in collaboration with other federal agencies (NSF 2001).

On a global scale, however, there is a striking mismatch between the relatively even distribution of disasters as they occur across the planet and the highly uneven distribution of science and engineering resources (the U.S., China and Japan accounted for more than half of global R&D expenditures in 2009; NSF 2012: 4-41). Given the critical role of technoscientific expertise in assisting governments and communities to better understand the nature of disaster events, honing effective responses to disaster, and reducing social vulnerabilities to disaster, this mismatch arguably constitutes a form of global inequality that can have profound geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian impacts. Clearly, sustained analysis of the ways technoscience is organized and implicated in disaster is needed.

The Opportunity
Important work on disaster by social scientists has, of course, been carried out for decades. Much of this critically acclaimed work has focused on how proximate communities are affected by disaster, on efforts to manage and reduce disaster risk, and on patterns and consequences of emergency response (important reviews include Comfort 2005; Glik 2005; Oliver-Smith 1996; Tierney 2007). For the most part, this work has not developed within STS and neither have disaster research scholars really leveraged the body of STS theory that has developed in recent decades to advance understanding of the ways science and other forms of knowledge develop, interrelate, secure legitimacy, and are sometimes discounted when disasters strike.

Conversely, disaster has been a blind spot in STS. Scholars working at the top of the field have conducted important studies, for example, on how knowledge is produced and legitimated in different contexts (Shapin and Schaffer 1985); on changing ways of representing scientific findings (Daston and Galison 2007); on different scientific cultures and forms of collectivity (Knorr Cetina 1999; Traweek 1988); or on institutional conditions that delimit knowledge and professional expertise (Hess 2007). Yet little of this theoretically and methodologically advanced work informs understanding of the social dynamics of science and technology specifically in relation to disaster.

These mutually reinforcing blind spots represent an important opportunity to deepen theoretical and methodological insight, advancing STS and making STS relevant to new audiences. For this to occur, STS researchers focused on disaster need to cohere as a community, critically evaluating and drawing on each others’ work, collaborating when the situation calls for it. The real challenge is to facilitate cross-fertilization of ideas and information and to organize on-going peer review and support.

The Promise and Challenge of DSTS
Extant studies that examine science and technology as they relate specifically to disaster demonstrates the subfield’s great potential for deploying STS theories and methods comparatively and reflexively across a broad range of disaster case studies. They also suggest how disaster studies could advance STS insight on the workings of science, technology, and the many systems within which they are entangled

Some of these studies interrogate the institutional and organizational conditions that precipitate disaster and conditions disaster response. For example, in recent work Lakoff (2010a, 2010b) examines the institutional configurations and logics that shape government responses to “catastrophic risk”, arguing for a broader, systemic approach to regulatory reform that reduces social vulnerability to collective risks. Buttressing this argument, Clarke (1999) analyzes how “fantasy documents” (e.g. plans for evacuating Manhattan in the event of a nuclear strike) provide little more than political legitimacy for largely unworkable “civil defense” policies. And Vaughan’s (1996) study of the space shuttle Challenger launch decision describes how organizational culture shaped internal decisions about what knowledge and what levels of uncertainty mattered to NASA administrators, engineers, and risk analysts.

Related work examines political epistemologies of science conducted in response to disaster. Shrum (2010) analyzes processes of conflict and closure between two engineering teams – one composed of engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the other composed of academic engineers – who developed competing claims about the causes of systemic failure of New Orleans’ levee system in the wake of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Focusing on the regulatory response to the same disaster, Frickel and colleagues (Frickel and Vincent, 2011; Frickel et al. 2009) show how the Environmental Protection Agency’s post-flood hazard assessment produced new inequalities in the form of “regulatory knowledge gaps” as sediment sampling and testing practices were deployed unevenly across city neighborhoods. More recently anthropologists Bond (2011) and Olsen (2011) have examined how marine biologists and ecological economists, respectively, are grappling with problems of scientific representation, categorization, and valuation in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still other studies follow science from disaster sites into newsrooms, courtrooms, and local communities as attributions of cause, responsibility and liability are constructed and contested in media and legal systems. For example, Kleinenberg’s (2002) “social autopsy” of the 1995 Chicago heat wave investigates the ways in which city reporters covering that story used science selectively to elaborate particular narratives developed to advance these journalists’ pet theories. Fortun (2001) analyzes the aftermath of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, paying close attention to how environmental health science was reconstructed through legal developments in the wake of the disaster. Her study introduces the concept of “enuciatory communities” to understand how disaster provokes the emergence of new subject positions and social formations. Kirsch (2006) and Button (2010) similarly study the interaction of corporate science, government regulators, and local knowledge in political and legal battles that result from industrial disasters. McCormick (2011) and Frickel et al. (2011) are studying similar dynamics between experts and local Gulf Coast communities impacted by the 2010 oil spill.

These studies illustrate some of the ways in which close analysis of disaster can deepen and extend STS theory. For example, work cited above by Kirsh, Fortun, and Frickel call into question arguments about, respectively, the relationship between scientific authority and other forms of expertise (Wynne 1996; Collins and Evans 2007), processes of inclusion and exclusion in the governance of science (Epstein 2007; Reardon 2005), and the cultural production and reproduction of ignorance (Gross 2010; Proctor and Scheibinger 2009). This is just the beginning, however, as many other important areas of STS theory and empirical study remain largely untapped by existing DSTS research. –Work on thethe dynamics of interdisciplinarity (Frodeman et al. 2011), on science and state theory (Carroll 2006), and on regulatory regimes (Parthasarathy 2007), has much to offer DSTS, for example.

Thus, by paying close attention to the complex ways in which disasters and technoscience are mutually constructed and conditioned, DSTS can make a significant contribution to the development and elaboration of STS theory and methods. We believe the field also holds great promise beyond STS because of the pathways it will open for critical engagement between STS scholars established disaster research communities, policy makers, and leaders and residents of areas impacted by disasters. Yet many challenges remain before we can hope to fulfill these promises. In order to coordinate and communicate DSTS research and outreach effectively, it will be necessary at a minimum to build an organizational foundation for mobilizing committed scholars toward developing and pursuing a coordinated research agenda. The recently inaugurated STS Forum on Fukushima ( represents an important step in the organization of a broader community of DSTS scholars. Another immediate need is to begin developing a basic set of research questions that can serve as conceptual anchor for DSTS research that is reflexive, comparative, and collaborative.

Toward an Emerging DSTS Framework
Through our own research, and a survey of both STS and disaster studies beyond STS, we have begun to develop a set of questions to support reflexive, comparative and collaborative STS studies of disaster. We have begun to test the cross-case relevance of the questions, focusing particularly on the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In launching this comparative exercise, our goal is to build an open source framework that diverse researchers can use, modify, extend and refine. The online STS Forum on Fukushima provides an opportunity to vet and iterate the framework as we have developed it thus far, with questions organized around three sets of thematic issues:

Framework I: Perspective, Concepts and Methods
• How have varied STS researchers conceptualized disaster, and delimited the time and space of disaster in particular cases? What are the advantages and limitations of different ways of circumscribing disaster?
• How have STS researchers positioned themselves relative to disaster contexts? What are the advantages and limitations of top-down vs. bottom-up perspectives? Or of affiliating with various stakeholders as a research strategy?
• What strategies for identifying and categorizing relevant actors and stakeholders in disaster settings provide optimal nuance and analytic purchase?
• How have STS researchers accounted for entwined systems and dynamics – of science, law, media, governance, etc. – in disaster?
• What STS concepts and theory can contribute productively to DSTS?

Framework II: Empirical findings across cases
• How do technoscientific systems, infrastructure, and relations precipitate disaster in particular cases, conditioning vulnerabilities?
• What kind of science, knowledge, and expertise emerges, and is utilized, in the wake of disaster? What is noteworthy about who becomes involved in knowledge production in the wake of particular disasters? Have particular government agencies or universities played significant, perhaps unexpected, roles? What knowledge production roles have social science and humanities scholars played? Citizens and workers? What has constrained the involvement of different social groups?
• What epistemic cultures and influences shaped diverse perspectives among different expert communities? Which perspectives tend to be granted authority, and which more likely to be discounted? How, as disaster unfolds, do both perspectives and cultural hierarchies evolve?
• Who plans and pays for “disaster science”?
• Through what processes and delimitations does disaster become an object of knowledge?
• What new knowledge practices and forms emerge in the wake of a particular disaster – through new collaborations and types of collaboration, though efforts to mobilize basic science for applied ends, through the urgency of moving research findings into policy decisions and practical programs?
• How are scientific claims and other forms of knowledge mobilized in legal responses to disaster?
• What role does disaster science play in either reducing or deepening social and environmental inequalities?
• How do varied social institutions – the state, media, academy, the NGO sector, religious organizations, community groups – respond to disaster, demonstrating both habitual ways of working, and particular forms of responsiveness brought out by the urgency of disaster?
• How does region and context affect disaster-focused science and technology?

Framework III: Future research contexts and DSTS infrastructure
• What arenas of industrial development – established and emerging (e.g. deep water offshore drilling, carbon sequestration, natural gas fraking) – call for special STS consideration because of disaster risks?
• What social, cultural and political economic trends will shape potential for and response to future disasters?
• How can linkage and collaboration between DSTS researchers be facilitated? .
• How can linkage between DSTS researchers and the established disaster researcher community be facilitated?
• How can DSTS be mobilized to inform disaster prevention, preparedness and response?
• How can DSTS be supported financially and organizationally?

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Created date

July 28, 2018

Critical Commentary

Authored by Kim Fortun and Scott Frickel, this blog post argues that a disaster STS would be analytically productive and concludes by offering several frameworks for future research. The original post was hosted on the Fukushima Forum website.



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