EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W130)

The domestication of uncertainty: new rituals and technologies for facing catastrophe

Location V213
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Mara Benadusi (University of Catania, Department of Political and Social Sciences) email
Sandrine Revet (CERI - Sciences Po) email
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Short Abstract

Papers should examine new recipes for intervention in cases of catastrophe. We particularly encourage analyses of mechanisms focused on the culture of "preparedness" and rituals of "resilience" that populate current emergency regimes, and of the effects they produce both internationally and locally.

Long Abstract

From tsunamis to pandemics, from nuclear contamination to biological weapons, the assumption implicit in the new "recipes for intervention" in cases of catastrophe is that such events are unexpected and therefore difficult to predict. Recent decades have thus seen a progressive decline in the influence of disaster prevention and mitigation systems (both of a technological nature and of a probabilistic type) as tools for risk reduction. In the resulting atmosphere of disquiet, new mechanisms for emergency management are taking precedence on the international scene, deriving from the interconnections between "non-predictive, futurological methods" and "adaptive strategies of response": on one hand the current models of intervention promote simulation exercises that bring future catastrophes to the present as a function of enhanced "preparedness"; on the other they emphasize the importance of participatory methods as a means of building "resilience", or in other words, the consistent ability to absorb shocks and adjust to events, no matter what form they may take. This occurs at all levels, in the communities exposed to disaster as well as the institutional systems in charge of managing emergencies. The new culture of preparedness and rituals of resilience that populate current catastrophe scenarios seem to respond to a shared objective: permanent adaptation within and through crisis. The panel gathers analyses of an ethnographic type that cast light on these mechanisms. It particularly encourages papers that closely analyze the methods by which these new tools for "domestication of uncertainty" are conceived, spread, and put into practice in cases of catastrophe.

Chair: Laetitia Atlani
Discussant: Giovanni Pizza

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

From vulnerability to resiliency: UN's grammars and practices about "natural" disasters

Author: Sandrine Revet (CERI - Sciences Po)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper analyzes the construction of rhetorics of vulnerability, preparedness and resiliency among international organizations working on "natural" disasters and the way these rhetorics contribute to the understanding and the interpretation of disasters.

Long Abstract

The thematic of natural disasters has been grasped by UN's organizations since 30 years. If they primarily used to center their interventions on the reliefs, they progressively opened their field of action to preparedness and recovery programs. Based on a serie of field research at the UN- International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva since 2009, the paper analyzes the construction process of this different grammars and their impacts on the way of thinking and imagining the disasters. From time's representations (short temporality of disaster, long time of reconstruction), to the victim's image (passives and vulnerable, actives and resilient), UN's agencies, who handle this common rhetoric, are participating in the construction of a universe of meaning around disasters. Moreover, they propose a whole set of "good practices" that spread out on the fields and contribute to shape the way people act. The paper deals with both the production of this rhetorics and their effects, translations and impacts on the way of thinking disasters and victims.

The two-faced Janus of disaster management: still vulnerable yet already resilient

Author: Mara Benadusi (University of Catania, Department of Political and Social Sciences)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper shows that post-tsunami interventions in Sri Lanka were based on a slippery device: still vulnerable yet already resilient, the survivors were encouraged to employ one or the other face of disaster management's Janus: a moving need for help and their ability to cope with uncertainty.

Long Abstract

Resilience as a strategy of adaptation to crisis emerged within systemic ecology in the 1970s and gained popularity in the disaster response sector mainly during the last decade. Resilience requires not the ability to foresee, but rather the capacity to adapt to events no matter what shape they take, even under extremely unstable conditions. For example, in post-tsunami Sri Lanka there was a proliferation of initiatives following the logic of so-called community-based disaster management, a method of social engineering promoting the construction of communities that are resilient enough to rapidly react to crisis. The figure of the vulnerable beneficiary, incapable of recovering without external intervention, was thus joined by the figure of the resilient survivor, possessed of the strength necessary to face post-catastrophe challenges without help. Through an exploration of how the rituals of resilience in Sri Lanka unfolded following the tsunami, the paper shows that post-catastrophe intervention schemes are based on a slippery rhetorical device that makes use of two sides of the same coin: whereas vulnerable individuals have only needs and basic rights to be intervened upon, resilient individuals possess hidden competences and skills that must be professionally brought to the fore. While the former are the passive recipients of heroic help, the latter become co-authors of their own rescue process. Still vulnerable yet already resilient, the survivors are thus encouraged to strategically employ one or the other facade of disaster management's Janus, calibrating the features that render them desirable for gifting: a moving need for help and an untiring ability to cope with uncertainty.

The Houmas: from resilience to an exodus foretold

Author: Frédéric Allamel (International School of Indiana)  email
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Short Abstract

The Houma Indians of Louisiana occupy a coastal territory that will soon be submerged by the Gulf of Mexico. As a response to this slow catastrophe, social actors have proposed several competing strategies, ranging from avoidance to resilience, and the acceptance of exile as a necessary evil.

Long Abstract

For the Houma Indians of Louisiana, the catastrophe should be understood in superlative terms: devastating hurricanes (i.e., Katrina) followed by storm surges (subsequent flooding and increase in salinity, which has a lethal effect on the ecosystem), the oil spill of 2010, the Dead Zone (seasonal anoxia), the dumping of highly toxic chemical wastes in their community... Yet there is a disaster that is even more insidious, that related to coastal erosion and land loss. This inexorable process should eradicate the Houmas' entire territory in the coming years. As a response to this massive ecocide, the main social actors propose a wide range of competing strategies that will be analyzed throughout this paper. First, both local and federal political authorities favor inertia--apart from temporary evacuations, they delay any decision-making indefinitely as if this ecological crisis was of an unpredictable nature. Then, the scientists advocate several methodologies (i.e., polders, partial diversion of the Mississippi River), which are rarely implemented due to a lack of budget and political will. Finally, relying on a pragmatic approach, the United Houma Nation has decided to be proactive in finalizing a comprehensive three act plan known as "How Safe? How Soon?" 1 - Crisis management and emergency evacuation. 2 - Assistance towards reconstruction for those who reject the idea of migrating. 3 - Programmed relocation on higher grounds in order to preserve a sense of community and ethnic identity despite an ongoing deterritorialization.

Maps, guns and landslides: performing preparedness in a Salvadoran town

Author: Alicia Sliwinski (Wilfrid Laurier University)  email
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Short Abstract

Drawing from fieldwork conducted in a Salvadoran municipality, this presentation will discuss the manner in which disasters are framed in participatory training methodologies aimed at mapping vulnerability and boosting the resilience of townspeople in the aftermath of two severe earthquakes.

Long Abstract

Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in a Salvadoran municipality, this presentation will discuss the manner in which disasters are framed in participatory training methodologies aimed at mapping vulnerability and boosting the resilience of townspeople in the aftermath of two severe earthquakes.The paper will focus on the training practices of NGOs involved during the post-disaster humanitarian response, and more specifically on awareness-raising initiatives aimed at different target groups: local disaster victims, municipal authorities, and beneficiaries in reconstruction projects. We will look at specific cases concerning vulnerability analysis, municipal preparedness and community health where a similar vision of participation and resilience is upheld which reproduces the canons of techno-scientific knowledge. However, each case also revealed the limitations of expert knowledge and the ritualistic aspect of participatory methodologies, especially when these are based in mapping techniques. While the critique of community participation is well established, what this paper seeks to analyze is how a common vision of adaptability to crisis is disseminated, inscribed in participatory mapping techniques and how it commonly falls short of accounting for deep-seated vectors of everyday catastrophes. In other words, while performing resilience is reified it can also dangerously imply that populations should domesticate ongoing crises and forms of violence that catastrophes often exacerbate.

"Are you prepared?" Representations and management of flooding risks in Fiji, Melanesia

Author: Emilie Nolet (Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l'Océanie (UMR 7308))  email
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Short Abstract

Every year, the islands of Fiji experience flooding of increasing frequency and severity. This paper will study how two Fijian communities perceive flooding risks, but also national and international programs implemented to enhance their "preparedness" and their "resilience".

Long Abstract

The islands of Fiji, in the Western Pacific, are exposed to a wide range of natural hazards. Every year during the austral summer, the archipelago is swept by tropical storms and cyclones, causing floods with sometimes devastating effects. Whereas cyclones and associated floods are recurring natural phenomena, it has been regularly alleged that Fijians "lacked of preparation", over-relied on State's assistance in post-disaster situations, or engaged in risky behaviours aggravating the negative impact of floods. Risk reduction strategies which are implemented by national authorities and international organizations heavily promote today the principle of "preparedness": both "community awareness programs" and "capacity-building programs" are conducted throughout the country in the most vulnerable communities. This paper will analyse how the inhabitants of Rewa province (South-East of Viti Levu island) perceive flooding risks, but also national and international risk reduction strategies (how desirable, how efficient are these according to Fijians?). For example, how can we explain that some people suffering recurring flooding don't seek to protect their goods or to relocate? Where does a "catastrophe" start for Fijians, what types of choices or which priorities are involved in community risk management? How do Fijians view the respective responsibilities of the State and international agencies to fight natural disasters, and can "traditional knowledge" and "expert knowledge" eventually conflict?

From risk planification to the production of security: the example of preparation for the influenza pandemic

Author: Didier Torny (INRA- Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique)  email
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Short Abstract

This presentation traces the history of flu pandemic preparedness since 1976, focusing primarily on the work of international organizations, then on the French case. Apart from sanitary threats as such, the planning process involves a redefinition of "minimal life" in the most diverse areas.

Long Abstract

This presentation traces the history of flu pandemic preparedness since 1976, focusing primarily on the work of international organizations, then on the French case. Gradually extending from sanitary threats to economic and social issues, pandemic preparation involves new public (IMF, WTO, ...) and private actors (firms, trade associations, trade unions ...). This preparation process, which main frame is defined at the international level, enables each entity or group of entities, to define "core activities" of the relevant social worlds and how to secure them in crisis situations. Thus, the planning process is not detached from the realism constraints of health risks management of, but redefines what "minimal life" into "limp" becomes in complex modern societies, taking into account internal and external interdependent relationships. Planning simultaneously forges the risks and the security measures to face them, in the most diverse areas (management of dead bodies, post office, circulation of money, closure of schools, basic food stocking in the retail industry ...). If most of the planned measures were not implemented during the 2009 pandemic, the criticism of public action raised in Western Europe and at WHO level has not led to a withdrawal of preparation, but to its deepening by taking into account some endogenous risks of planning (closed assumptions, irreversibility) to produce more and more security.

To be prepared when epidemic gone wild: the firefighter method in national committee of epidemic management of Niger

Author: Oumy Thiongane (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)  email
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Short Abstract

In the national committee of epidemic management of Niger the preparedness is a common ethos since meningitis pandemic of years 1990. We will analyze one of the much controversy mechanism, the threshold alert and will give a clue to resilience as an unthought-of a health policy.

Long Abstract

The meningitis pandemic which had occurred in countries of the "meningitis belt" has been a singularly case in the 20th century. It gave a lesson for the management of future epidemic. The new paradigm of preparedness which will be on the top of practices in the second half of 1990 underlined an implacable desire to rationalize public health policy with epidemiology. The preparedness became a common ethos in national committee of epidemic management of Niger, the main tool to prepare epidemics. Bringing together actors of the north and the south, partners of national public health sector and international agencies, the committee is in charge to apply a controversy method called "reactive strategy" for meningitis epidemic. The aim of this method is to use a threshold and active surveillance to make response. The construction of the threshold creates controversies and negotiation before the consensus of 2000 between international institutions and agencies and public health actors. This paper will describe how in years 2000 the threshold is constructed and what effects are there. In the same time we will try to give a clue to resilience as an unthought-of a health system hitted by recurrence epidemics.

Preparing the mission and coping with uncertainty in the French Infantry

Author: Mathias Thura (EHESS - Centre Maurice Halbwachs)  email
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Short Abstract

Soldiers in Afghanistan take risks as soon as they are on the battlefield. One of the main characteristics at war is uncertainty. How commanders (captain and lieutenant) cope with it? My presentation focus on indigenous technologies designed to anticipate the catastrophic potential of each mission.

Long Abstract

As Clausewitz demonstrated, two of the central principles of war are "frictions" and "war fog". They are both sides of the same characteristic: the uncertainty that soldiers have to deal with every day. In my research, the term "uncertainty" means the radical impossibility of predicting future. I take as case study infantry's commanders. Paradoxically, commanders have to take into account what they can't predict. In order to protect and insure the safety of their troops, they developed new tools to reduce the uncertainty, as the digitalization of the battle space. But such innovations cannot solve many of the practical issues for military actors. In this presentation, I will explore the indigenous technologies used by the French infantry's commanders in order to cope with uncertainty. There are multiple dimensions in the military work of planning uncertainty: preventing friendly fire, anticipating where the enemy could be located and thinking about what he could do, looking for possible unexpected situations. Although commanders have new tools in order to anticipate enemy's positions and his probable actions, they cannot reach the certainty. These tools go through a first step called the "dialogue interarme", then the "back brief" and finally the "rehearsal". During these three steps, the mission will be constructed with different participants who share their expertise. This process is a kind of ritual with, on the one hand, real effects and on the other hand, a limit of performativity. It does not guarantee the success of the mission, but this social activity is necessary for preventing a bigger catastrophe.

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This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.