Dealing with Disasters: Some Warnings from Science and Technology Studies (STS)

Steve Matthewman


Science and technology are often offered as the source of society’s salvation, yet a generation of sociological work on risk seems to reverse this stance. Science and its technological application are positioned as today’s greatest sources of ruination. Put differently, our biggest threats and gravest disasters seem to be internal to society itself. Ulrich Beck (1992), Anthony Giddens (1990) and others suggest that they are nothing less than the side effects of industrial modernity. For risk society theorists we clearly now dwell in an era of “manufactured uncertainty” in which various risks keep accumulating (Beck 2009). Such statements beg for empirical elaboration, something which the grand theorists of the risk society have been loath to engage in. Fortunately there is an abundance of material available to us from Science and Technology Studies (STS). This can be brought into a critical dialogue with risk society material. This article considers the two literatures to ask the question: can we identify specifically modern forms of risk and disaster? The argument will be made that we can. There are historically novel forms of risk related to the power, complexity, openness and vulnerability of the socio-technical systems that sustain us. There are also novel consequences too in terms of the temporality and spatial distribution of the risks that they generate. Having made these arguments we will then offer some answers to a follow-on question: what can be done to mitigate such risks and disasters?


risk; disaster; social theory; science and technology studies

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