Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War

Article excerpt

Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. HUGH GUSTERSON. Berkeley: University of California, 1996; 351 pp.

Hugh Gusterson's Nuclear rites: A weapons laboratory at the end of the Cold War, an anthropological study of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons design laboratory in California, tells fascinating stories relevant to the sociologies of science and technology, social movements, bureaucracy, adult socialization, and legitimization. Drawing extensively from postmodern and orthodox social theories, Gusterson amply demonstrates the power of anthropological investigation and analysis for the interpretation of North American and European society. Although the secrecy enshrouding weapons research limited Gusterson's access to certain types of information, shortages of data that should have been available and presented render less forceful some dimensions of the analysis. Nuclear rites should provoke great discussion in undergraduate and graduate courses about the ethics and consequences of the science and technology industries.

According to Gusterson, accepting the necessity of designing ever more powerful nuclear weapons depends upon believing the theory of ddtente. The greater the destructive power of nuclear weapons and the sturdier the dynamic equilibrium between contending forces, the less likely nuclear weapons would ever be used. Nuclear weapons designers think of themselves as peacemakers, not warmongers, like the MX missile they built. No simple social or psychological factors explain how weapons scientists come to accept the doctrine of ddtente. Weapons scientists do not profess uniform political or religious creeds. Although most weapons scientists are male, many women sustain weapons research through other kinds of work. Learning to accept detente is part of becoming socialized and developing a career as a nuclear weapons designer, processes emergent from actually working on weapons design. Security clearance procedures function as important devices for legitimating detente because they outwardly identify individual scientists' own identities with the laboratory's central mission. As weapons scientists' clearances rise, the scientists move from the periphery to the center of the lab's work in a process mirroring their career development. Participating in the live test of a nuclear device of their own design culminates and redefines the careers of nuclear weapons designers by initiating them into the most exclusive echelon of this elite cult.

Gusterson juxtaposes the experiences of nuclear weapons scientists and anti-nuclear activists and explicitly cites dilemmas emergent from his personal participation in both social worlds. In the most compelling parts of this book, Gusterson explains how members of these two, often opposed communities develop commitment by melding body with mind in specific "bodily disciplines. …