Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Disaster or Sustainability: The Dance of Human Agents with Nature's Actants *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Disaster or Sustainability: The Dance of Human Agents with Nature's Actants *

Article excerpt

THE SOCIOLOGIST BENTON HAS ARGUED that too many researchers in his discipline restrict their purview to only socio-cultural phenomena and intentionally abstract out (bracket, suspend, ignore) nature's dynamics, thereby rendering their analyses less complete and less convincing. This is especially problematic when it concerns the study of environmental issues and technological and natural disasters. He (Benton, 2001a: 137) states that "only a theoretical breakthrough which precisely enables such thinking across the nature/culture divide, and in the process deconstructs it, could have any hope of grasping the underlying generative causes of our ecological predicament." This paper seeks to contribute to more thorough investigations across the nature/culture divide. It transcends that divide by integrating social constructionism and critical realism to study relations between the natural environment, technology and government during an extreme weather event that resulted in a modern society temporarily losing its sustenance. This object of study was chosen because of the important possibility for research "of crises in the social order, during which structures which are concealed in normal times become transparent" (Benton and Craib, 2001: 135). Empirically, the paper investigates the most expensive disaster in Canada's history, which was provoked by an extreme weather event the likes of which threaten to become more frequent with global climate change.

The Nature/Culture Divide in Sociological Analysis

The extreme social constructionist pole of analysis--ontological constructionism--postulates that there is no way of separating the world from our interpretation of it, hence accounts constitute reality (Woolgar, 1988; Collins and Pinch, 1979; Collins, 1981). It thereby adopts the doctrine that reality is a mental construct (see Rosa, 1998) and assumes there are as many natures as there are conceptions of it and risk is what we think it is. Sociology is thus the study of how these interpretations are socially constructed. Another variant, called mild constructionism, admits that reality cannot be reduced to a social construction and that social action occurs in the context of nature's dynamics, but it chooses for strategic reasons to bracket the latter and only investigates how discourse and practices are socially constructed (Capek, 1993; Lidskog, 1996; Macnaghten and Urry, 1998). It claims to be a mediative approach, examining how socio-cultural factors and local contingencies mediate between nature and accounts of nature. Since nature is suspended, however, analysis in this epistemic constructionism is done as if nature had no influence and only social and cultural factors were explanatory. The effect of the mediated is ignored and only the influence of the mediator is examined. Mild constructionism becomes extreme in practice. Here too, risks are reduced to threats that are talked about. Conceptions of the "social construction of nature" (Eder, 1996), the production of nature, "social nature" (Castree and Braun, 2001), and technonatures highlight the irreducibly cultural and social qualities of contemporary socio-environmental relations. However, they tend to neglect and obscure the autonomous dynamics of nature and hence are themselves reductionist from the other side: reducing nature to a socio-cultural construction. Although there is much discourse about unpacking the black box, it is left blacker and more jam-packed than ever by intentionally ignoring biophysical contingencies. The above theoretical conceptions amount to pseudohybrids, in which nature is assumed to be nothing but a passive, malleable resource to be socially reconstructed in the form of new technologies. These constructs fail to capture the depth of environmental problems.

Realism accepts that there is a biophysical world independent of human interpretation. The positivist polar type (Braithwaite, 1953; Giere, 1988; Polanyi, 1992) has been accused of implying that scientific accounts are unmediated reflections of a transparent real world. …

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