Ep. #24 Learning in disaster: Kim Fortun talks STS, knowledge politics & anthropology’s role in a crisis

iTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com)“We need to be experimental because we’re not up to the task at hand; there’s a real practical and ethical call to responsibility, that drives that experimental commitment.”

KiSubscribe on Androidm Fortun, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, author of ‘Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New World Orders’ which won the 2003 Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society, current president of 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science), and founder of The Disaster-STS Network established during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, spoke to our own Julia Brown about the beneficial role of anthropologists in the wake of disaster. They discuss the importance of fieldwork – particularly being situated in unfamiliar places – to offer new ways of understanding society, the possibilities of teaching anthropological methods to engineering students or even six year olds, about the lived experience as an anthropologist of science during disasters, and about the intersection of different worlds of expertise as science and politics interact in these disaster zones.

Find more of Kim’s work on her website: http://kfortun.org


“Anthropologists can be useful during disasters and not just afterwards when we sort through our ethnographic findings. This is also about being interdisciplinary in practice to contribute to both theory and policy.”

“A key teaching was that we can use empirical studies, and ethnographic studies in particular, to really question the explanatory power of an established social theory … And I think in Bhopal I learned that kind of using ethnographic work to query entrenched ideas certainly had social theoretical mandate but also profoundly political mandate”

“Even after the disaster, if you knew how to fix it, you’d just fix it. But in a disaster you don’t know how.”

“Disaster often causes scholars to respond quicker than we’re used to.”

“Even after the disaster if you knew how to fix it, you’d just fix it… but in a disaster, you don’t know how.”


Althusser, L. (1977). Reading capital (2nd ed.). London: Nlb.

Bateson, G. et al (1956) “Toward a theory of schizophrenia.” Behavioral Science 1(4): 251-254

Felman, S. (1991). Education and crisis, or the vicissitudes of teaching. American Imago, 48(1), 13-73

Fortun, K. (2001). Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

For ‘Computational toxicology,’ look here:
Fortun, K. and Fortun, M. (2005). Scientific imaginaries and ethical plateaus in contemporary US toxicology. American Anthropologist, 107 (1), 43-54.

Morris, R. C., & Spivak, G. C. (2010). Can the subaltern speak?: Reflections on the history of an idea. New York: Columbia University Press.

The TFS blog post Julia mentions:

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Show notes by Deanna Catto and Ian Pollock

[Image: “NRC Commissioner visits Fukushima Dai-ich Site Emergency Response Center,” via NRC on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrcgov/14666390241%5D


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