Excavating Risk Dialectics: On the Multivalent Dimensions of Disaster Prevention

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 11:20 AM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Vanessa MCDERMOTT , School of Sociology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Gavin SMITH , School of Sociology, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT, Australia
An extensive research literature now examines both the prevalence and causality of disasters within complex socio-technical systems (Vaughan, 1996; Snook, 2000; Hopkins, 2010; Hayes, 2012). These studies evince that disasters are as much an outcome of social relations as they are a result of technical failings. With this framework in mind, we explore empirically alternate definitions of risk amongst a range of stakeholders with primary and secondary responsibilities for ensuring the security – and integrity – of natural gas supply in Australia. This involves tracing how risk perceptions are contingent on social positioning in politico-industrial ‘fields of practice’ and differ markedly according to factors like identity, expertise, resource capital and organisational role. We focus attention initially on how pipeline design engineers perceive risk vis-à-vis industry concerns that revolve principally around asset protection, public safety, legal obligation, insurance burden and reputational management. We then critically compare this risk burden with a variant borne by a different set of actors, those whose mundane activities pose a constant threat to gas pipeline stability. Although the actual harms that ‘excavation workers’ confront - i.e. operators of excavating equipment who might be either utility company and local council contractors or landowners - are similar to those visualized by pipeline maintainers (loss of life, loss of supply, loss of contract, loss of material resources) the former group bear a differing set of values, interests and ambitions in terms of how they formulate risk imaginaries. Moreover, they face divergent external pressures and accommodate contrasting internal desires, a situation shedding light on the pluralised, but socially conditional, nature of risk perception and the multivalent elements influencing disaster prevention procedures. In particular, the paper reveals risk perceptions to be dialectical in essence: orientated to a similar conception of envisaged harm but shaped by discrete contexts and circumstances.