ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Nuclear worlds

Contact Convenor: Raminder Kaur

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL.

Tel : 0161 275 3996 or 07712277250. 

Panel abstract

This panel considers the myriad relationships that people have developed through their perceptions of nuclear science and associated risks. Panellists will provide anthropological/sociological perspectives on laypersons’ and ‘experts’ understandings of nuclear science and power. The subject constitutes an attempt to move away from a focus on nuclear issues as it pertains to state policy and international politics as is the emphasis in the majority of the literature, in order to concentrate on how particular groups of people/communities have imagined, engaged with, or challenged nuclear power, sites and bombs.

Questions that will be addressed include the following: what role does nuclear power play in the tracts of modernity? What implications does this have for people’s understandings of global politics and hierarchies around the world? How are various publics forged and contested in response to the nuclear issue/threat? How do they understand the potentials and risks associated with nuclear power? How does state discourse overlap or differ from those articulate amongst their respective citizens? Can we envisage resistance to nuclear power away from a focus on marches and campaigns alone? How has nuclear power fuelled the social imaginary? And what effects has this had in socio-cultural productions such as literature, television, film and public spectacles?

The Second Nuclear Age

Hugh Gusterson, MIT

This paper examines the role of nuclear scientists, weapons laboratories, ideologies of rationality, and neo-orientalist discourses in the current transition to a new global security structure in the second nuclear age.

The first nuclear age, coinciding with the period of the cold war, was characterized by a qualitative and quantitative arms race between two superpowers, a bipolar international system, and by hyperrational approaches to strategy and deterrence grounded in the idealized mathematical models of game theory. During the first nuclear age the superpowers pushed the science and engineering of nuclear weapons technology to, more or less, the limit.

In the second nuclear age, emerging since the end of the cold war, a single superpower is seeking to manage a global system in which nuclear weapons are proliferating to non-Western countries and regional nuclear arms races are gathering force. While nuclear weapons scientists in the established nuclear powers have, in the era of the test ban treaty, ceased to design new weapons and have moved their science into the sphere of simulations, weapons scientists in the emergent nuclear powers – perceived as lower on the international hierarchy – are recapitulating work done in the 1950s and 1960s by the five official nuclear powers. These developments are framed in the West through an orientalist discourse that portrays non-Western nuclear powers as incapable of participating in the hyperrational cold war game of deterrence and, therefore, as undeterrable. This marks a radical disjuncture between the discourse of American militarism and the neoliberal discourse of globalization that insists on the applicability of Western ideologies of rational accumulation to all corners of the globe.

Deconstructing the self-image of the Indian Bomb lobby

Achin Vanaik, New Delhi

The self-image of the Indian bomb lobby must be drawn on a map with two kinds of coordinates, one general, the other more specific. The first of these traces the relationship between class, power and the modern form of the state, the nation-state. The second of these traces the specific character of the Indian security establishment and its relationship to a) changes in the character of elite Indian nationalism; b) the relationship to the BJP government and to Hindutva. The basic reinforcement of the bomb lobby's belief in the correctness of its stand is provided by its identification of its own interests with those of the state as nation. It is this identification that must constitute the main terrain of investigation in the deconstruction of the Indian bomb lobby's self-image. An unproblematic conception of the national interest is then linked to an unproblematic conception of power, largely divorced from moral considerations or principles. The dangers represented by such a conservative and narrow conception of nationalism and its implications for India-Pakistan relations are then highlighted.

Confronting the juggernaut of modernity: nuclear resistance, yesterday, today and tomorrow

Dr Ian Welsh, Cardiff University

This paper questions dominant perceptions of nuclear power as a core element of the 'juggernaut of modernity' which only become problematic in the 1970s. This is done by considering the situated responses of two local communities to the construction of nuclear power stations during the 1950s and the evolution of 'the anti-nuclear movement' in the 1970s. Departing from established sociological approaches to social movements it is argued that such movements are far more diverse and long lived than contemporary analyses suggest and that it is far too early to make pronouncements on their 'success' of 'failure'.  The paper traces the continuity of elements of 'the anti-nuclear' movement into the present offering narrative accounts of how and why activists continue to engage with the juggernaut. The paper concludes with a consideration of the trajectory of citizen engagement with nuclear and other 'Big Science' issues. The paper is based on a number of sources and techniques including periods of participant observation, comparison of local and national press accounts and narrative interviews.

Fathoming the Nuclear Faith: science, self-reference and ritual in the modern technological age

Brian Wynne, Lancaster University

The 'Atoms for Peace' programme of the international nuclear enterprise in the mid-1950s, attempting to build an ethical basis for civil nuclear power which divorced it from the weapons commitment, was always a deeply ambiguous attempted rebirth. In this paper I wish to trace how the institutional culture of the civil nuclear lobby with its modern state-embedded pillars, developed rational discourses of its justifications and defences against rising public and scientific criticism. I describe how "scientific rationality" itself became a ritual form of self-referential circulation in a world of unspoken self-affirmation and self-defence against radical insecurities and questions. The nuclear industry's initiation in the early 1970s of social science research on public attitudes and risk-perceptions, its ways of framing and interpreting this, and the extension of this self-affirming institutional and political culture through apparently reflexive scientific examination of this kind will be described. The correspondences with the genetic manipulation establishment's behaviour with respect to public criticism and public dialogue processes from the 1990s will be discussed.