Disaster and Sociolegal Studies. Oñati Legal Studies Series, Volume 3, Number 2. By Susan Sterret, ed. New Orleans: Quid Pro, 2013. 251 pp. $71.60 hardback.

Date01 December 2016
Published date01 December 2016
Disaster and Sociolegal Studies.O
nati Legal Studies Series, Volume 3,
Number 2. By Susan Sterret, ed. New Orleans: Quid Pro, 2013.
251 pp. $71.60 hardback.
Reviewed by Sheila Jasanoff, John F. Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University
Disasters historically came in two well-demarcated categories: the
natural and the anthropogenic, or human-made. Uncontrollable
nature gave rise to disastrous wildfires, floods, droughts, earth-
quakes, tsunamis, landslides, sinkholes, and lightning strikes. These
were seen as acts of god, regular yet unpredictable, often occasion-
ing huge losses of life and property and subjecting survivors to the
costs and stresses of relocation and rebuilding. Out-of-control tech-
nologies also failed and sometimes caused catastrophic damage:
chemical leaks, explosions, food poisoning, adverse drug reactions,
train wrecks, collapsed bridges, and oil tankers run aground.
Although tested for safety, and often officially certified as such, tech-
nological systems and artifacts proved to have weaknesses that
designers had not foreseen, andhence excluded from their calculus
of acceptable risk. Both kinds of disasters intersected with law, but
the law’s involvement seemed for decades to be largely reactive,
restricted mainly to adjudicating compensation claims.
This edited volume, the product of a 2011 international work-
shop held in O~
nati, Spain, sets out to complicate that traditional pic-
ture. Following much recent literature on risk and disaster (Hutter
and Power 2005; Klinenberg 2002; Lakoff 2009), the contributing
authors blur the boundary between natural and social causes. They
note that most disasters involve a complex interplay between natu-
ral phenomena and human institutions, decisions, and behaviors
that are together responsible for the nature and severity of the
harms caused. More specifically, the authors illustrate the many
ways in which law is implicated in disaster scenarios not only after
injury has occurred but as a part of the infrastructure that shapes
the trajectory of a disastrous event and its aftermath. This revela-
tion of the ubiquity of law provides a springboard for asking sociole-
gal scholars to take disasters seriously as a site of analysis, with the
hope that such research will lead to improved response capabilities
and mitigation of injury and injustice in disaster’s wake.
The contributors all agree that the nature–culture boundary
makes little sense in disaster analysis but they converge on very little
else. The chapters display an almost bewildering variety in their
approaches to examining the law’s actual and potential role in the
unfolding of disasters. Examples range across countries, causes,
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