Interrelating in extreme situations: the infrastructural angle

Just like Nicholas I am very much interested in disasters, and his earlier post made me wonder some more about the connection to the issue of infrastructures. Some connections are obvious once you talk about technological disasters propers, especially if you approach the topic from a “normal accidents” angle (as Perrow in his treatise on normal accidents utilizes a general notion of networks including humans, technological artefacts, institutions, etc.). But there is also the whole literature about high-reliability organizations (HROs) which Nicholas alluded to in his second post on this topic, in which the focus is more on human behavior in high-risk situations and on “mindful organizing”.

One common denominator between the various types of research and literatures on disasters and near misses is the emphasis given to relational structures and processes: Perrow’s notion of vulnerable systems is basically a conceptualization of networks the elements of which can be loosely or tightly coupled, and HRO authors like Weick characterize mindful behavior as “heedful interrelating”.
Having been concerned with micropatterns of responding to disruptions in my own post-doc research, I am struck by the extent to which such responses are characterized by spontaneous forms of interrelating among participants, for example in emergent groups in communities struck by disasters. Furthermore, organizations coping with disruptions look more like networks than like hierarchies – a condition which HROs almost appear to emulate.

Bottom line is, I think, that an extended infrastructural understanding of understanding disasters, near misses, high-risk situations, and so on, may be elaborated by more systematically discussing the various social and technological aspects of interrelating in extreme situation. Actually, there is a lot of research going on in this area right now since disaster researchers and disaster response practitioners generally tend to be quite aware about the relational aspects of responding to disruptions. Just this week, our local communicating disaster research group met for a workshop on the use of social media in crisis situations, and you may check out the outline here. Apparently, disaster response organizations increasingly ponder possibilities of utilizing people’s technologically augmented abilities of interrelating in real time: if you have people with smartphones present at a disaster site, and they will spontaneously interrelate in immediate disaster responses (like looking for survivors, moving debris etc.) anyway, while you as an outsider start with knowing nothing or very little about where and how to deploy your own helpers and machines, why not use survivors’ smartphones, their GPS and photo capabilities for coordinating disaster responses? The “disaster app” may at some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, become an obligatory smartphone functionality.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Interrelating in extreme situations: the infrastructural angle

  1. ICT in humanitarian aid and disaster response is a classic example of how STS could be of considerable value outside of the narrow world of STS (this has become somewhat of a common theme in my works and during conversations about the future of STS). Certainly, stories like this one ( about "Disaster Relief 2.0" showcases the potential of ICTs during disasters, relief, and rebuilding. Even though the speed at which information is shared increases and is increasingly no longer paper documentation, "Information Management in the humanitarian system is not tooled to compile, translate, and analyze the increased messaging from an affected population, the VTCs, or the demands of headquarters. For field staff who are working in difficult circumstances in technology-hostile environments, the sense of information overload is unprecedented and increasing" (quote from website above, drawn from John Crowley, head of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative). The challenge clearly laid-out above: to determine how to "compile, translate, and analyze the increased messaging from an affected population" requires excellent models of human behavior under extreme circumstances of disaster and relief. Part of what appears to be going on is inter-infrastructural relations — local disaster, diffuse devices, de-localized infrastructural support (i.e., off-site satellites and servers), and a willingness to participate in crowd- and SMS-sourcing wherein interests are often aligned (i.e., in helping myself, I help others).


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