Sociology of risks: lessons learn from “Vajont Dam Disaster”

I just watched a documentary on Vajont dam disaster in National Geografhics. It was said that locals knew before the disaster that the mountain has suffered  landslides in the past. Actually, the mountain was called “the walking mountain”. Nevertheless, the dam was build, in a context of postwar and needs of energy to fuel the economic growth experienced in the country between 1950 and 1960. A few lesson in relation to risk management and communication, non-knowledge and the role of social science in engineering projects (see the role of those specialized in collecting and understanding narratives and local stories): A socially robust construction process, i.e. the involvement of locals in the construction, would have gain relevant information that was unknown by scientists. Information that was present in the collective memory of the town. Hence, locals could have taken part in the knowledge production. Secondly, engineers involved in the construction knew that the the land had been sliding gradually throughout the two months before the disaster. They simply did not count with such a huge tsunami due to wrong estimation. They even knew that the landslide was going to take place sooner or later. Even though, they did not inform locals about this fact. Finally, the wave overpass the dam in 200 meters and destroy the whole valley. This event reminds that science faces, in many occasions, gaps of knowledge or the so called non-knowledge. As in this occasion, policymakers and scientist frequently communicate that decisions have to be based on reliable scientific knowledge and that the acknowledgement of uncertainties would “undermine the public´s confidence in scientific results” (Gross, 2010, p.2)

<p><a href=”″>Vajont Dam Disaster</a> from <a href=””>Framepool</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Thoughts about how urban design impact our lifes

Just read this article and found so interesting ideas on how urban design impact society and what can be done to avoid increasing inequality. Here I just noted some additional thoughts. I am also thinking of how does it work in a wider scale, for instance, how regional infraestructures reinforce certain inequalities. The same with regard to environmental restoration projects.

Bearing how people socially construct space in the urban planning process:

“There is a need to redesign the designers, and to give them the tools and competencies to work within social constructs and spatial contexts that they are meant to serve. Designers spend much of their academic and professional training to build the spatial, technical, communication, and critical-thinking skills that are needed to do the difficult work of transforming spaces and places. They use their skills, often with good intentions and ‘best practices,’ toward results that may not align with what is needed or wanted in a given context.

Public space is something more than a good design, it is also about having social meaning

“Public spaces alone will not create the vitality and empathy we seek in and from our cities. Universally designing for everyone can create homogenized, soulless places that have all people in mind but have meaning or use for no one.”

Not only interdisciplinarity is needed in urban design but also public and socially diverse participation

“Projects in the public realm need to be informed not only from more disciplines but from more kinds of people. Artists, misfits, outsiders, elders, immigrants, people of color, and women have been leading community development efforts in unconventional ways, partly because they have not been invited to the table and also because their varied lived experiences offers something more or counter to the standard advanced for our civic commons, parks, plazas, and other urban public assets.

“The space between who is considered an expert and who is typically on the margins of conversations about public space needs to be collapsed. If that happens I think cities will feel, function, and be designed with multiple points of view, engendering spaces that promote social mixing and most importantly social equity.


Places to reinforce social capital, to make people come together to have open conversations

“For example, there are so many more private pools than there are public pools. There’s also the inability for us to maintain branch libraries, which are really community centers for a lot of neighborhoods. We need places that people come together to have open conversation about current issues. Immigrant communities are interesting to look at because this welcome-unwelcome feeling is very inherent to their experience in their city. It has nothing to do with design, necessarily, but design can reinforce that invitation.”

“The role of trust in restoration success: public engagement and temporal and spatial scale in a complex social-ecological system”


The social dimensions of river restoration are not well understood especially in the context of large-scale restoration projects embedded in a complex social-ecological system. This study used in-depth interviews with diverse stakeholders to examine perceptions of restoration success on the Clark Fork River Superfund project in Western Montana. Trust emerged as critical to restoration success and was influenced by public engagement, and by spatial and temporal scale. At this large scale, multiple relationships between agencies, NGOs, businesses, landowners, and other stakeholders meant that building trust was a complicated endeavor. The large spatial scale and long time frame made public engagement challenging, and landowners in particular were critical of the project, expressing mistrust in both agencies and the project as a whole. However, projects focused on smaller spatial scales, such as particular stream reaches, appeared to inspire more effective collaboration. Relationships between organizations were important at this large scale, but inter-organizational conflict affected trust across the project. Further, because trust requires accepting vulnerability, recognizing the differential vulnerability that particular groups and communities experience, based on the risks and benefits they accrue relative to the project, is important.


Experimental governance and pre-scientific knowledge

In a previous post it was addressed the concept of experimental governance, understood “as a means to launch an environmental project in spite of uncertainties and uphold the project without disrupting the overall process” (Gross, M., & Heinrichs, 2010:283). This point, the authors continues “is wholly pragmatic to create and facilitate the building of a community of inquirers who locally deliberate social problems, form hypothesis about appropiate means and ends of practice, and put their assumptions to test”.

In this context, insofar non-scientist community members are enriching the research process with “pre-scientific” knowledge (formation of hypothesis and ends of practics to be test) they are taking actively part of such process. This moves away the experimental governance from the Habermas communicative approach or “participatory paradigm”. The pragmatist ideas developed by Habermas “have trickled down to environmental planning discourse since the 1970s and researchin environmental sociology has examined a wide range of participatory decision processes” (Gross, M., & Heinrichs, 2010:282). However, the authors argue, in the ideal case, it is not enough to bring local actors into deliberation where their varying presumptions and biases will succumb to the force of the better argument (by scientist and practicioners?). Hence, the actual power to have a say in political decision making is easily taken away from the participants (the lack of arguments among local actors and the consistent of the scientifist discourse ultimate take the former ones away from decision making. Public participation is reduced to a information session where scientist show how powerful they are in base of their consistent discourse). Furthermore, the authors suggest that the Habermassian ideal type case could not be further from real-world decision making which is characterized by many unknows and uncertainies that cannot even be fathomed via risk assessment and computer modeling, let alone by mere citizen participation.

But the experimental governance consists of not only bring local actors into deliberation but also allow them to “form hypothesis about appropiate means and ends of practice, and put their assumptions to test”. In other words, the experimental governance consist of allowing local actors for forming hypothesis based on their everyday experience, i.e. pre-scientific knowledge, as a previous step to objetivize the phenomon, it is, to produce scientific knowledge.

Gross, M., & Heinrichs, H. (Eds.). (2010). Environmental sociology: European perspectives and interdisciplinary challenges. Springer Science & Business Media.

Habermas communicative rationality and how discourse ethics and a vibrant public sphere could break the stranglehold on rationality by elites

Te belief that meaning and reason were social in nature-i.e., required mutual cooperation and collaboration in its contruction-led early pragmatists to belive that an important part of the route to progressive social change lie in democratic deliberative approaches to addressing pressing social problems. These ideas are best illustrated by Dewey´s lifelong commitment to extensive citzen participation in politics as opposed to technocratic decision-making and his emphasis on public education as a means of achieving a more democratic society (Dewey 1927). These pragmatist insights on knowledge, language, and community, inspired Habermas (1987) to develop his ideas of communicative rationality and the public sphere. From pragmatist insights, Habermas saw the possibility that a discourse ethics and a vibrant public sphere could break the stranglehold on rationality by elites, a major concern of the critical theorists with which he was conversant. He argued that embedded in the logical relations of the pragmatist conception of meaning was an emancipatory potential in modernity (Habermas 1987). Namely, that if it is the case that partners in communication agree that communication is legitime, then setting up participatory discursive opportunities where speakers can be challenged to present the reasons underlying a claim and be confronted with competing reasons could liberate more work legitime (i.e., deeply socially justified) decisions. Discourse ethics created the best, in Haberma´s view, potential institutional design to free communication of distortion by strategic elites. Decision made through communicative processes offered, he argued, a more legitimate basis for democratic politics, policymaking and planning.

Extracted from: Gross, M., & Heinrichs, H. (Eds.). (2010). Environmental sociology: European perspectives and interdisciplinary challenges. Springer Science & Business Media.


Why urban and transport planning must be democratic?

Packed rail platform in London. The Guardian

During my trip to London past week I’ve stumbled this interesting articles on labour market, transport and riots in London in the letters section of the newpaper The Guardian. I’d like to bring here the whole articles and raise a few questions at the end.

The real problem is not a lack of transport infrastructure in London, but an absurd concentration of jobs in our capital city (Looming London transport crisis ‘risks sparking riots’, 22 September). This has led to shockingly high house prices and to priced-out workers then having to travel long distances to work. If we provide more and cheaper transport links, we allow yet more jobs to be based there and we subsidise employers who wish to be based in an expensive city but still pay low wages. Surely the best solution is for public sector jobs to move out of London and into areas of high unemployment, where there is much less pressure on transport and other services. In particular, parliament could move to somewhere cheaper and more central. Many private sector jobs would follow.

Richard Mountford

Tonbridge, Kent

Just days into the English devolution debate sparked by the Scottish referendum result, Peter Hendy’s crass warning of riots by the capital’s low-paid workers unless more major infrastructure projects like Crossrail 2 are built is a timely reminder of just how hard it is going to be to shift the interests that continue to concentrate almost all national major infrastructure investment in the capital, without any democratic debate involving the rest of the country. Meanwhile, in the regions served by Northern Rail, the Department for Transport imposes record fare increases on rail commuters packed into obsolete trains, which may, if we are lucky, be replaced by refurbished District line rolling stock, (Report, 7 September).

Michael White


Transport for London proposes to spend billions to ensure that lower-paid workers must live further away from their place of work, thus adding to their already long working day and increasing their travelling costs. Surely the answer is more housing for low-paid workers, not making London inhabitable by only the rich. This is not just a London problem. The imbalance between London and the rest of the country is unsustainable. That must be a part of the debate the entire country should be having following the Scottish referendum.

David Pugh

Newtown, Powys

Here are now my questions and reflections:

  • What interests are behind the tendency to concentrate the jobs in the major cities? I think that this is also happening in other European capitals as Madrid or Paris and it must be seen as a phenomenon that is shaping our society and economy in a context of global capitalism.
  • The output of this tendency seems pretty clear. As the city is getting larger and larger, low-paid workers has two options: overspend their income in expensive housing near the working place or having to travel long distances to work. Neither of them seems to be a solution to social discontent and potential riots.
    I’m not sure about the solution provided by Richard Mountford. To what extend “public sector jobs to move out of London and into areas of high unemployment” is a solution?. It may increase the spatial mobility?. It may have a multiplier effect on commuting. Citizens moving from one area to another just to do different things. I think the idea is interesting, but it seems to me that the logical thing would be to decentralize the public sector, i.e. to set up branches in major outlying areas. That would also increase employment in those areas.
  • On the other hand, this discussion reminds us that urbanism and economy go hand in hand. Or rather, urban development and a fair distribution of resources go hand in hand. Therefore, you cannot understand urban planning without democracy. Improving our cities and regions depends on it. So I couldn’t agree more with Michael White article.
  • What is more, the democratic debate must involve the rest of the country. It also applies to other countries. For instance, the Spanish transport system over the last decades (or more) has been based on a concentration of wealth in the capital Madrid. This is informed by the obsession for communicating Madrid and the periphery. It seems that Spain is the country with the most kilometers of high-speed rail (pretty much the same in terms of roads). This obsession may lead to build new kilometers at any price or, what is worse, at the expense of passengers security. Remember Santiago de Compostela accident. Neither this accident nor the crisis doesn’t seem to have changed the view of Spanish politicians. At least in UK they have more democratic debate as the recent Scottish referendum has proved. This leads me to reflect once again on the strong relationship between democracy, urbanism, transport, economics and welfare.

O15 M e os eslavóns perdidos

É posible que esteamos ás portas de profundos cambios sociais, pero quizais “atopámonos demasiado próximos ao proceso para percibilo con claridade” (Robert Putnam)

Da mesma maneira que os procesos de industrialización supuxeron a desaparición de modelos de sociabilidade como a existente nos pobos e nas aldeas, e trouxeron consigo outros como os sindicatos e os partidos políticos; hoxe en día estamos a vivir unha revolución análoga, chámese revolución tecnolóxica ou da información, que case sen darnos conta está a provocar unha profunda crise das institucións tradicionais.

Non só os partidos políticos, senón tamén os sindicatos, asociacións tradicionais e mesmo a igrexa (se cabe con anterioridade), están experimentando unha crise sen precedentes. Estas institucións séntense incapaces de crear lealdades entre os cidadáns, alén daqueles que fan un uso instrumental das mesmas. Quero iso dicir que as novas xeracións son máis egoístas e “pasotas”?

En efecto, parece que os cambios tecnolóxicos están socavando vellos modelos de solidariedade e, en definitiva, a sociedade é cada vez máis individualista. Pero ese individualismo non significa obrigatoriamente egoísmo, senón máis ben “individualismo solidario” (Bo Rothstein). É dicir, é posible que as novas xeracións están de costas a formas tradicionais e xerárquicas de actividade organizativa, pero non existen datos que confirmen que estas son menos participativas ou solidarias (máis ben todo o contrario) senón que optan por outro tipo de organizacións máis horizontais, temporais e flexibles, como grupos de acción, clubs musicais, ou simplemente a organización de calquera tipo de evento. Todo isto co inestimable soporte das redes sociais en internet. Noutras palabras, as novas xeracións están dispostas a comprometerse, pero fuxindo das tutelaxes e sen renunciar ás súas propias ideas.

As consecuencias destes cambios?, varias. Unha delas, a apuntada polo sociólogo francés Jean Pierre Worms, quen alude a un distanciamento entre a sociedade e as institucións de goberno. Este distanciamento é sen dúbida unha das causas do descontento xeneralizado coa clase político.

Solucións? O propio Jean Pierr considera necesaria unha reforma institucional para “forxar os eslavóns perdidos”, é dicir, crear novos vínculos entre cidadanía e as institucións políticas, unha vez que os partidos políticos, sindicatos e certas asociacións teñen acadado un “aceso privilexiado ao Estado”, o que as afasta da cidadanía e das novas formas de participación.

O movemento xurdido a partir das manifestacións do 15 de Maio esconde tras de si unha gran insatisfacción co funcioamento democrático na meirande parte das democracias avanzadas. Insafisfacción que no caso de España se ten trasladado ás rúas, agravada se cabe máis por factores coxunturais á nosa realidade, como a corrupción e o desemprego.

Faranse eco os partidos políticos deste novo escenario, ou pola contra seguirán considerando que se trata dunha simple pataleta. Deixar a ver.