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Title: The Scientific and the Catastrophic: an Anthropological View

Author(s): Yoann Moreau

Affiliation: École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales

Presented At: STiS 2008

Primary Topic Area: S&T Studies


An epistemological condition of experimental and technical Sciences is iterability i.e., the possibility of the reproductibility of the phenomenon that is studied. This is the experimental condition of Science : we can create the protocol that performed and reproduced the phenomenon we observed before. The technology we use in our everyday life has emerged from this type of knowledge. I would like to question what happens when this type of knowledge is confronted with non-reproducible phenomenon such as catastrophic events. In effect, there is no possibility for experimentation in this case.The hypothesis I would like to advance is that those societies that have been historically confronted with uncontrolable natural disasters such as earthquakes, inondations, typhoons, etc. would seem to have developped other types of knowledge : knowledge that is concerned with particular events of great scale when compared with the demographic scale of a given society. The anthropological case study analysis of an ethnic group in brasilian Amazonia and of certain Japanese cultural aspects, both involving the bulk of my fieldwork. This will better illustrate and more securely ground my working thesis. Lastly, in my comparative analysis of the two types of knowledge, the one concerned with general events the other concerned with very rare ones, I would like to examine how closely Science--given its ambition toward the complete mastery of phenomenon--seems to be linked with catastrophic events.

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