Constructing Risk and Responsibility.

Magdalena Gil

Presented at the ISA World Congress of Sociology. July, 14-21, 2018. Toronto, Canada


People have tried for centuries to understand, explain and, hopefully, predict earthquakes. Pre-modern societies did this through religion, producing semantics of punishment and Providence. Modern societies, however, seek to comprehend disasters in the form of risk; this is, we understand that the future depends on decisions to be made at present. In order to make informed decisions, thought, we need to be able to understand risk, to measure it. Following Niklas Luhmann, we can understand this process as the transformation of danger into risk; what was once wild and uncontrollable becomes something that can be calculated. The only “sin” now, is the omission of prevention. In this paper, I trace this cultural development in one specific and highly seismic country: Chile. Using newspapers and public records as the principal historical sources, I trace the social and cultural life of seismic risk from early 19th century to the present. I focus my analysis in two areas. First, I take into account public discourses on earthquakes to understand how ordinary citizens interpret their causes and cope with the consequences. And second, I analyze the recovery plans of major events in order to question when, and how, risk management was included (or not) in the designs for reconstruction. As a conclusion, I argue that the more scientific ideas are incorporated to public discourses of earthquakes, the highest people’s expectations about risk management and earthquake-damage prevention. In other words, we learn that danger is politically safer than risk. If disasters depend on decisions made by people, then who is responsible when things go wrong? As my case shows, with the advancement of the twentieth century the answer will increasingly be: the state.

Session: Historical and Comparative Perspectives on Risk