Stephen Hilgartner: Making Knowledge about Risk

This talk concerns the efforts of sociotechnical vanguards who self-consciously seek to make knowledge about risk in ways that will transform public policy, markets, and on-the-ground practices. As an empirical case, prof. Hilgartner (Cornell University, USA) examines knowledge production concerning strategies to mitigate the physical and financial risks of damage to low-rise buildings from extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, hailstorms, and wildfires.

Models, Credibility, and Sociotechnical Change

Damage from hurricanes in the U.S. now can run into the tens of billions of dollars, and sometimes much more, as well as causing substantial loss of life. Hurricane Katrina (2005), for example, cost an estimated $108 billion and led to more than 1,800 deaths. This paper focuses on an institute, funded by property and casualty insurance companies, that seeks to 'do for buildings what the crash test people did for cars.' Its innovative research program uses a gigantic wind tunnel to subject full-scale buildings to hurricane-force winds with the goal of designing and testing strategies for mitigating damage caused by extreme weather.

Drawing on ethnographic and interview data, prof. Hilgartner describes the institute’s vision of sociotechnical change. The analysis highlights the work done to produce credible predictions, the staging of visual displays, the interplay of past experience and future prediction, and the challenges of inspiring uptake, transforming extant conceptions of risk, and altering practices.

Stephen Hilgartner

Stephen Hilgartner studies the social dimensions and politics of contemporary and emerging science and technology, especially in the life sciences. His research focuses on situations in which scientific knowledge is implicated in establishing, contesting, and maintaining social order -- a theme he has examined in studies of expertise, property formation, risk disputes, and biotechnology.