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Disciplining the earth: Earthquake observation in Switzerland and Germany circa 1900


Westermann, A (2011). Disciplining the earth: Earthquake observation in Switzerland and Germany circa 1900. Environment and History, 17(1):53-77.

Abstract

This article examines how, in late nineteenth-century Switzerland and Germany,
the established earthquake discourse was socially reshaped and, in turn, helped
change the way people conceived of social reality. Scientists broke with the
tradition of enlightened earthquake discourse in that they argued that earthquake
research was about the regular and statistically frequent, and not primarily about
the exceptional or hazardous. Their attitude was sustained by the idea of social
contingency that had come to define Western societies’ self-perception. The
idea started to transform the supposed accidental and threatening character of
earthquakes. It suggested that the individual and social scopes of action had
broadened and mattered, that ‘progress’ was shapeable. In the face of nature’s
uncertainties, seismologists were eager to highlight the opportunity for social
action offered by moderate quakes and instrument-based observation.
Earthquake research added to another key feature of Western modernity:
arguably, the new pictures of the earth such as global earthquake belts and the
shell-like construction of the inner earth suggested by seismology contributed
to the social and cultural processes of globalisation at work at the turn of the
twentieth century. To the practitioners, the seismic survey of the whole earth,
whether undertaken on a micro or a macro scale, offered what could be called
a material substrate for the growing awareness among Western nation states of
being globally embedded and interconnected in many terms: political, economic,
scientific and cultural.

This article examines how, in late nineteenth-century Switzerland and Germany,
the established earthquake discourse was socially reshaped and, in turn, helped
change the way people conceived of social reality. Scientists broke with the
tradition of enlightened earthquake discourse in that they argued that earthquake
research was about the regular and statistically frequent, and not primarily about
the exceptional or hazardous. Their attitude was sustained by the idea of social
contingency that had come to define Western societies’ self-perception. The
idea started to transform the supposed accidental and threatening character of
earthquakes. It suggested that the individual and social scopes of action had
broadened and mattered, that ‘progress’ was shapeable. In the face of nature’s
uncertainties, seismologists were eager to highlight the opportunity for social
action offered by moderate quakes and instrument-based observation.
Earthquake research added to another key feature of Western modernity:
arguably, the new pictures of the earth such as global earthquake belts and the
shell-like construction of the inner earth suggested by seismology contributed
to the social and cultural processes of globalisation at work at the turn of the
twentieth century. To the practitioners, the seismic survey of the whole earth,
whether undertaken on a micro or a macro scale, offered what could be called
a material substrate for the growing awareness among Western nation states of
being globally embedded and interconnected in many terms: political, economic,
scientific and cultural.

Citations

5 citations in Web of Science®
5 citations in Scopus®
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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of History
Dewey Decimal Classification:900 History
Language:English
Date:2011
Deposited On:16 Nov 2011 14:21
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 15:06
Publisher:The White Horse Press
ISSN:0967-3407
Free access at:Related URL. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:10.3197/096734011X12922359172934
Related URLs:http://www.hist.uzh.ch/ueberuns/oberassistierende/westermann/Westermann_EnvirHist_2011.pdf
Permanent URL: http://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-51091

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