Lakoff (2010) “Disaster and the Politics of Intervention”

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Columbia University Press asking if I might be interested in a free copy of a new book, and suggesting I should mention said book on my blog, and also offering to make the editor available for interviews, guest posts, etc. I was really impressed by this offer, and I want to encourage more such in the future. So, publishers of the world – send me your books! I will promise to at least look them over.

I don’t promise to say really nice things about them, however. The book that Columbia UP sent me is Disaster and the Politics of Intervention edited by Andrew Lakoff. The book was underwhelming. I was initially excited, as the five chapters include contributions by science studies big shots Donald MacKenzie and Sheila Jasanoff, and the introduction was by Lakoff himself. So I had high hopes for some really interesting stuff. Overall though, I think the book fell flat.

I think the biggest problem I faced was not being sure who the audience was supposed to be. It certainly isn’t academics and graduate students deeply enmeshed in science studies, the politics of risk, quantification, etc. The essays average about 20-25 small pages, and are pretty thin theoretically, drawing a lot on established work (Ulrich Beck, science studies stuff on quantification and performativity, etc.) rather than making super novel contributions. So maybe the audience is supposed to be policymakers interested in what sociologists and our fellow travelers have to say about risk and disasters? If so, perhaps the book will do some good. I could also see undergrad soc majors getting something out of it, especially if they were interested in one of the particular topics covered (carbon markets to avert climate change, HIV/AIDS, the history of FEMA, etc.). Like most edited volumes, there isn’t a strong narrative running throughout, so if you are interested in a given chapter, go straight for it and ignore the rest.

Ok, I hope that was “tough but fair”. Any other presses out there want me to read your books and say mediocre things about them? Email asociologist at umich.edu!

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