STS: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Disasters: Early Modern Precedents for Twenty-First Century Disaster Management"


Monday, November 16, 2015, 12:15pm to 2:00pm


Pierce Hall Room 100F, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 29 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA


Saptarishi Bandopadhyay, SJD Candidate, Harvard Law School.


Shana Rabinowich


Sheila Jasanoff, Faculty Associate. Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School.

Lunch is provided if you RSVP via our online form by Thursday of the week before the event.


My project offers a socio-legal history of the governance mechanisms and related discourses through which early modern governments and their people negotiated the tension between making meaning and conserving power in the face of calamity. I propose to show that even in the infant years of state-sponsored disaster management, long before the discourses of “states of exception,” “disaster cycles,” and predictive modeling, perceptions of catastrophic-risk carried with them an underlying narrative of a right social ordering of nature/culture. Accordingly, I contend that while disasters persist in the popular imagination as drastic deviations from the normal conditions of civic-life, in fact, governments have long understood such events to be natural occasions for the development and fine-tuning of a generalized state power. I study anticipatory, post-hoc, and self-involved disaster governance—across the Marseille plague of 1720, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and the Bengal famine of 1770—to show how, in any given society, disaster management (from anticipatory risk assessment to relief and reconstruction) serves not only the facial goal of self-defense but also the underlying project of self-definition.


Saptarishi Bandopadhyay is a 5th year SJD (doctoral) candidate at Harvard Law School. His research focuses on environmental law, legal and environmental history, and issues related to technology and society. Saptarishi holds a bachelor of laws from the National University of Juridical Sciences in India, and LLMs from American University’s Washington College of Law, and Harvard Law School. From 2006 to 2010, he practiced environmental and biotechnology law in New York, and has since worked with civil society groups involved in disaster relief and mitigation in Ladakh and the Philippines. Saptarishi has received research and advocacy fellowships from the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for International Environmental Law, Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and most recently from Harvard Law School.