Bijker, “American and Dutch Coastal Engineering: Differences in Risk Conception and Differences in Technological Culture”

Wiebe E. Bijker (2007) “American and Dutch Coastal Engineering: Differences in RiskConception and Differences in Technological Culture,” Social Studies of Science, 37:143–152.

“How is it possible that the USA failed to keep New Orleans dry, when large
parts of the Netherlands can exist below sea level? This question, with all
its implicit rhetoric about the big and mighty Americans and the small and
weak Dutch, generated a flock of American expeditions to the Netherlands
in the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans by hurricanes Katrina and
Rita in 2005. The big US television networks, channels such as National
Geographic, and political delegations, including the Louisiana governor
and members of the US Congress, visited the Netherlands within a few
months after the flooding, and all parties returned with spirited reports of
how the Americans could learn from the Dutch. Does this suggest that the
US Army Corps of Engineers is less able than the Rijkswaterstaat engineers
in the Netherlands? I will argue that something else is going on: that the
difference is not one of expertise and competence.
In this paper I compare the styles of US and Dutch coastal engineering,
and argue that they express different conceptions of risk management
in relation to flooding. These differences can, perhaps, be explained by reference
to the wider technological cultures of both countries, rather than to
the specific engineering cultures. The core of my analysis, however, is
aimed at the styles of coastal engineering. In this paper I am not interested
in blaming artefacts or humans – levees/dikes1 and warning systems – or
politicians or engineers involved in their design or maintenance. My conjecture
is that even had everyone and everything functioned effectively, the
historical style of American coastal engineering would encourage accepting
the kind of flooding that occurred after Katrina”

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