Dissertation Abstracts

Eating a nuclear disaster: A vital institutional ethnography of the coordination of everyday eating in the Kansai region of Japan in the aftermath of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster

Author: Karly A Burch, karlyburch@gmail.com
Department: Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work
University: University of Otago, New Zealand
Supervisor: Professor Hugh Campbell and Dr. Katharine Legun
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: nuclear disaster , Japan , material semiotics , institutional ethnography
Areas of Research: Environment and Society , Science and Technology , Institutional Ethnography


This project explores the coordination of everyday eating in the aftermath of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO’s) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. With the onset of the nuclear disaster in March 2011, imperceptible radionuclides re-emerged as objects of concern for many people living throughout the archipelago of Japan. Falling over homes, farmlands, forests, waterways and oceans, TEPCO’s radionuclides became unwelcomed actors within Japan’s agrifood assemblage, challenging the governance of food safety in Japan and around the world. To ensure the ‘safety’ of food circulating within its agrifood assemblage, the Japanese government initiated an effort to coordinate the activities of human actors in the turbulence of the radiological overflow. Beginning with the troubling experiences of konran (disorder) shared by forty-three people living and eating in Japan’s Kansai region in 2016, this thesis borrows sensibilities from the field of institutional ethnography to explore how everyday eating is hooked up within textually-mediated ruling relations that have emerged since the onset of TEPCO’s nuclear disaster. At the same time, sensibilities form material semiotics are used to attend to myriad other sociomaterial entanglements people find themselves entwined within in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, particularly their entanglements with imperceptible radionuclides. I refer to this method of inquiry as a ‘vital institutional ethnography.’ With the goal of producing knowledge that will be of use to my participants in situating their own experiences of konran within greater ruling relations, I follow strings from their experiences into various institutional complexes to both explicate ruling relations and explore the monstrous and ghostly sociomaterial entanglements of humans and more-than-humans they relate with in their everyday lives. Beginning with an exploration of historical cases of industrial ruination and the current case of TEPCO’s nuclear disaster, I discover that ruling texts and discourses are enacted in ways to erase or obfuscate the material presence of industrial pollutants. Through explicating the various ruling relations my participants are embedded and participate within following TEPCO’s nuclear disaster, I argue that the Japanese government’s coordination effort attempts to establish a single, ‘correct’ way for humans to understand and relate with radionuclides possibly present in the food and water they ingest. This ‘single reality’ is born out of what I refer to as the ‘transnational nuclear assemblage’—an assemblage of commissions, governments, committees, scientific associations and many other organizations which produce ruling texts that are designed to manage and contain radiological overflows within a vast and ever-expanding textual complex. In exploring the ruling relations involved in the enactment of ‘safe food,’ I discover that while single-reality-wielding coordination efforts may be efficient for maintaining the pace of commerce and in paving the textual-path forward for military and industrial projects, tensions arise when they enter and interfere with the messy, multiple realities of my locally-situated participants.

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