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Environment and History

Disciplining the Earth: Earthquake Observation in Switzerland and Germany at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Andrea Westermann

Environment and History 17 (2011): 53-77. doi: 10.3197/096734011X12922359172934

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.

KEYWORDS: Contingency, globality, seismology, earthquake research, history of science

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