First Published 29 May 2009 (subsequently revised)
The Sociology of Weather Science: Introduction
I stumbled my way into writing a paper on the sociology of weather science, when I was applying for residence in Australia. In 1974 I made several visits to Australia House in The Strand to apply for residence status, picking up a number of brochures and other publicity material.
This was the time of the 1973 OPEC oil price shock and the first major postwar recession. So there had just been a revised publicity brochure issued for prospective migrants. As a result I managed to collect very different “before-and-after” brochures.
These were based on the material I was collecting while preparing to move to Australia, which I did in December 1974. Before the OPEC oil crisis, policies were designed to attract migrants, including the use of the £10 assisted passage in which rumours of the Australian climate were that Australia was a land of sunshine and plenty.
Then when times were hard, and (White) migrants were not wanted in such numbers, Australia’s climate suddenly began to be described as less favourable in the publicity literature available in Australia House on The Strand, London. I remember collecting the brochures and taking them to read and make notes on them in one of the nearby Kardomah Cafes.
The “before” brochures advertised for Britons to emigrate, presenting Australia as a land of sunshine, almost guaranteed employment and prosperity, and offering passage by ship for only £10.
The “after” brochures were very different. Gone was the subsidised passage and it was stressed that only certain skills were in demand so it might not be easy to get a job. It warned prospective emigrants to bring an umbrella, rainwear and a warm pullover.
The contrast gave me the idea for a constructionist paper on Australia’s deteriorating climate, based on a comparison between the before-and-after public documents on emigration. The paper was eventually forgotten and is now lost, as I never returned to the subject: even the title was left general and unspecific – as the titles of first drafts often are. “The Social Construction of Weather” is singularly uninformative and conceptually weak. It was a simple empirical comparison of before-and-after brochures. The next stage of the draft sh0uld have been about the way policy concerns about immigrant labour colours the public presentation of the climate by government agencies. But on arrival I began to work on comparative housing so I put the draft paper aside and never returned to it.
At that time the sociology of professions was receiving a new lease of life from symbolic interactionism, especially in medical sociology and research on the doctor-patient relationship. The first issue of Work and Occupations came out in 1974 under its founder-editor Rue Bucher, and was an early example of an interactionist journal, with authors like Julius Roth and Arlene Kaplan Daniels.
Many professions and work processes have come under critical scrutiny since then, but until very recently not the meteorology profession. I had given up hoping that someone would publish a book on this.
Just such a study has now been done in the USA, by Gary Alan Fine (2007) who, in the best traditions of symbolic interaction, has carried out an ethnographic study of meteorologists at work. Letell (2008) concludes his book review in Acta Sociologica as follows:
“As an elaborate investigation of meteorological future work, the book is not only a welcome contribution to the sociology of work, the sociology of culture and the ethnography of group dynamics, but also to the sociology of expertise, the sociology of risk and, not least, to science and technology studies. An insightful study of the practices behind the broadcasted expert knowledge informing our daily conduct, the book increasingly stands out, as the pages are turned, as one of the more important reads for understanding the situated ins and outs of knowledge production, especially with regard to public science.” (Letell, 2008)
Gary Alan Fine is a leading symbolic interactionist. He has served as President of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and won several awards. He was Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, Uppsala, in spring 2003, when I had several opportunities to discuss interactionism with him. He has published many books, the ones below are just a small selection. Most are ethnographic studies involving observation and participant observation. The closer focus of this approach is on rumours and recounting narratives of experiences in the specific social worlds the researcher enters.
I will look more closely at some of these in later posts, to bring out similarities and differences between these widely different social worlds.
Gary Alan Fine (2007) Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press p. 294.
Jim Kemeny (2010) Book Review of ‘Authors of the Storm’ Housing, Theory and Society, Vol. 7 issue 3 pp. 276-278
Martin Letell (2008) Review of Fine (2007) in Acta Sociologica Vol. 51 No.4 p. 377-379