Authors of the Storm

Authors of the Storm: Symbolic Interactionists are not especially known for their approach to understanding weather. The main work on an interactionist understanding of weather prediction is the book by Gary Alan Fine “Authors of the Storm: meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction” University of Chicago Press (2007).

The title, in particular, needs explaining. What does Fine mean by “the Authors of the storm”? And what, in the sub-title, is the “culture of prediction”? The last paragraph of the book explains this:

“Weather matters, and so do those who reveal it. We could hardly imagine a modern society without the routine, confident and shared claims of meteorology. Forecasters fight for this right and are challenged by nature’s autonomy. Over time they are able to persuade, to justify, and to know: In this, they become authors of the storm.” (p. 250)

The book is a closely argued and structured study, drawing on the sociology of science, including Latour and Woolgar (Laboratory Life, 1979) and Latour (Science in Action, 1987), Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay (Science Observed 1983) and applying the concept of the negotiated order to the formation of collective meteorological knowledge, specifically in the chosen sites that were studied using participant observation.

I wrote a review of this book for Housing, Theory and Society in 2010:

Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction

Gary Alan Fine
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-226- 24952-0

Fine was awarded the 2008 Charles Horton Cooley Award by The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction for Authors of the Storm, one of a long line of books he has authored on the culture of different social worlds. These worlds have ranged widely, from small groups to nationwide organizations. They include small group Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing, kitchen restaurant work, art appreciation and mushrooming. Data collection takes the form of participant observation together with context-based interview material and a high degree of immersion in the social and cultural world being analysed and described, supported by statistics where appropriate, and other documentary material.

The culture of weather prediction is of potential interest for urban sociology because it involves the study of a large-scale organization, the US National Weather Service, which poses methodological issues that may well be helpful to urban and housing researchers. So this review is particularly aimed at researchers planning a qualitative interactionist study of large and complex organizations with several local offices, such as local housing authorities, housing exchanges or one of the larger estate agents.

Fine is Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago so he based his research on the Chicago office of the National Weather Service, one of the oldest in the country, and with a long tradition behind it. He also studied two smaller offices in the region. One was Belvedere, an older office founded in 1976, and in a township which had been hit by a particularly damaging tornado in 1967. The other was Flowerland, a newer office with younger staff and a different mix of gender and ethnicity and lacking the traditions of either Chicago or Belvedere. In addition he visited two nationwide weather service centres – one, the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, is part of the National Weather Service. The other was the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Both were affiliated with the meteorology department at the University of Oklahoma. Fine also visited a meteorology convention as part of his immersion in the social world of weather prediction.

The weather service needs round-the-clock staffing, which has its own impact on an office’s culture and they way it operates. One of Fine’s aims was to compare offices with different traditions and work-cultures in the same region. But this is a complex and wide-ranging book, so it also has much to offer in terms of constructionist studies of science and technology, as well as organizational studies, including the way work is moulded by informal factors such as inter-office rivalries and competitiveness, and by traditionality versus innovation.

The creation of weather “data” is part of the process of the production of knowledge in its social and organizational context, and its interpretation as well as its presentation figure prominently in the book. There is a considerable amount of debate and negotiation taking place both within an office and between offices, in what Fine calls “The negotiated order of collective knowledge” (p. 143). This still leaves leeway for forecasters to angle a weather “story”, for example by a little “tweaking” of the temperatures in any presentation.

In the Mid-West dramatic weather routinely concerns tornadoes, although prolonged heatwaves, flooding, heavy snow or droughts also have their own dramas. The conditions in which tornadoes are formed, the paths they take and wind speeds generated, and hence also of danger to those in their path, combine to make tornado prediction particularly problematic and chancy, but also newsworthy. Tornado paths are predicted and may be visually presented by the use of boxes on maps, which may be longer, wider or bigger depending on a range of considerations: “boxology” one staff member called it (p. 151). But getting it badly wrong reflects on the staff involved. Some of the drama of a potentially big tornado is clearly evidenced by tales of how one of the weather offices “got it wrong” and so failed to deliver a warning. Such tales are a cause of embarrassment to an office and those associated with it that can linger and retain potency many years after the event. At the same time, dramatic weather provides a buzz of excitement and interest and noticeable changes the atmosphere and the tempo of work in the office.

In Chapter 6, Fine considers the links between the forecast service and external agencies such as universities and the media, other government agencies, and other countries’ weather services. But these are all once-removed from the centre of the study itself, which has to be based on the National Weather Service office members’ views of the relationship, or else conducting parallel studies. The media would be an obvious choice for such a parallel study.”

There is a curious political episode around weather prediction. In 2011 this item appeared in the Swedish edition of The Local: Sweden demands better weather forecasts, in which the Bourgeois Government Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren, expressed dissatisfaction with the accuracy of the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute’s forecasts. This would make a fascinating study of the political and media involvement in the process. Perhaps one day it will be done…

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