skip to content

Speaker Spotlight: Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock is a sociocultural anthropologist and research fellow at the Woolf Institute and will be giving a talk at the Festival of Ideas entitled Truth and power: the politics of expertise and behaviour after the L’Aquila earthquake on 29 October.


How important is the state's response to major crises to feelings of trust in the establishment, including experts?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: Not simply those affected directly by a crisis, such as a natural disaster, pay attention to the state response, but also other citizens. After the L'Aquila earthquake, the Italian's state's authoritarian relief effort contrasted markedly with the absence of a coordinated response by the US government after Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans in 2005. Since boundaries between politics, elites, the establishment and experts are becoming blurred in contested public discourse, a lack of support and solidarity on the part of state authorities can produce a more general sense of dissatisfaction, distrust, and anger - even though civil society actors could also capitalise by stepping in when the state is absent. Citizens in democracies have strong expectations of the state and the authorities, and responses to crises that are considered ineffective, weak or even cruel can therefore undermine trust in political systems and in those associated with its everyday management.


How can citizens create new forms of political participation and cross-cultural solidarity during a period of major crisis?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: This depends on the crisis. It is certainly possible for grassroots organisations or associations to support neighbourhoods and individuals during difficult times, but there are also areas of state responsibility that non-state actors will struggle to cover. A focus on local community work, which is more concrete and practical in its orientation than national policy, can contribute to a sense of purpose and further cohesion on the immediate local level. At the same time, non-state actors must be careful that their work and voluntary engagement does not provide state authorities with an excuse to cut back support and assistance further. The greater pressure on non-state actors to remain active and committees is straining volunteers and their resources and this can also have negative effects on community solidarity and cross-cultural relations.


How does the L'Aquila case illustrate these themes?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: The overbearing state relief effort was described by many survivors as heavy-handed and authoritarian. The national government declared a state of emergency and discouraged grassroots participation and involvement. The dispersion of survivors into far-flung hotel resorts and camps, which were in many cases rigidly policed, exacerbated the sense of disaster and despair for many displaced residents, particularly in the long-term. The government's focus on projects that were fast and visible to a media public - but not necessarily in the best and long-term interest for the affected population - heightened social tensions over limited resources and undermined trust in the state and the local community. The struggle over recovery illustrated both the emergence of new actors seeking to advance community life and revealed that a haphazard and ineffective state response fuelled tensions and envy locally.


Why did you choose to focus on the L'Aquila earthquake trial?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: The trial received global media attention, which was, in most cases, both misinformed and misleading. Reactions to the trial illustrated the power of stereotypes in interpretations of Italian public life, as journalists asserted that the court case was about 'putting science on trial' and accused Aquilani of being grief-consumed, irrational and backward mountain rustics. In fact, however, the trial illuminated how the citizens of a disaster-stricken city sought to put their lives back together, hold irresponsible officials to account and tell stories about the past that reflected their experience of catastrophe. I was particularly interested in the involvement of survivors - as plaintiffs and witnesses - in the court case, as they sought to use the courtroom as a commemorative space and in order to increase public morality. Their experience with the case, however, was ambiguous: whereas the municipal court recognised the guilt of experts who had allowed themselves to become political stooges, the international reaction was devastating. The local desire to tell different stories about the past ran into misunderstanding and polemic on the world stage, which frustrated many local people and once more prolonged the crisis that had started with the disaster.


When will your book on this be published?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: The book is under contract with Indiana University Press and currently under review. If everything goes well, it should be published in early 2019.


How relevant is this case to such issues in the UK today as the Grenfell Tower disaster?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: Even though earthquakes are notoriously unpredictable, it is also true that earthquakes don't kill people - but buildings do. The high death toll in the earthquake demonstrates that a weak, ineffective or slim state can struggle to maintain standards and protect its citizens from catastrophe. In Italy, corruption in the construction industry and collusion with state authorities are chiefly responsible for the high death tolls that usually result from disaster. Furthermore, even though Berlusconi's state response after L'Aquila turned out to be self-serving and ineffective, at the time, he received much praise for his sympathetic personal engagement. Politics is about emotions, and after disasters such as Grenfell there is a need for public display of sympathy and care with the affected population, as well as for swift solutions, and the UK government failed on both counts.


How tied are trust in the state to trust in other representatives of the establishment, including the media and universities, which are traditionally supposed to hold power to account?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: This is very much context-dependent. In countries with powerful media magnates - whether Berlusconi or Murdoch - the collusion between politicians seeking attention and exposure, on the one hand, and media figures seeking proximity to political power, on the other, can readily undermine trust in the impartiality of information in certain outlets. In this age of celebrity politics, it remains difficult for politicians seeking electoral success to be widely known without positive or favourable media coverage. Jeremy Corbyn was an exception, but in his case, the constant attacks of the mainstream media also produced a sense of solidarity with the perceived underdog - a common human emotional response, which only exacerbated distrust in the media. Universities are perceived to be less relevant to the lives of many people than the media and university professors remain one of the most trusted sources of knowledge in Western societies. Nonetheless, the increasing need to generate favourable state support and generous funding has also cut the teeth of critical academic research - but universities are not in immediate danger of becoming associated as closely with the supposedly corrupt spheres of media, politics and money.


What can experts learn as a result of your research?

Jan-Jonathan Bock: The L'Aquila trial was really about the collusion between politics and expertise or science. The seven defendants were not sentenced because they had failed to predict an earthquake, but because they had allowed themselves to become political stooges. They had used their scientific authority purposefully to silence concerned citizens. The court case aimed at re-establishing the importance of autonomous scientific knowledge. Experts ought to be aware of the impact their theories or models of the world can have on people seeking information, particularly in the case of disturbing phenomena and act responsibly. Even though experts or scientists can switch between their scholarly work and forms of consulting, they ought to be aware of the authority scientific knowledge still has and strive to maintain autonomy from political pressures and objectives - and society should support such efforts to remain independent.