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Dangerous Trade. Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World

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This paper is based on research and writing that Joseph Melling has undertaken with Christopher Sellers of New York University over several years. They have been looking at the evolution and the distribution of hazards across the globalized economy of the past two centuries. The sharpening unevenness and inequalities in the exposure of different countries and populations to dangerous trades has spurred us to investigate a transnational approach to the history of industrial hazards.

Industrial hazards continue to multiply today. An estimated two million deaths (twice those from malaria) are attributable to employment injuries alone, not to mention environmental ones. Every sign suggests these casualties will increase in the next half-century. What challenges do these dangers pose for us, as historians of what this lecture series has called the toxic environment? How do we explain the proliferation of hazards at a time when the knowledge, networks and laws that could remedy them also appear to be growing? How might we construct a transnational history that can encompass the “movements, flows, and circulation,” that Isabel Hofmeyr sees as fundamental to transnational study?

The social histories of occupational health and environmental hazard that were written in the last two decades of the twentieth century challenged the heroic narratives of medical history but did so in ways that steered away from the more explicit transnationalism of their ‘heroic’ predecessors in writing the history of industrial hazards. More recently, however, social scientists as well as other groups of historians have taken up the challenge of transnational analysisis. Environmental historians have mapped the material ecology of landscapes in which industries emerge, thrive, and despoil or pollute. In alliance with geographers these researchers have exposed the influential roles played by extra-workplace participants in industrial hazard history, from ecologists or geologists to farmers to those living in the vicinity of factories or waste dumps. The new Political Sociology of Science, in particular has compared traditional political and institutional, as well as cultural power dynamics which have shaped policy-relevant knowledge. Feminist accounts of public understanding and use of expertise in science and technology projects have again offered further insights into the gendered character of popular and professional knowledge of industrial dangers.

The paper offers a sketch of this new scholarly terrain that seeks to transnationalize the history of industrial hazards, particularly in its relationship to the history of science. We then proceed to some principles, heuristics, provisional narratives and questions that may help focus and advance more cross-national and comparative scholarship, in a field where questions of knowledge matter immensely.

Joseph Melling is co-Director of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter, England. He has researched the history of industrial health and safety for many years. His interests include the history of respiratory illness (silicosis), the history of mental health (including a recent project on the history of stress), and the history of management-labour relations. He is presently engaged in new work on transnationalism and environmental health since the 1940s with Chris Sellers and colleague around the world.

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