Living At Risk: Relations, Routines, and History

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

Maricarmen Hernandez and Javier Auyero
Ethnography Lab — Sociology Department

In October of 2018, I (MC) arrived in the coastal city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador to carry out a year of ethnographic fieldwork in a contaminated informal community located next to the largest refinery and electric plant in the country. This was the fourth time I would be doing fieldwork in the area. Upon arrival, I immediately headed to Zoila’s house, a woman who is a long-time resident of the barrio, a current leader and organizer, and whose house I had lived in during past fieldwork visits.
Zoila was always smiling and was very warm and welcoming. When I asked her how things were and what had occurred since I had last seen her, Zoila responded “Everything is the same here, nothing changes. There are some new ones around, others have died, some are married, others divorced, but in general, the same. One thing is true, here in the barrio, we know how to have fun and live the good life! Because we just never know… all of that hasn’t changed either.” 

We are slowly strolling down the main street of the neighborhood as we converse. Just as Zoila finishes her thought, I look toward the right side of the road, past the ladrillera (brick maker’s house), and can see the smoke stacks and industrial structures in the hazy greys and blues of falling dusk. They protrude from behind the neighborhood, and overlook the houses while puffing out clouds of light grey smoke, clearly visible against the sky. These smokestacks and the perils they represent, along with rising river currents that during the rainy season, threaten to flood the area with a toxic mix of sewage and polluted water from the refinery, and the variety of problems that accompany poor people’s precarious living conditions are what Zoila is referring to when she says “here, we just never know.”

We continue walking and Zoila shows me the latest development in the neighborhood and victory for the neighbors, the paving of the very first road. Construction has just begun, and there are only a couple of meters of concrete covering the dusty road, but it feels like a success. Spirits are high and music is blaring from various speakers coming from different houses. We run into acquaintances and stop to chat, we hear about the family who recently lost their home in a flood and moved into the communal house as an emergency solution, we stop to look at an uninhabited shell of a house that sits like a vestige of the flood that swept away at least a dozen homes two years ago, and whose former residents are still living in a shelter. Mothers recount and compare their children’s ailments, while attempting to understand what is normal and what isn’t, and what can be ignored and what should be attended to. Despite these, at times tragic, but usually casual conversations, life goes on. 

Residents here are fully aware of the surrounding hazards and toxic risks but, somewhat, are at peace. How is that possible? How is this shared understanding of risk and contamination created and how does it help the neighbors make peace with a monster that, according to them, is nothing more than a “time bomb” that is slowly poisoning them?

Relations, Routines, History

How do people routinely exposed to the hazards created by facilities such as an oil refinery, a fracking site, an incinerator, a smelting plant, etc. think and feel about the risks posed to their surroundings and their health? A now more than two decades long “relational turn” in sociology has taught us that the true engine of social action (and the source of shared understandings) lies in relationships between agents (Emirbayer 1997). Perceptions of toxic risk are not different: they are not locked inside individuals’ minds but situated in specific social universes, or as Lupton (1999:15) puts it, “housed within collective cultural networks.” In the case of Esmeraldas, we find that the strenuous circumstances under which families moved into the neighborhood after being displaced due to natural disasters, their struggle to remain in this area after various adversities, and the camaraderie created through the communal struggle of making the place livable, along with their longing for housing stability, have all contributed to their building a home through hardship. This collective effort serves as the foundation for the collective cultural network that has developed in this particular social universe, the same that enables the neighbors to both be aware of the danger while minimizing it in their day to day activities.  

In her detailed examination of the ways in which a cultural belief in risk acceptability was produced and normalized within NASA, Diane Vaughan states that “patterns of information obscured problem seriousness” (2004:331). The identification and correction of problems central to the catastrophic Challenger accident were, Vaughan (1990; 1997) argues, blocked by organizational patterns. These patterns (in NASA’s case, autonomy and interdependence) undercut effective discovery and obstructed collective knowledge. We learn from Vaughan that the normalization of risk and the perpetuation of mistakes do not derive from technological complexity alone but also from organizational forms. Eden (2004) makes a theoretically similar argument when analyzing the U.S. government’s failure to incorporate predictions of fire damage caused by nuclear blasts into the organizational routines developed for nuclear war planning. In both cases, we see how the source of risk perceptions is located in relationships, not in individual minds. Recurrent relations within these universes condition what insiders see, overlook, or misinterpret.

Studies of evaluations and judgments of risk within organizations have also taught us that risk perceptions are not only relational but also, and as importantly, embedded in daily routines, regular processes which work to both shape attention and structure thinking (Heimer 2001). Daily routines typically work as horse’s blinders: they enhance focus on whatever the task at hand is and restrict or “cloud” the vision (Cerulo 2006) about the dangers that occur outside of our immediate environments. In the barrio in Esmeraldas this can be observed in myriad ways, from dealing with an unpredictable and subpar potable water service to the daily problems posed by a lack of employment opportunities. As one neighbor stated in an interview when referring to the toxicity her children are exposed to, “yes, we are in danger, but first I must worry about getting them fed and in school today, before I worry about illness in twenty years.”  

The kind of radical contextualization of belief production and risk perception for which organizational sociologists advocate can and should be extended beyond the limits of complex organizations (e.g., NASA or the U.S. military) and into the less formalized but equally routinely governed world of a place such as the neighborhood in Ecuador where one of us lived for many months or the hundreds of communities sitting adjacent to toxic hazards.

Relations and routines do not evolve on the head of a pin but in a particular historical context: the history of the individuals who grew up and now live with those risks; the history of the place that has seen the hazards either suddenly appear  or slowly incubate over time; and the collective history of the people in their place – in the particular case of the barrio in Esmeraldas, a space that was jointly converted from a previously uninhabitable and intimidating monte (jungle) into what residents now recognize as a home that nurtures a sense of belonging, an otherwise unknown sentiment for a group of people with a long history of marginalization and displacement. 

Oral history and ethnography

If it is true (as we think it is) that the true source of shared understandings of hazards lies in the history, the routines, and the relations of those affected by them, what are the best methodological strategies to capture risk perceptions as they evolve over time and unfold in daily life? In the case of Esmeraldas (and that of Flammable [Auyero and Swistun 2009]), oral history and ethnography are particularly helpful. Oral history serves us to reconstruct the collective history of the hazardous area. It also helps us to understand how place-based relationships have been built between people and their immediate environment, particularly with each other and with the (depending on the case, more or less visible) source of risk. Lastly, oral histories are useful tools to document changes in risk perceptions over time and the particular role played by accidents, collective actions, and other “memorable” events. 

Risk perceptions are not only ways of viewing the surrounding world but also, and as importantly, ways of acting in it.  Ethnography can provide a clearer picture of the lived and enacted understandings of risk as they unfold in the actual life of communities impacted by environmental risks. As the type of inquiry based on “close-up, on-the-ground observation” in “real time and space, in which the investigator embeds herself near (or within) the phenomenon so as to detect how and why agents on the scene act, think and feel the way they do” (Wacquant 2003:5), we believe that ethnography is best equipped to capture the rootedness of risk perception in everyday routines and relations that survey- or interview-based research, almost by design, cannot apprehend. To provide a more accurate (i.e. closer to their lived experience) reconstruction of the views and sentiments of those living in contaminated communities we must, as Matthew Desmond (2007:294) so clearly puts it, “eat their food, speak their language, walk on their sidewalks, work in their jobs, fight in their struggles, teach in their schools, live in their houses…” Only by doing so, only by living and walking alongside folks like Zoila, by attentively and respectfully listening to them, we can truly understand what this Esmeraldeña means when she says: “here, we just never know…”

Zoila and her neighbors are currently organizing to obtain land titles to be the formal owners of the land their houses are built on. They are also continuing the two decades-long fight for services and infrastructure. They are not, as we would be led to think based on the literature on contaminated communities, fighting for a clean space to live or for clean-up of the area; instead, they are simultaneously hyper-aware of the danger while also fighting to protect their continued existence there. In this case, we see that the cultural frames that are a product of their shared experience have resulted in their understanding of this place not as a place to leave, but instead a place worth fighting for.  


Auyero, Javier and Debora Swistun. 2009. Flammable. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

Cerulo, Karen. 2006. Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Desmond, Matthew. 2010. On the Fireline. Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters. Chicago, Il: Chicago University Press.

Edelstein, Michael. 2003. Contaminated Communities. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Eden, Lynn. 2004. Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge & Nuclear Weapons Devastation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Emirbayer, M., 1997. “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 103(2):281-317.

Heimer, Carol A. 2001. “Cases and Biographies: An Essay on Routinization and the Nature of Comparison.” Annual Review of Sociology 27:47–76. 

Lupton, Deborah, ed. 1999b. Risk and Sociocultural Theory: New Directions and Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Vaughan, Diane. 1990. “Autonomy, Interdependence, and Social Control: NASA and the Space Shuttle Challenger.” Administrative Science Quarterly 35:225–57.

Vaughan, Diane. 1997.The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2003. “Ethnografeast: A Progress Report on the Practice and Promise of Ethnography.” Ethnography, 4, 5-14