Subproject 3

„How Safe Is Safe Enough?“

Practices of Evidence for Technical Safety in Times of Societal Uncertainty


Prof. Dr. Karin Zachmann

Dr. des. Stefan Esselborn

Johannes Günther


The project will analyze practices of evidence concerning technical safety in both German states between the 1950s and the 1980s, using two specific technological fields – automobiles and nuclear power – as case studies. As key technologies of the atomic and the consumer age, both fields have had a substantial part in transforming the idea of safety/security into a societal core value. We start from the assumption that within the context of German post war history and the Cold War ever more safety-relevant areas were identified. This process of ‘securitization’ was closely interlinked with a ‘scientification’ of technical safety.

The project is conceptualized as an entangled history – taking into account not only these two different branches of technology, but also both German states – thus making it possible to examine how practices of evidence in the field of technical safety are entwined with political power, social structures and shared (engineering) traditions. Making use of the chiasmus “practicing evidence – evidencing practice”, the project aims to study discourses as well as concrete practices of technical safety as an increasingly important precondition for the societal acceptance of technology.

Starting in the late 1960s, this acceptance has become increasingly fragile, turning the question of technical safety into a publicly contested and highly sensitive issue. The ensuing development of new practices of evidence in this field can neither be ascribed exclusively to technical experts, nor to public and political demands alone. Instead, we argue that various actors from both sides have negotiated new standards and practices in a shared “trading zone”. To what extent this has resulted in the emergence of new methods and forms for presenting and legitimizing safety-relevant knowledge (e.g., accident statistics, crash tests, or test simulations), whether and how these have migrated between different fields and disciplines, and whether they have given rise to new forms of uncertainty, are some of the central questions to be addressed.

The project does not intend to recount the history of technical safety per se. Rather, we will focus on the concrete actions and processes of negotiation, in which the knowledge demanded, accepted, or rejected for the identification of safety-relevant fields, and the preparation and implementation of decisions to minimize expected dangers qualifies as bona fide evidence.