Nuclear Rites:
A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War

Hugh Gusterson

University of California Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson spent several years in Livermore, studying the weapons scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories; Nuclear Rites is the resulting ethnographic report. Gusterson begins with an exploration of the backgrounds of workers at the laboratories and why they chose to work there. He also touches on the relationship between the churches and the laboratory (the local churches in Livermore taking a very different stance to their national organisations). Turning to the culture of secrecy at the laboratories, he considers the process of obtaining a Q clearance as a rite of passage, and highlights the ways in which segregation creates barriers even within families. (One result of this secrecy is that Nuclear Rites is based on interviews rather than participant observation.)

The next two chapters consider "bodies and machines" and the significance of nuclear tests. The culture of the laboratories avoids consideration of the human, medical side of the effects of nuclear weapons; it encourages identification with machines rather than with bodies, with the technological rather than the biological. And nuclear tests played a key role in both the weapon development cycle and in the socialisation of scientists, where they constituted a kind of ritual.

Turning to political issues, Gusterson traces the growing problems faced by the laboratory, from the early moves towards test ban treaties to the crisis years of the 1980s, which saw protests outside the laboratory gates, a rising anti-nuclear movement, problems with the University of California (which manages Livermore Laboratories), and concern over environmental issues. Gusterson also devotes a chapter to the participants in the anti-nuclear movement, contrasting them with the scientists "on the other side of the fence". And Nuclear Rites ends with an unusual but intriguing feature — fourteen pages of comments on the book by nine of its subjects, by laboratory workers, local church leaders, and anti-nuclear activists.

While Gusterson seems to feel obliged to mention prominent theorists, he avoids an excess of theory and almost all jargon. Nuclear Rites offers a different and revealing perspective on nuclear weapons research, going way beyond the popular cliches. It is a valuable addition to the growing body of ethnographic work on scientific communities.

May 1998

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%T Nuclear Rites
%S A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War
%A Gusterson, Hugh
%I University of California Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520213734
%P xviii,351pp