CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1In academic publications and in practitioner accounts alike, the emergence in the past twenty-five years of “victim” organizations – in relation to terrorist attacks, and industrial or natural disasters – and their converging activist involvements are frequently described as rooted in the confrontation with an inaugural event (the death of a child, the destruction of a familiar environment, the experience of fear faced with an extraordinary accident, etc.), with the traumatic consequences that follow, and with the changed worldviews which supposedly result. The traumatic event is thus thought to be in and of itself enough to generate mobilized groups, and, by the very fact of its force and of its conspicuousness, create grievances and discontent. When seeking to explain these “victim” movements, researchers are strongly tempted to treat the event as the main overarching explanatory factor, self-evidently assumed to set pertinent units of mobilization in motion (victims recognizing themselves as such immediately) and to create ties of solidarity between those unfortunate enough to experience it. In short, it is thought to affect victims to such an extent that it automatically provides a good reason to act collectively.

2In fact, everything seems to point the researcher towards attributing a causal role to the disastrous event: first, because chronologically most victim organizations are formed immediately following the irruption of the chance event in the course of everyday life; next, because the collective identity publicly asserted by these groups is based on the dramatization of accident-related solidarities that appear to originate in the shared experience of the disaster, independently from the usual vehicles of activist sociability; and lastly, because this emerging form of collective action is socially problematized in terms of a life-changing event. Far from being a socially suspended time, a disaster is a situation in which actors perceive themselves, express themselves and act according to particular norms. The idea that the actors are determined by the event owes much to the process of institutionalization of the role of “victim” in France, [1] with a number of disciplines cementing the idea of an opposition between before and after the event. Entrepreneurs in “victimology” have given currency to the idea that the event plays a pathogenic role within the diagnosis of psychological trauma and stress management practices; [2] commemorative ceremonies celebrate (and build) communities of accident victims whose only common attribute is their shared loss; [3] media coverage of disasters requires from witnesses biographical accounts that are bounded by the temporal limits of the event; experts expect those who apply for compensation to provide narrations in which damage directly attributable to the event must be strictly dissociated from former hardships.

3This perception of disasters shapes the practices of the victims and affects the sociological level of analysis at which they are observed. In this paper, I intend to show this based on material from a study on the uses of the “victim” category in collective action – focusing in particular on the mobilizations that followed the AZF chemical factory explosion in Toulouse in September 2001. [4] To what extent, indeed, is the so-called force of the tragic event only an artifact, resulting both from the attendant preconstructions that surround so-called victim mobilizations and from the type of material collected by researchers on these sites?

4First, I outline the genealogy of the conceptual tools put forward in the last twenty years by sociologists of mobilizations to isolate the “event factor” in collective action. Whether they invoke a moral shock, [5] suddenly imposed grievances [6] or quotidian disruptions, [7] the force of the disaster is generally postulated whenever the ordinary factors of collective action appear inoperative (unexpected recruitment in organizations, unlikely alliances, careers of activists “triggered” by the catastrophe), and attested by a systematic recourse to “victim” testimonies.

5However, I will show that the event cannot be considered as a rupture only on the basis of the actors’ accounts, made during interviews or publicly. Victim narratives are actually largely filtered by the regime of public legitimization that prevails in disaster settings and by discursive standards (consisting, for instance, in invoking a “shock”) promoted by psychologists, journalists and mobilization entrepreneurs.

6In light of this, I argue that a new methodological angle of approach is necessary. Recourse to ethnography makes it possible to question the discontinuity hypothesis and resituate these accident mobilizations within long-term social histories: that of the dispositions and past commitments that make some individuals (but not all) inclined towards taking on the social role of a “victim”, that of the spaces of activism that encourage some groups (but not all) to turn into an “accident community”. Without negating the impact of the disastrous event altogether, in this article I suggest analyzing the way in which dramatic circumstances reshuffle the cards of protest by imposing new rules on the airing of grievances, and reframing the denunciation of injustice.

Are “victims” mobilized by an event? The “unattached group” and “raw discontent” hypotheses

7The sociology of victim mobilizations has mainly revolved around the hypothesis of the unattached group. According to this perspective, some morphological properties distinguish victim organizations from other forms of collective action. This specificity is mainly derived from the federative effects of a disaster and from the lack of impact of the usual factors of mobilization. Individuals whose life has been upset by a sudden chance event mobilize solely on the basis of the “ill luck” that brought them together. Whether we call them “circumstantial groups”, [8] as Vilain and Lemieux do, or “new emotional movements”, [9] to use Walgrave and Verhulst’s term, the main feature of these groups is that they are solely founded on an accidental link. In such cases, forms of solidarity directly derived from the event supersede the usual workings of collective action: the sharing of pre-existing social or political affinities, support from networks of acquaintanceship or recourse to specialized agencies of mobilization. In an illuminating historical comparison between two similar incidents (a fire in a movie theatre in 1947 and another in a spa in 1991), Vilain and Lemieux establish a clear-cut opposition between two ways of producing a group following a disaster: the first, which prevailed in 1947, is said to be “categorical” because based on “a priori solidarities”, networks with firm roots in everyday life (unions, circles of neighbors, political clienteles). The second – “circumstantial groups” conversely relies on “a posteriori solidarities”, directly organized around the common experience of the event. Contemporary victim organizations can in this perspective be described as “social groups in the rawest state”, [10] insofar as they are the result of a chance encounter, a purely contingent determination, merely the result of being together “in the wrong place, at the wrong time”.


“Through such groups, which we propose calling ‘circumstantial’ groups, individuals gain access to a political existence that, on the one hand, does not involve the support of traditional factors of mobilization (political parties, unions, already existing organizations, etc.), and on the other, does not directly refer to conventional social memberships (professional, religious, sexual, cultural, local, etc.). In this new context of collective action, these committed individuals tend to have only one point in common: they have all borne the brunt of the same tragic event, which they did not do anything to cause or to seek to be involved in. In this respect, then, we are dealing with a form of mobilization that neither rests on any pre-existing institutional or community foundation, nor results in any large-scale political extension or ideological linkage, because it is based only on a condition of victimhood that the state was unable to prevent.” [11]

9The “raw discontent” hypothesis comes as a corollary and an extension of the “unattached group” hypothesis. In addition to its ability to shape groups, the traumatic event can be endowed with its own power to create and arrange grievances. Through the magnitude of their consequences and the violence of the feelings they elicit, tragic events are thought to generate a substratum of shared suffering that is liable to trigger mobilization in itself. In the past twenty years, numerous authors have made efforts to account for the “event factor” traditionally neglected by the sociology of collective action. In a seminal article, Walsh shows how in 1979, in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, [12] a network of small conservative communities, made up of middle-class individuals with little disposition towards collective action, became in a matter of weeks a hotbed of activism, to the extent that it ended up being a symbol of the anti-nuclear movement in the US. Walsh suggests the concept of “suddenly imposed grievances” to refer to these exceptional situations whose magnitude causes some of the individuals who experience them to organize collectively (examples include the Three Mile Island accident, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Love Canal waste dump or the Seveso disaster).

10Likewise, on the basis of examples such as the Diablo Canyon anti-nuclear movement, in which participating actors were sometimes far from the ideal-typical image of the activist (middle-class farmers and stay-at-home mothers), Jasper argues that a danger, an accident or the death of a child may “raise such a sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined toward political action, with or without the network of personal contacts involved in mobilization and process theories”. [13] As Cefaï sums up, “‘moral shocks’ create a sudden awareness of issues and lead individuals to commit to a cause”. [14] Though they are not produced mechanically, [15] these immediate outrages work on a purely affective level: “‘shock’ refers to the emotional power of these experiences. Whether the underlying image is a state of shock or an electrical shock, it implies a visceral, bodily feeling, on a par with vertigo or nausea”. [16]

11Snow et al. are responsible for the latest attempt to integrate the event factor into theories of collective action. [17] At odds with some of the elaborations developed from the “moral shock” concept, the authors have tried to identify the extent of the relevance of event-related causes in collective action. They have singled out particularly mobilization-inducing categories of events, defined not by their morphological properties – their suddenness or their violence – but by the type of effects they produce on the individuals who experience them. In these contexts of what they call “quotidian disruption”, we find “quotidian disrupting accidents”, events liable to disrupt everyday routines and to break the foundations – including material ones – of everyday beliefs, to make one reconsider the natural world order. In this perspective, the victims of collective disasters are not moved by a mechanical shock related to the suddenness of the accident, but by their disposition towards restoring the quotidian order. Under the banner of this concept, Snow et al. include all situations that cause a “violation of the protective surround”, impacting areas such as the home or the family, culturally defined as private spaces, and which are normally safe from external threats. For instance, the bereaved mothers of the US organization of road accident victims Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), as well as most NIMBY groups, seek, after a violation by an external agent, to “regain control and reconstitute their protective bubble or zone”. [18]

12The main contribution of Snow et al. consists in their effort to identify the links of the causal sequence of collective (in)action altered by the tragic event. Rather than invoking purely event-related causalities, the authors re-examine all the framing operations that usually allow collective action to happen, this time in light of the transformations brought about by quotidian disruption contexts. The main effect of these critical contexts is to reinforce the motivational framework (having good reasons to act, and especially to act collectively) without the involvement of organizations. In that sense, the event changes the perception of the costs and rewards of collective action: “When the quotidian is disrupted […] we suspect the calculus for action is reversed. Instead of movements needing to motivate individuals to overcome the risks often associated with movement participation, quotidian disruption is likely to provide sufficient motivation for participation”. [19]

13Despite their differences, these attempts at rehabilitating the role of the event come up against identical theoretical pitfalls. The recourse to the model of the event as a breaking point explains both too much and too little: too much, because whenever a mobilization is observed, an explanation based on the event can hardly be denied and reduces the entire set of disparate commitments at play to the same cause; [20] too little, because the “force of the event” interpretation does not account for situations of apathy. [21] Why do some victims, arguably the vast majority of them in fact, faced with the same tragedy, take part in no collective action? In a nuance that weakens their argument, Snow et al. concede that the same event-triggered causes do not always produce the same mobilizing effects.


“However, there are clearly instances of quotidian disruption that so weaken existing social ties and demoralize those affected, as in the case of some forced population transfers and disasters, that collective action of any kind, and particularly sustained movement activity, is unlikely. This suggests that there is a threshold beyond which quotidian disruption and collective action are likely to be negatively related.” [22]

15Beyond these shortcomings, the event-focused theories of collective action mostly suffer from a methodological issue: as they fail to sufficiently take into account the recurring motives that frame actors’ discourses in disaster contexts, they observe ruptures that the individuals under study are made to acknowledge.

When “personal” discourse becomes institutional: how the rules of the representation process are reversed

16Initially, the hypotheses of the “unattached group” and of “raw discontent” appear particularly well suited to describing victim mobilizations; at least they find some echo and some confirmation in the material collected during my fieldwork. For instance, the founding narrative offered by the leaders of the movement of victims of the AZF factory explosion includes most of the recurring features supporting the event-based interpretation of post-disaster mobilizations. Take, for instance, this official presentation of a Toulouse-based organization of disaster victims:


“This all started with a random encounter between two neighbors who, though they did not know each other, had been reduced by the same explosion to the unfortunate status of disaster victims. A few small makeshift notices taped to the plane trees of the neighborhood, inviting residents to join a public meeting on the swimming pool’s parking lot, was all it took. They came. They came with their anger, their desolation, their solitude and their Band-Aids. The initiators, standing on two chairs – wobbly, of course – tried, using a hastily recovered microphone, to get people to speak out, to amplify and organize their thoughts. Words came flowing. Lots of anger, immediate, uncontrollable anger, much like the event itself. Each participant brought their grievances and their rage to the table, their solitude and their fear. All expressed a form of anger that closely resembles despair. This strange gathering, a cross between a cour des miracles and a protest meeting, found its unity, its identity, in the unanimous and recurring demand to see justice prevail. This happened on 23 September 2001.”

18The virtually instinctive reaction to the event, the weight of violent reactions it was able to provoke, the intensity of the “shock” it produced, the urgency of the motivations to act that it elicited, etc., feature in many of our interviews with leaders of victim organizations. What status should we then attribute to these raw emotions expressed in the interviews, these tales of misfortune, detailed accounts of how the tragic events unfolded, these confessions of traumatic experiences from which collective action appears to be derived? Should we understand them as evidence of the manifestation of a “moral shock” (“Things will never be like they used to”), or are they mere byproducts of discourse? Should they form the backbone of our analysis, or should we dismiss them as a local form of stonewalling? These questions are uncomfortable ones indeed. In invoking narrative contexts, strategies of legitimization, and routinized modes of self-presentation, one might appear to be denying, be distancing it, the reality of the suffering actually experienced and expressed, to be dismissing the intense moments experienced in interviews by researcher and interviewers alike. Conversely, treating it as data, as raw expression, would mean renouncing elementary rules pertaining to the control of the material, doing away with the necessary analysis of the status of these utterances. My concern is therefore not to deny the force of the event, but to establish its place in a narrative.

19One’s experience of a personal tragedy can indeed be related, confessed, chronicled, as well as summarized, eluded, covered up or simply not told. In my corpus of interviews, there are significant and somewhat counter-intuitive variations in the way events are recounted. The usual standards of propriety, which tacitly forbid one from confiding in a stranger, appear not to apply. As Schwartz points out, “given the way the relationship between private and public sphere works in Western societies, it is unlikely that the most intimate regions of the private sphere [can] be expressed outside of a private communication, which entails secrecy and therefore the absence of a recording device”. [23] When dealing with individuals who serve as representatives of organizations, the codes of discretion are generally complemented by de-singularizing constraints: their discourse must be separated from their personal case. [24] In my fieldwork, these two pre-requisites appeared to be suspended, if not reversed. The more I sustained a close and lasting relationship with my interviewees, the more the traces of the event seemed to evaporate, to the extent that they sometimes became invisible. As I later went over my transcriptions, I noticed that I often did not know the details of the personal damage suffered by my closest interviewees. Likewise, the more I delayed the moment of the interview in the course of the study, the less the subjective account of the disaster featured. In yet another paradox, the degree of intimacy of the testimony seemed somehow heightened by the reluctances and wariness manifested by the interviewee when I initially got in touch with him or her. An AZF factory technician, for instance, proved reluctant to meet with a sociologist because he included me in the professional groups that most oppose the chemical industry (journalists and teachers). When he eventually halfheartedly agreed to an interview, he avoided making any comments on subjects that had become locally problematic (the working conditions at the factory denounced in the judicial investigation, the unions’ actions that received bad press, the agreement between the workers and the management stigmatized in mobilizations of opponents), and systematically turned the conversation towards his subjective account of the disaster.

20The place of the confession in the chronology of interaction is also a factor, since generally it is a spontaneous preamble from the interviewee as opposed to a “truth” painstakingly dug up by the interviewer and the culmination of a trust-building process. Interviewees invested with a mandate – particularly presidents of nationally recognized organizations – who were most familiar and at ease with speaking publicly, were also those who recounted the irruption of the disaster in their personal lives at the earliest point in the discussion: in such cases, I witnessed a virtually seamless blend of the personal and the institutional, where intimate spheres of experiences become the most official. For instance, a leader of a major group of air disaster victims, also a director of research in biology, immediately renounced the usual distance involved in interlocution:


“Stéphane. Let’s use the ‘tu’ form, because you know, we’re going to talk about things that are so personal that I can’t call you ‘Monsieur’, even if I don’t know you.” [25]

22Before I had the time to ask even one question, he launched into a disjointed account of the accident that left him bereaved thirty years before, which lasted nearly an hour:


“Listen, I have to warn you about something. It’s not the first time that I’ve talked about my experience, my life; quite the opposite, actually. Ever since this accident happened, when I meet someone new, I tend to begin with that. Sooner or later, I bring it up, because I find it turned my life around to such an extent that… I don’t feel like I have to, but it comes naturally because it’s part of me and I want people to take that into account when they consider me, too. I’ve had many opportunities to talk about it… it’s not the first time… I’ve been working on all this for a few years. But despite that, there are times I get emotional, so please forgive me if sometimes…”. [26]

24In such cases, private outrage is expressed as a public convention; a confession without a confessor, maieutics without obstetrics, an anamnesis that sometimes turns into a soliloquy. This does not mean that what is said is “conventional” – artificial, factitious or strategic – but merely that it isn’t judged as improper, or rather that it is considered normal to say it publicly, resulting in a form of anonymization of personal testimonies.

The market for testimonies and the circulation of trauma narratives

25This discourse on the traumatic event must in fact be understood within the context of its utterance and related to the norms which frame it. First, it is worth pointing out that organization leaders have learnt it via repeated media interviews, and sometimes in autobiographical writings (a distinctive form of publicization of causes), and, for ordinary victims, by attending emergency unit meetings, expert assessments, and psychological consultations as well as relating their stories in the media. Indeed, intimate accounts of tragic events in cases of collective accidents are now the object of well-oiled machinery. Since the opening of emergency psychological support (“SAMU Psy”) services in all French departéments in 1997, the recourse to such units has become a routine instrument of public communication in a crisis setting. They now rank among the ordinary techniques of demonstration of political power in disaster situations where the effectiveness of such power has become problematic. In Toulouse, following the AZF factory explosion, more than 450 therapists were called up by the mayor to work in impacted areas. This diffusion of a psychological problematization of the disaster is also supported by the private and humanitarian emergency aid markets. While each national charity organization (the Red Cross, Secours catholique, Médecins du monde) employs its own staff of clinicians, numerous employers (EDF, Sanofi, Total, DDE) also delegate assistance to workers to outside service providers, which either set up call centers to listen to employees’ grievances or organize support groups and individual consultations. Lastly, a specificity of this market of trauma narratives is that it has been sustained by public health services, private organizations, unions and groups of victims alike. Remarkably, “traumatic shock” is one of the few psychological categories which interpret distress to have been claimed by those who suffer from it. Both in France and in the US, social movements – such as SOS-Attentats – have directly contributed to the elaboration and the sanctioning of the psychological trauma diagnosis. [27] Since then, trauma has been part of the discursive toolbox regularly used by victim organizations to federate groups in construction, which are not cemented by any shared history.

26At the intersection of these initiatives, a particularly dense network for the diffusion of patterns of formalization of the traumatic event was developed; the language of psychological trauma was the subject of large-scale public campaigns through information notices distributed within the neighborhoods or posters taped to staircase walls (sometimes translated in Arabic). Of course, this narrative outline can be refused, [28] distorted (for example in the AZF factory, when the trauma framework was applied to the fact that the factory was ordered to close as opposed to the explosion itself) or used strategically (when a disaster victim and activist explains that “the trauma money was a recompense for my activism in the union”). [29] Yet, insofar as conformity with the trauma narrative becomes a condition for collective recognition and for the individual allocation of resources (most AZF victims were compensated on the basis of the “trauma” they suffered), the appropriate arguments can be more or less faithfully reproduced – it is impossible to say whether this is because the narrative matches individual experiences or because prescribed narrative patterns have been internalized. A member of an organization of victims of the AZF explosion explains that residents in her neighborhood subscribe to a narrative of the event systematically described as a “shock”:


“People know how to present things. […] If you weren’t injured, you talk about a ‘shock’. […] People from those neighborhoods are not going tell you about ‘moral prejudice’. They don’t know what that is, you have to have thought about the problem a little to claim a moral prejudice, it’s an abstract thing, so they tell you, ‘yes, the shock, we’re very shocked’. So they know what ‘shock’ is. One of them went to the expert assessment, he saw that they were talking about that, so he started saying it, and then the neighbor started too.” [30]

28I witnessed another similarly revealing episode. A representative of an organization, a tough character and not prone to intimate confessions in her everyday activist work, surprised me when, standing outside the organization’s headquarters, she gave a TV reporter a “tailor-made” testimony, in the sense that her account, focused on her recollection of the blast, ended with a muffled sob. Her daughter, who witnessed the interview, smiled as she told me “She knows how it’s done”. While there is no reason to question the sincerity of her tears, we are compelled to observe that the interaction works chiefly because a savoir-faire, a pre-reflexive practical sense, is at work, mindful of the variability of the boundaries between public and private, which differ from ordinary contexts. The façade she puts on in her work as receptionist – removing herself from her personal case – crumbles, or more precisely shifts, and gets replaced by another one, which is just as sincere and just as calculated.

29Thus, the sociologist ends up – often in spite of himself – being part of a broader network which solicits intimate accounts of the tragic event and impacts the nature of the words recorded. [31] I became a part of a saturated market of disaster narratives, which other actors – including journalists and psychologists – had already shaped and regulated before I stepped in. Admittedly, my choice to present my research as a “political science” study was sometimes very valuable in avoiding common misconceptions concerning sociology and psychology (the first of which is not well understood as a discipline and the second has become familiar within the context of disaster) and to put some distance between my study and the narrative patterns used in psychology (“shock” or “trauma”). But while there are “several agents in a life and several possible life stories for each agent”, [32] merely stating the object of my research was enough to predefine the social role taken on by the interviewee, and to encourage the adoption of the typified trajectories and sequences that come with it. Interviewees know they are being interviewed as a victim or as a representative of a victim organization; they do not speak as the teacher, father, son of Spanish refugees, far-left activist, or resident of a working-class neighborhood that they are otherwise. Proceedings follow a predefined outline; the dialogue is shaped by an unspoken interview template, defined not by the interviewer but by the interviewee, beginning with a question that does not even need to be asked: “What happened to you on that day?”. Thus, “starting at the beginning” always entails stating the inaugural event (even though, when interviewing activists for instance, other starting points could be envisioned, such as the genealogy of their civic engagement). When, in an attempt to circumvent this narrative of the tragic event as a rupture, I tried to introduce the conversation by asking about the interviewee’s “trajectory”, he or she would equate this with talking about their trajectory as a victim.

30This hypertrophy of the event also causes uneasiness. First, I occasionally felt embarrassed because I was forced to listen to things I didn’t feel qualified to hear. During a chance encounter in the street with a sales representative I had met a few days earlier with her husband, she thanked me: “Talking to you about the explosion did him a lot of good, he never mentions it at all, that was progress for him”. A medical secretary suggested I interview her son: “I think it could be helpful for him”. Managing the interactions also proved uneasy, because as Langumier and Girard rightly point out, “the omnipresence of the disaster diverts the ethnographic interview from its usual goal: the account of the experience takes over life stories”. [33] More precisely, the mark of the event leaves traces on the discourse: some elements are superimposed or projected, while inevitably others get left out or overshadowed. In such a framework, asking questions about the interviewee’s pre-disaster past, which could shed some light on the rationales of victim engagement using the classic criteria of the sociology of mobilizations, becomes problematic, inappropriate or simply appears irrelevant. During the interview, professional trajectories, pre-existing solidarities, political affiliations and memberships in organizations become obscured and even in some cases inexpressible, since it is socially acknowledged (required) that the truth of the victims and of their mobilization is to be found entirely in the tragic event itself.

The media manufacturing of accident communities

31As we have seen, the event acts as a screen that insinuates itself in the material produced by the researcher. It also finds its way into press sources, which, due to underlying preconstructions, reinforce and give further credit to the event-focused reading of victim movements. A form of collective action that is now endowed with a degree of historicity, the victim organization is subject to inherited conventions that regulate the way in which groups and their spokespersons appear in the press. Because of these conventions, we run the risk of a confusion between the groups as they are and the group as they are presented, and therefore of underestimating the impact of the social foundation on which they are based. As a result of this, the chance encounter in unfortunate circumstances is partly a typified mode of self-presentation. Since a shared affection of circumstance forms the basis of the public identity of these movements, leaders of organizations must go through a whole process of negation of pre-existing political affinities and social attributes. “We didn’t know each other before it happened”, “we met by accident”: such statements might very well be mere observations, but when they are assumed to be required in the public discourse, they also become banners. It appears therefore necessary to check them against the effective channels of recruitment in organizations.

32Regarding the AZF factory explosion, the event and the crisis context did not actually cause the recruitment of activists to change radically. After 21 September, the most frequent variables of engagement remained operative: belonging to a community which had shared a common fate had little impact on the traditional determinants of collective action, and the event appears to have triggered very few careers in activism. Social dispositions towards engagement and previously acquired activist experience retained their influence. In effect, the population of disaster victims engaged in activism largely matches that of the multi-cause activists who have been involved in social movements in Toulouse, often for many years. Pre-formed activist networks and traditional protest organizations – radical left-wing movements (G10-Solidaires, SUD, FSU, DAL), far-left political parties (LCR, Motivé-e-s) and ecologist organizations (Amis de la terre) – contributed to shaping the activism of Toulouse disaster victims right from the outset. By importing frames of injustice inherited from their previous struggles into this mobilization, these organizations played an important part in the apportioning of blame, and offered key logistical support to the first street demonstrations which, starting on 23 September, demanded the closure of the factory and the provision of compensation to victims. Just as Frank Weed remarks regarding US road accident victims, there were more “activists who have been victimized” than “victims who have become activists”. [34] Tragic events orient where activists direct their energies, more than they trigger activist commitment.

33Yet, as a result of the contextual requirements regarding public presentation for the groups, the activist past of mobilized disaster victims tends to be overshadowed. In the context of a disaster, the relative hierarchy of resources and the entitlement to speak publicly work in different ways. Following 21 September, the media arena became more central. Ultimately, the rules and standards that apply to that arena contributed to the foregrounding of “ordinary” victims entirely defined by the tragedy. Mobilizing as a disaster victim entails giving up, at least temporarily, always partially and in any case publicly, other salient features of one’s social identity, such as political affiliation. The direct experience of the disaster, a circumstantial resource, becomes monetized and as a result ensures the newfound visibility of “ordinary” individuals (“victims”), forcing many “activists” to step back (at least in public).

34In the norms that apply to the media coverage of disasters, individual testimonies of victims defined only by the damage they have suffered play a central role. Illustrative stories consisting of emotion-tinged biographies and portraits of ordinary victims coming to grips with the extraordinary event are ubiquitous in the press. As a result, however omnipresent they may be in disaster victim movements, the actual long-term members of activist groups, those whose political and union affiliations are publicly known, are aware that the attributes associated with the role of victim in the media are likely to discredit their discourse. Multi-cause activists can admittedly also be disaster victims and attest to the damage they have suffered personally. Still, they remain publicly associated with their former engagements, to the extent that they are described in the press as “supporters” or “sympathizers” rather than “victims”. Activists from the SUD radical left-wing trade union and the LCR (a far-left political party) involved in the cause of the Toulouse victims, who had to adjust to a contextual reform of the entitlement to speak publicly, tried their best to anticipate it. Consequently, they referred journalists towards people they knew whose activism seemed to have been suddenly triggered by the explosion, anonymous individuals who soon stopped being anonymous, or were no longer entirely anonymous, but who in any case could not be suspected of having a previous political history. This trade unionist, actively involved in a victim organization, explains for instance:


“Before that, we were always asking to speak on everything, [the media] had us discuss Palestine, undocumented immigrants, unemployment, pensions… they were fed up of always seeing the same mugs. So with the explosion, they need new faces, guy who were victims, but that they’d never heard before.” [35]

36Likewise, the leader of another victim organization:


“In the organization, we’ve got people who are determined, but often constrained by a political mandate or commitment. They have been identified as political activists. The active ones, Patrick, Thibault, Catherine, they’ve all got other commitments. So somehow they had to come up with someone else. That’s why I was appropriate, so to speak, because they couldn’t pin a label on me. I think it’d be good if it could be some guy from SUD or the LCR, to say that we’re not only victims, but also hunters, fishermen, activists, stamp collectors…” [36]

38The few long-term activists who managed to retain their position as spokespersons were those for whom the damage caused by the blast was visible and unarguable enough to overshadow their former political experience and therefore fit with the media perception of the event as a rupture. For instance, a member of Lutte ouvrière (far-left political party), promoted among the leaders of the victims, ironically observes that the scar that runs from his eye to his neck “opened the door to the media” for him: “It gave me legitimacy as a real victim”. [37] With a smile, he added: “Such bad luck for them, the only injured guy on the estate was also the only activist”. The biographical information given in the national media generally neglects his past as an activist, and his surname is left out – first name and disaster-related damage prevail over party affiliation to describe him: “Jean-Michel, the wounded man from the Bellefeuille estate”. When, exceptionally, political affiliation is mentioned, always in passing, an extensive description of the personal damage suffered precedes it – here in a major national weekly:


“Nearby, in the Bellefeuille estate, close to the Mirail, Jean-Michel Godart, a teacher at the IUFM, was sitting at his desk: ‘The French window flung me out into the staircase. I got back on my feet. My face and my neck were bleeding profusely. Everyone who saw me passed out’. He was disfigured; his carotid artery was cut. He went on to lose 3 liters of blood and survived only thanks to his extraordinary composure. […] Sunday 21 October, Bellefeuille estate. Jean-Michel Godart has come home. A long scar runs across his face and neck. This Lutte ouvrière activist lives on the estate. Well, used to: his building, the most affected, was evacuated. This is a small estate; everybody knows everybody”. [38]

40Local journalists, although they are familiar with Godart from former mobilizations (he stood at the head of the list of candidates in the 1998 regional elections and regularly campaigns for undocumented immigrants), chose to leave out the dissonant biographical information, and to emphasize a shift attributed to the tragedy – as a journalist from the regional press told me:


“With Jean-Michel, it’s complicated. I don’t mind mentioning his political origins, but only up to a certain point, if it’s a political piece, for instance […] But he was physically hurt, so for us, for the media, Jean-Michel is first and foremost the guy who escaped death. It makes for a superlative story. That is his real legitimacy for most of the media. That’s what he’s here for, I guess. If I wanted to be cynical, I’d say that’s why he’s useful to the media. […] As far as I’m concerned, I know his legitimacy also comes from all the work he did before, in the name of his political engagement. He chose to live there, on that estate, he chose to build a resistance to what he thinks should be fought, before the explosion, during the explosion and after the explosion.” [39]

42This adjustment to fit the accident model happens both for individual biographies and for the self-presentation of the collective. While this interviewee ends up being stripped, partly in spite of himself, of more than twenty years of activism that inform his action in the wake of the blast, he also contributes – through his representation work after 21 September – to the production of the media prototype of the victims’ organization strictly defined by the trauma suffered. This Trotskyist activist, who originally settled in a working-class estate near the AZF factory for political reasons, spearheaded a mobilization in his HLM building [social housing] to obtain compensation for the damage done that is reminiscent of the grassroots political actions organized by the “Bellefeuille Estate Residents Committee” that he has led since 1986. Here, after two months of relative public invisibility, he anticipated media expectations by converting this Comité des résidents locally endowed with a strong social identity into a Collectif des sans-fenêtres [literally the “window-less”, a pun on the sans-papiers, aka the undocumented immigrants], a term that silences the social properties of the mobilized group and focuses only the damage suffered as a result of the event. Thanks to the wordplay, he received a remarkable surge in media attention, since the term was rapidly adopted into the common language of the AZF disaster, beyond the group it originally defined. A journalist from Le Monde for instance heralded the invention of a “new category of the socially handicapped: the ‘sans-fenêtres’”, [40] and Libération published a column on the success of “the expression ‘sans-fenêtres’, now used to refer to the collateral victims of the AZF big bang”. [41]

43The requirements of media presentation in a disaster context thus result in individual trajectories being reduced to their reaction to the event only; real groups are turned into “circumstantial groups”, “a priori solidarities” are neglected to the exclusive benefit of accident solidarities, and deep-rooted social ties disappear behind the image of a purely chance encounter. They lead to the hypostasis of a population – “AZF victims” – endowed with distinctive reactions and properties, isolated from other social groups, made up of individuals stripped of their usual attributes.

Unearthing the roots of the role of “victim”: some benefits of the ethnographic method

44To reinscribe the event within longer temporalities, to understand the status of “victim” as it relates to the roles and social affiliations of everyday life, and to “banalize” the analysis of victim activism, [42] we must therefore act, through our choice of methods, on the nature of the frames in which these victims speak and in which their words are heard. As I started studying victim organizations, I compiled an initial shortlist of significant organizations (Fédération nationale des victimes d’accidents collectifs, Association des parents d’enfants victimes, Entraide de la catastrophe des hauteurs du Sainte-Odile, Association des familles de l’incendie Édouard Pailleron). I conducted occasional, isolated interviews, outside of contexts of social relationships, and ended up with material that sometimes turned out to be disappointing, because I exposed myself to the risk of creating these “victims” that I was looking for: abstract individuals defined only by the disaster they experienced, fictive beings tailor-made by the researcher, slices of life artificially ripped from the flesh of the concrete social actor, one-dimensional protagonists (victims called to testify as victims) and one-directional trajectories (from the event – a train accident, a fire, a murder – to the mobilization).

45In order to circumvent this bias, I chose to adopt a narrower focus on a specific case – the mobilizations that followed the AZF factory explosion that occurred in Toulouse on 21 September 2001 – and to use the ethnographic method to study it.

46Staying for extended periods on a local fieldwork site allows the researcher to comprehend the actors within the various spheres that make up their social life, and at the intersection of all the roles they successively or simultaneously play. As Beaud and Pialoux remark, “from the multiple facets of the same social persona which it reveals, in moments and contexts that are always different, the regular – even intensive – practice of ‘fieldwork’ helps us break away from a monolithic vision of social worlds”. [43] Likewise, Schwartz points out the benefits of the cross-sectional ethnographic outlook which, as we go beyond the research boundaries that we constructed earlier back in the library, allows us to grasp concrete social objects as “intersecting facts”; the method “warns us against the constitution of isolated, monofunctional units”. [44] In my case, ethnographic immersion proved useful to desubstantialize the role of victim in practice. I accepted the offer to stay in the home of one of my closest interviewees (a family residing in the working-class Mirail neighborhood, whose three members worked at the headquarters of a victim organization). Being involved in household routines and leisure activities, instead of only witnessing their activities as victim-activists, was a decisive factor in shifting my outlook. Achieving a more inclusive approach to the role of “victim” was no longer a matter of principle; it was made necessary by my field research experience. Whereas initially my days were entirely devoted to discussing the AZF disaster (interviews, observation at the organization’s headquarters, transcription), the center of gravity then shifted towards other locations (the spaces of everyday life) and other topics (anecdotal conversations during family meals or parties with neighbors). The more I shared their everyday life, the more these “AZF victims” I had met during my preparatory interviews became what they had never stopped being: concrete actors, whose implication in the tragedy remained a secondary component of their social identity. In the interstices and downtimes one observes during extended immersions, the social actors’ time is no longer contracted around the explosion alone, trajectories become diluted and decentered, initially invisible biographical elements resurface. For the actors investigated in this manner, involvement in the cause of disaster victims no longer appears as a mechanical reaction to an extraordinary tragedy; it makes sense in the encounter between an opportunity for engagement born of circumstance, and the succession of positions they occupied in the neighborhood, in the local activist space, on the job market, in the household or in the family [see box below]. Likewise, in the routine of the organization’s work, relationships are no longer observed exclusively under the lens of an automatic solidarity between “AZF victims”, but rather as a continual interplay of conflicting or converging dispositions: between a medical secretary and a hospital executive, a unionized social worker and a small businessman; an LCR activist and the wife of a factory manager, etc.

47The decentered outlook one can achieve through the ethnographic method is also very valuable when venturing onto the uncomfortable territory of grief. Some of my interviewees lost a loved one in the events under study. As a social actor, the sociologist can hardly escape the aura of culturally defined uneasiness and inhibition that comes with dealing with individuals in mourning. Often in spite of the individuals the experience of death takes over the identity projected by members of victim organizations and affects the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Thus, uneasiness can manifest itself at every stage of the sociological study. One may feel uncomfortable when getting in touch with interviewees, as the utilitarian character of the request might appear indecent in light of how badly these people were hurt (in two cases, individuals I asked to interview told me that what I suggested was useless and a waste of time to them considering the magnitude of the tragedy they were going through and refused to speak to me). There is a risk of self-censorship when conducting interviews (it is difficult to cut short emotional accounts and to ask questions that might seem untoward). Lastly, one may be reluctant to resort to interpretative schemes – strategies, interests, resources, dispositions, etc. – whose objectivizing power erodes the subjective intensity of the experience of grief. The level of familiarity that can be achieved as a result of daily participation in the activities of an organization contributes to allaying these concerns: first, because the interviewee does not only speak as a victim and as someone who has lost a loved one (but also, for instance, as an activist involved in rivalries and strategies); and second, because the interviewer’s perception becomes normalized and enriched with new biographical features.

48Finally, the ethnographic method gives us an opportunity to have the actors express themselves within different frameworks and benefit from a number of what Olivier Schwartz terms “speaking settings” [situations de parole]. [45] Participant observation does not enable the recording of the “truth”, free from the biases introduced by the artificial setting of the interview. Every setting for expression (including interviews) imposes specific constraints that filter and shape the narratives produced. However, observing the same actor in different social settings – a conversation in a hallway, an interview, a commemoration, a media interview – makes it possible to evidence gaps in postures and discourses. These variations in turn suggest reassessing the place within the interpretation of mobilization granted to emotions triggered by the event: since they are expressed in different ways from one setting to another, looking at them only in terms of objective damage becomes impossible. [46] As we contrast them, these contexts of interlocution reveal the way in which role-playing constraints impact the expression of motives rather than the motives as such.

Placing victim activism within long-term social trajectories

The example of a secretary-general in one of the main organizations of Toulouse disaster victims provides an illustration of the necessity of placing victim activism within long-term social trajectories that are not reduced to the traumatic event. Raised in the well-off and politicized circles of Catalan anarcho-syndicalism, this interviewee experienced downward social mobility at a young age: it began when her parents were forced into exile under Franco’s regime and was prolonged by a series of biographical accidents, including her 20-year-long marriage to a violent man. She was a tenant in a social housing estate [HLM] next to the AZF factory at the time of the blast; she spent most of her career at the lower levels of the hospital’s hierarchy as a cleaner. This trajectory, which generated a split habitus, is thus characterized by a constant tension between a perceived social identity (belonging to a literate world) and contrasting objective properties. Since her retirement, she has aspired to rise above her social and residential circumstances, including through involvement in many organizations defending battered women and promoting popular education.
First, how this interviewee espoused the cause of the victims is explicable in light of her past experience. In her account of the day of the explosion, the fear she immediately felt and the vivid memory of her “darkest years” are intertwined. Since she wasn’t in the neighborhood on 21 September, whereas her family was less than one kilometer from the factory, she relates her sense of distress to her powerlessness to protect her children from the threat at home. This shift in perspective in relation to the AZF disaster can also be observed in the way she manipulates the language of trauma in her work as a receptionist. When she tells members to go and see the psychologists that were deployed after 21 September, she systematically advises them to “tell their story”, to mention their periods of unemployment, material misery, the isolation of the neighborhood and the repercussions of these problems on the family unit. While clinicians tend to bring their interlocutors back to their account of the explosion, the activist continuously encourages them to relate past ills and grievances. She concludes a debriefing by challenging the therapist: “I hope you’ve noticed that the trauma was already there before the explosion”.
Her experience of activism in the defense of battered women also helped her acquire forms of know-how and interpretative templates that she immediately transposed in the wake of the disaster: she is familiar with the “victim” role; she knows the resources and pitfalls it entails; she has the ability to link private tragedies to structural causalities (be it patriarchy in the case of domestic violence or capitalism where AZF is concerned); she values public testimonies and the imputation of blame by the legal system as a reparation of the injustice endured; she has a relatively explicit theory of domination mechanisms (concealment, acceptance, resignation, the inability to act and to speak out); she is both an adept public speaker and is especially well-versed in the specific form of political intervention that is the expression of personal pain linked to general demands (the interviewee emphasized her past experience of appearing on programs concerning violence against women).
Yet membership of a victims’ organization is also related to the perceived features of this type of mobilization. The social world of the victims is reputed to be a plastic one; not that social hierarchies disappear under the automatic effects of accidental solidarities, but because the illusion of a community united by the same fate (temporarily, unequally, always imperfectly) covers them up. In the first weeks of mobilization, social identities appear to be suspended, or at least silent in everyday activism, to the benefit of a circumstantial identification based on proximity to the tragedy. This is an open space, where only the reality of the personal damage suffered has room for expression; titles, mandates, statuses and professional attributes no longer apply. For an actor characterized by her constant contradiction between objective class and subjective affiliation, victim activism provides an interstice where frustrated aspirations can thrive as her effective social position is relegated to the background. In her engagement as a victim, this interviewee is able to escape the limitations which dictate the selection of her friends, as she has access to strata of society that would usually be off-limits because of her job and where she lives.
Lastly, and contrary to well-established strands of activism, where representative positions appear monopolized by long-term members, victim activism offers a breeding ground for late-blooming vocations for collective action, as a result of the media’s preference for the figure of the ordinary victim caught up in the disaster.

When traditional social identities resist the event: from the refusal to be labeled to the forced introduction of a form of action

49Lastly, the ethnographic method works “as an instrument of vigilance that warns us against the permanent temptation of reifying social groups”. [47] In this case, as I adopted a localized approach, the abstract and homogeneous group seemingly formed by the “AZF victims” burst into multiple socially pertinent units, most based on conventional social affiliations that informed post-AZF activism after 21 September: the “victims of the Papus neighborhood”, the “residents” of the Bellefeuille estate, the “AZF workers”, the “Jeambart tenants”, the “inhabitants of the rue Bernadette”, the “property owners of the Oustalous”, the Croix-de-Pierre neighborhood shopkeepers, etc. Some of these groups engaged in a process of public conversion into an accident community (by creating ad hoc organizations using disaster terminology – victimes, sinistrés, sans-fenêtres, blessés, etc.) while others continued to rely on pre-existing social identities for their mobilization. Thus, the recomposition of public identities post-21 September should not be uniformly ascribed to the “force of the disaster”. Rather, it should be analyzed as the product of different perceptions of the damage and as the effect of the unequal ability of the groups to adapt to the new frames of public legitimization imposed by the dramatic events. This is especially attested by examples where circumstantial labels only replace category-based forms of identification (profession, class, union membership, etc.) because it is felt there is no other choice.

50This is the case of the “Jeambart estate tenants’ movement”, which during 2002 worked peripherally to the main victim organizations to demand increased compensation for the damage suffered. In the petition signed by the residents of this social housing estate, social ties, local affiliation and property status took precedence over the public identities promoted after the explosion. The description of the residents as “victims of the 21 September catastrophe” was only added at a later stage, following the advice given by the leader of an organization from outside the neighborhood. This continuity in self-labeling means that the lack of discrimination in the perception of damage is perpetuated. Here, the fact that the narrative is structured around a sharp divide between pre- and post-explosion (the very same that dictates the granting of compensation by insurance companies, or the media presentation of testimonies) turns out to be problematic, because it is almost impossible to separate the damage that can be attributed to the explosion from earlier difficulties that the accident confirmed, heightened or sanctioned, rather than giving rise to them. The disaster is in effect part of a longer temporality that encompasses a progressive individual and collective decline. The sense of isolation experienced in the immediate aftermath of the explosion is reminiscent of the progressive isolation of the estate in its local environment; the material destruction of collective infrastructure is an extension of the continual degradation of living conditions due to decreasing public investments; the exodus of many tenants in the wake of the disaster reflects the demographic crisis in the neighborhoods and the successive waves of departures that affected solidarity between neighbors; the disorganization in the distribution of aid echoes the competition usually observed in the welfare market; the unsuccessful attempts to calm children’s fears weakens an already shaky educative framework, etc. As a result, there are tensions between the accident model of grievance presentation that is dominant within the local arenas of reparation, and the experience of the damage suffered by the actors. Whenever the instigators of this movement have asked the mayor for mediation, a victim organization for assistance, or the social housing administration to settle a dispute, they have systematically faced the same refusal: “You’re mixing everything up”.

51The mobilization of “AZF workers” also illustrates the diversity of the social identities that can be mobilized in a disaster context; not all of them are based on the accidental link of having been through the same traumatic experience. This professional community admittedly suffered the most damage, since 21 out of the 31 dead worked on the site and the explosion led to the definitive closure of this former industrial stronghold, which had been based in Toulouse for nearly a century. Yet, professional affiliations – being part of the workers’ group and exercising an industrial profession – proved lastingly resistant to potential new circumstantial identities, to the extent that post-21 September cleavages were publicly expressed in terms of an opposition between “workers” and “victims”. While members of victim organizations chanted the slogan Salariés, sinistrés, solidarité [“Workers, victims, solidarity”] in demonstrations, a large banner at the entrance of the AZF factory read Les salariés, solidaires des sinistrés [“Workers: solidarity with the victims”]. The signs held up during the demonstrations kept referring to “AZF workers”, while titles of media articles subscribed to the impermeability of the two groups: Salariés et victimes, toujours partagés [“Workers and victims: a continuing split”]. [48] In effect, a number of factors prevent many families of deceased AZF workers from converting to the cause of the “victims”: historical attachment to the company, inter-generational transmission of the attachment to the factory, the networks of friendship forged as part of work, gratitude for the management’s support, loyalty to an activity that was sometimes still responsible for bringing food to loved ones’ tables. They rejected offers of membership made by organizations created after the explosion and retained their allegiance to the structures of the deceased’s professional group (the factory trades unions, and the memorial organizations of former AZF workers).

52Multiple factors can be invoked to explain the endurance of this cleavage between “victims” and “workers” and the impossibility of achieving a unified accident community. First, it is of course worth mentioning the contradictory immediate material interests of the two parties, since when victim organizations asked for the definitive closure of the chemical branch of AZF, the workers demanded that activities resume and campaigned for the defense of local industry. A second point worth noting is the progressive marginalization of the professional group in the disaster area. While, until the 1980s, the workers’ estate built by the chemical company bolstered social relations between neighbors, the workers progressively left the neighborhoods surrounding the factory to buy property outside the city. Nearby residents and workers no longer share the same residential experience or the same structures. Thirdly and most importantly, we should keep in mind the often-observed obstacles to taking on the role of the “victim” when the tragic event has been ruled as a workplace accident [49] (the incorporation of confrontation to danger as a “normal” experience, professional strategies aiming at distancing workers from accident situations, [50] economic and legal hindrances to the public denunciation of industrial risk by the very persons who are subject to it, etc.).

53Yet, in order to explain the endurance of the social identities that pre-existed the explosion, invoking a never-changing professional group or an immutably virtuous and cohesive working-class culture does not suffice. The perpetuation of conventional identities is hardly more mechanical that the constitution of accident communities: it depends on a process of a posteriori reactivation and on the rekindling of “a priori solidarities”. Together with the trades unions associations, the management of the AZF factory devised an internal policy that aimed to warn against the risks of belonging to competing identifications (as “victims” or disaster victims” etc.). From the first days after the blast, factory life bloomed again on the ruins of a site that no longer hosted any production.

54Despite the progressive scarcity of work, the management set out to maintain social gatherings and materially support factory social life. A “village” was organized around a tent that was set up to house the canteen, and a row of bungalows hosted the offices of the unions, social services, and the psychologists who had been employed to deal with the situation. For nearly six months, workshop solidarities were sustained around the old, disused production lines and almost half of the workers went to work daily. The meetings held each week by the director of the factory, the general assemblies of workers, and the unions’ consultations kept a dense fabric of social relationships alive. In this closed universe, an alternative narrative of the tragedy was constructed and solidified: the factory workers were, indeed, referred to as victims, but they were first and foremost victims of the social disapproval directed at their industry rather than victims of the blast.

55Crucially, this opposition of identities that (re)appeared in the wake of the explosion can only be understood in light of the unequal adjustment of the mobilized groups to the frames for the denunciation of injustice imposed by the disaster setting. The promotion of the victimization register and the shift of the struggle towards media arenas forced factory delegates to perform on unfamiliar ground. The ease with which representatives of victims recounted individual testimonies contrasted with the reluctance and the embarrassment expressed by AZF trade unionists when faced with the same challenge. Asked to display emotion and pain in telling their story, the latter refused for nearly three months to give a single individual profile to the media, instead sticking to tried-and-tested forms of union communication – press releases or street demonstrations – that journalists see as ill-suited to the requirements of disaster coverage.


“I would have liked to do a profile on a worker that lost everything, or whose best mate died, or who spent the whole day saving his pals, because there have been heroic actions, workers that literally saved co-workers. […] That would have been really strong journalistically speaking. But nobody wanted to come forward and speak. So that was the whole problem for the journalists: you had loads of people who wanted to speak on the one hand, and nobody on the other.” [51]

57In spite of regular calls for disaster discipline (“You are disaster victims too, you have to show it to the people of Toulouse”), [52] testifying in one’s own name remained perceived by union leaders to be a betrayal of the mandate given by the workers. This reluctance to talk about themselves can be explained, as Poliak suggests, by their “dread of the conceit that is associated with it” and “awareness of belonging to a group”, as well as by suspicion towards forms of expression associated with femininity. [53] A CGT trade union delegate describes most victims’ spokespersons as pleureuses [literally “crying women”, i.e crybabies]:


“Deep down, we’re not crybabies; at least personally, I’m not like that. In the other camp, though, lots of them certainly know how to cry.” [54]

59Ultimately, the new configuration forced AZF unions to adopt the register used by the victims to express grievances, but in a very minimal and circumvented fashion. A year after the blast, they created the “Mémoire et solidarité” organization, which as an “association for the defense of victims of collective accidents”, was granted by the Ministry of Justice the right to file a civic action in a criminal proceeding. Naturally, this group did not follow the norms of this form of action. For instance, while it shared with many victim organizations the aim of keeping a memory alive, it wasn’t the memory of the accident, but rather of the workers’ history that preceded it. Yet adopting the legal status of an association of victims [55] impacts the way the members identify and introduce themselves in public. Legal professionals associated with the cause of the AZF workers encouraged factory workers to start describing themselves in terms of the circumstances, a description which came to be reappropriated.


“To the organizations, only the victims mattered. The victims were those from the outside. That’s why we were forced to say: ‘The workers are first among the victims’. You’ve got 10% dead and 100% out of a job. You know, damn if that isn’t being a victim! So, yeah, we’re the victims. Actually, the lawyer told us so: ‘You know, you can apply for accreditation as victims, you’re all victims’. He even told us that even the pensioners were victims, and it’s true, some of the old guys, they were traumatized.” [56]

To be caught up in the event, or to grasp it?

61The reaction-based reading of the genesis of victim movements relies on sources – interviews, press materials, public presentation of the organizations – through which the researcher might only see what is displayed: “victims” of the disaster as opposed to concrete actors; vocations as activists “revealed” by the accident, rather than long-term careers in activism reshaped and reoriented by the disaster; accident communities linked by the eternally shared experience of an extraordinary event, instead of deep-rooted groups that reorganize themselves and reform alliances in response to a new configuration. This article is an invitation to explore precedents even in situations that initially appear to be the realm of the “unprecedented”. Upon closer examination, the sociological laws of recruitment to activist associations remain just as effective, organizational resources and relational networks are still operational, predispositions for activism are just as influential in turning the experience of great pain into victim activism, etc. The AZF case arguably illustrates what happens in many victim mobilizations. Think, for instance, of the importance of gay and feminist movements in groups of rape or AIDS victims; [57] of confessional affinities in groups of cult victims; [58] of the role played by right-to-housing activist networks in the creation of organizations of fire or lead poisoning victims; [59] of the input from the Independence party, the Protestant church and pacifist organizations in the Polynesian movement of victims of nuclear weapons tests; [60] of the strong contribution from veterans’ networks in the coalitions of Gulf War syndrome victims; [61] of the transformation of some local trades union branches into organizations of asbestos victims; [62] of the embedding of mobilizations of oil spill victims into local networks of activism; [63] or of the multiple circles of social relationships (scouts, parents, leisure organizations) that often support temporary movements created after the violent death of a child.

62I do not, however, argue that the event does not play a role in mobilization. This would mean falling into the social science pitfall of stasis described by Bensa and Fassin:


“In our disciplines, we generally tend to show that an event isn’t one: what’s new isn’t that new, sudden occurrences are part of a historical perspective, a cultural tradition, a social rationale. Once again, we are eager to tone down the element of surprise in the event: what happens was written in the recent or remote past – the cards were already dealt.” [64]

64While I suggest that tragic events do not trigger a radical change in reasons for action (and the event does not make these reasons become “emotional”), this does not mean that I consider them to be epiphenomena. I have showed that the occurrence of a disaster alters the configuration in which collective action develops and redefines the standards to which the actors must conform. It impacts the relative hierarchy of valuable resources (temporary demonetization of political capital, promotion of the status of ordinary victim), the choice of arenas to invest (the judicial and media arenas become more salient), the codes for public speaking (the emphasis on the personal dimension of the experience breaks with the usual requirements of representative discourse), etc. It is precisely in light of these transformations that we need to study how groups reconstitute themselves (for instance, the conversion of radical left-wing organizations into “victim organizations”), the emergence of new asserted identities (“victims”, “families in mourning”) and the apparition of new activist actors (as the context favors late-blooming activist careers). Building on Dobry’s work, Lagroye made a valuable point when he suggested that “[a crisis] isn’t a rupture: it is the continuation of a system of relations under different conditions”. [65]


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    I have retraced this process in the PhD thesis on which this paper is based: Stéphane Latté, “Les ‘victimes’. La formation d’une catégorie sociale improbable et ses usages dans l’action collective”, Paris, EHESS, 2008.
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    Stéphane Latté, Richard Rechtman, “Enquête sur les usages du traumatisme psychique”, Politix, 73, 2006, 159-84.
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    Stéphane Latté, “‘Vous ne respectez pas les morts d’AZF’”. Ordonner les émotions en situation commémorative, in Sandrine Lefranc, Lilian Mathieu (eds), Mobilisations de victimes (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009), 205-20.
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    This paper draws on approximately 50 interviews conducted with leaders of victim organizations recognized at national level (Fédération nationale des victimes d’accidents collectifs, Association des parents d’enfants victimes, Fédération internationale des victimes de catastrophes aériennes, Union nationale des victimes de catastrophes) and with actors involved in the victim movement that followed the AZF chemical factory explosion in Toulouse. I conducted an ethnographic study in Toulouse over five trips between 2001 and 2005. The interviewees and the places that made it possible to identify them were anonymized.
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    James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).Online
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    However, the authors remain cautious on this point, and mention the possibility of a relative social homogeneity of recruitment in these organizations (J.-P. Vilain, C. Lemieux, “La mobilisation des victimes d’accidents collectifs…”, 148).
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    J.-P. Vilain, C. Lemieux, “La mobilisation des victimes d’accidents collectifs…”, 136.
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    According to Jasper, the mobilizing power of the event is modulated by the individuals’ biographic dispositions (which determine the symbolic resonance and the value granted to the object under threat) and by the efforts produced by mobilization entrepreneurs to channel, reorient and convert feelings of immediate anger into righteous outrage.
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    James M. Jasper, “The emotions of protest: affective and reactive emotions in and around social movements”, Sociological Forum, 13(3), 1998, 397-424 (409).Online
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    D. A. Snow et al., “Disrupting the ‘quotidian’”.
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    D. A. Snow et al., “Disrupting the ‘quotidian’”, 8.
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    D. A. Snow et al., “Disrupting the ‘quotidian’”, 17.
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    Polletta and Amenta warn us against an excessively extensive use of the “moral shock” concept: “Virtually any event or new piece of information can be called in retrospect a moral shock. So we need to ask what it is about certain events that create such anger, outrage and indignation in those exposed to them that they are driven to protest. Are some kinds of issues more likely to generate moral shocks than others? […] Specifying when moral shocks are likely to occur seems crucial. Otherwise, we risk the circularity characteristic of some political process arguments: anything that preceded protest was a political opportunity – or, here, a moral shock.” Francesca Polletta, Edwin Amenta, “Second that emotion? Lessons from once-novel concepts in social movement research”, in Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, Francesca Polletta (eds), Passionate Politics. Emotions and Social Movements (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 303-16, esp. 307-8.
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    Koopmans and Duyvendak discuss the shortcomings of the “suddenly imposed grievances” concept, which in their view “presupposes much of what we need to explain”: “labeling nuclear accidents as ‘suddenly imposed grievances’ […] may lead one to focus only on those accidents that did lead to mobilization by antinuclear activists, ignoring both the fact that many nuclear accidents have provoked little, if any, protest (or may even have remained unknown to us), and, as the Chernobyl case demonstrates, that the same accident may be a major political event in one country while provoking as little controversy as the weather report in another”. Ruud Koopmans, Jan W. Duyvendak, “The political construction of the nuclear energy issue and its impact on the mobilization of anti-nuclear movements in Western Europe”, Social Problems, 42(2), 1995, 235-51 (248).Online
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    Interview with a biologist and president of a federation of air disaster victims, March 2005.
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    On the participation of social movements in the reform of the diagnosis, see Wilbur J. Scott, “Post-traumatic stress disorder in DSM-III. A case in the politics of diagnosis and disease”, Social Problems, 37(3), 1990, 294-310; Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); S. Latté, R. Rechtmann, “Enquête sur les usages du traumatisme psychique”.
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    To wit, the case of a far-left activist who was seriously injured during the blast and who challenged the health professionals present in the room during a conference: “Emergency psychological support units were our first contact with the health authorities. Personally, I met with a lady who advised me to do some work on myself, because “anger is a bad counselor”; well, on the contrary, my view is that in such circumstances not being angry would have been abnormal, and I think rebuilding yourself requires you to be angry, and to turn this anger into a struggle, a collective struggle I would hope” (comment made during a conference organized by the French Sanitary Surveillance Institute (InVS): “Surveillance sanitaire après une catastrophe. Que nous a appris l’explosion de l’usine AZF?”, Toulouse, 20 October 2006).
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    Interview with a nurse and member of the SUD trade union, September 2004.
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    Interview with an employee and salaried receptionist in a victim organization, September 2004.
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    On these questions, see Pierre Bourdieu, “The biographical illusion”, in P. Du Gay, J. Evans, P. Redman (eds), Identity: A Reader (London: Sage, 2000), 297-303. For an attempt to situate the sociological interview within the spectrum of mechanisms involved in the “institutionalization of the self”, see Bernard Pudal, “Du biographique entre ‘science’ et ‘fiction’. Quelques remarques programmatiques”, Politix, 27, 1994, 5-24. For a similar reflection focused on disaster contexts, see Violaine Girard, Julien Langumier, “Risque et catastrophe. De l’enquête de terrain à la construction d’objet”, Genèses, 63, 2006, 128-42.Online
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    Yves Clot, “L’autre illusion biographique”, Enquête, 5, 1989, <>.
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    Interview with a social worker, founding member of a victim organization, September 2005.
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    Interview with a teacher, Lutte ouvrière activist and leader of a group of victims, September 2002.
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    L’Express, 15 November 2001.
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    Interview with a journalist working for a weekly local paper, September 2002.
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    Here, I take on board the call for the “banalization” of the analysis of victim movements formulated by Sandrine Lefranc and Lilian Mathieu (Mobilisations de victimes).
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    S. Beaud, M. Pialoux, Retour sur la condition ouvrière, 432.
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    Interview with a security officer at AZF and CGT union delegate, April 2003.
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    This status is defined by article 2-15 of the Code de procédure pénale.
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    Interview with a factory supervisor, president of the AZF-Mémoire et solidarité organization, April 2003.
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Based on a study of victim associations, this article examines the virtues and limitations of concepts such as ‘moral shock’ proposed by social movement studies for highlighting the catalytic effect of dramatic events on the onset of collective action. The author explains how the narratives of the event in terms of ‘shock’ is less dependent on emotions felt by victims than on norms imposed by the disaster frame, journalistic expectations, and the social role of victims. The ethnographic approach demonstrates how the event functions as a screen that obscures the fact that many victim groups are based on deeply rooted social identities and pre-existing organizational networks. The victims are not only the captives of the event; they also grasp it as an opportunity for collective action.

Stéphane Latté
Stéphane Latté is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haute-Alsace and a member of the SAGE research team (University of Strasbourg). In addition to his PhD dissertation, which was awarded the AFSP/Mattei Dogan award in 2009, he has published articles on the history of victim organizations (“Victim movements”, in David A. Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, Doug McAdam (eds), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013)), the sociology of emotion and the political uses of grief (“‘Vous ne respectez pas les morts d’AZF’. Ordonner les émotions en situation commémorative”, in Sandrine Lefranc, Lilian Mathieu (eds), Mobilisations de victimes (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009), 205-20), the recourse to psychology in activism (“Enquête sur les usages sociaux du traumatisme”, Politix, 73, 2006, 159-84). He has also investigated local political recruitment (“Cuisine et dépendance. Les logiques pratiques du recrutement politique”, Politix, 60, 2003, 55-81), gender equality and the construction of gender identities in municipal politics (with Catherine Achin et al., Sexes, genre et politique (Paris: Economica, 2007)). His research focuses on the social construction of the “victim” category and its uses in collective action (Université de Haute-Alsace, 16 rue de la Fonderie, 68093 Mulhouse CEDEX, France).
Translated from French by
Jean-Yves Bart
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