The Bridge to Gretna: Three Faces of a Case

James A. Throgmorton. 2008. Planning Theory & Practice 9, 2 (June): 187-208.

This paper explores diverse ways in which social scientists help to construct the meaning of particular events (or cases). It does so by focusing on an incident that occurred on the bridge to Gretna when a group of New Orleanians tried to escape their flooded city in August 2005. After scrutinizing three ways (the Scientist’s, the Technician’s, and the Phroneticist’s) in which social scientists and others typically try to make sense out of particular cases, the paper suggests that the meaning of an event depends most crucially on how diverse stories and arguments about the event interact within place-based webs of relationships. Recognizing the crucial role that circulating stories play, social scientists could combine social scientific and humanities-based skills to generate “superior stories” that can transform understandings and facilitate better collective action. This would involve subjecting individual stories to a close reading, juxtaposing stories against one another, and linking the stories to key contextual features. Doing so in the case of the Gretna Bridge incident reveals five important contextual features that forced New Orleanians to undergo a “trial by space”: the contestable meaning of “racism”, the national news media’s role in exacerbating fears, the emotional truth of factually suspect claims, the hyper-segregated pattern of residence in the New Orleans city-region, and the relationship between fear and the imprisonment of young black men.
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