Gregory V. Button


GButton.jpgDr. Gregory V. Button is an environmental/medical anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He studies disasters, disaster policy, disaster recovery, oil spills, environmental health, environmental justice, crisis communication, political economy, environmental law and policy, climate change and public health. Button is a Senior Fellow and co-Director of the Center for the Study of Social Justice and is a core faculty member in the Disasters, Displacement and Human Rights (DDHR) concentration at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's Department of Anthropology. Button has researched the social complexities of both natural (hurricanes) and unnatural (oil spills) disasters for over thirty years. His years of experience and the breadth of topics he has covered has made Button a nationally recognized expert researching public health issues associated with disasters. He has conducted research on topics including the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, and the Mississippi Flood of 1993. He has made numerous TV, radio and magazine appearances including PBS, The History Channel, NPR, and National Geographic.

Research & Work

Dr. Button has a unique approach to his work that stems from his background in Journalism and Anthropology. He focuses on telling the story of people who have been affected by these disasters while at the same time looking at the bigger political and economic structures that are involved with disaster relief and policy making. Button's contributions to medical anthropology come in the way that human health is affected by the way that institutions, states, and corporations frame, withhold, distort or manage information in disaster settings. His research on the grounding of the American tanker Braer describes how a sense of distrust emerged between residents of the much affected Shetland Islands and clean-up crews. Button showed how clean-up experts withheld information about the dangers that oil dispersants posed on residents. Residents of the Shetland Islands suffered irritation to the eyes, nose and throat while others began to experience kidney and liver malfunctions. Clean-up authorities did not acknowledge the risk to humans and raised questions about the entitlement to important information in disaster settings[1]. Button also addresses how during crises, definitive scientific knowledge on health hazards can be lacking. The storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans caused a refinery tank containing 65,000 barrels of oil to spill. Residents raised concerns about clean-up, health hazards, respiratory issues and possibilities of long term cancer that scientists, at the time, could not address. As a result, residents became "disillusioned with the reliability of scientific evidence"[2] Along with his research at 3 Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez spill, Love Canal, and the Shetland Islands, Button shows how trust in scientific authority has broken down after disasters.


Button was first attracted to anthropology at the age of 8. Initially, he had a keen interest in Egyptian archaeology, but as he grew older became more interested in cultural anthropology and journalism.As an undergraduate, he wrote his honors thesis on the Santa Barbara oil spill off the California coast which influenced him to study disasters.After graduation Dr. Button began a career in journalism as a reporter and producer for public radio. He began to cover disasters, catastrophes, and environmental health issues, but decided that more nuanced analysis was required to properly understand the topic and began graduate studies in anthropology. He received his PhD. from Brandeis University in 1992 for the dissertation topic "Social Conflict and the Formation of Emergent Groups in a Technological Disaster: The Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill and the Response of Residents in the Area of Homer, Alaska". Over his career, Button has conducted over three decades of disaster research, authored a book Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe, and has been interviewed about his research by NPR, The Nation, The History Channel, National Geographic, The National Journal, Roots Magazine (published by the Washington Post) and numerous other media outlets. Dr. Button lectures widely at universities around the nation and is a frequent keynote speaker at national conferences and workshops. In 1992-93 he was a U.S. Congressional Fellow in the United States senate and wrote the only environmental justice bill to pass. Throughout his fellowship Dr. Button engaged in policy analysis, worked on issues regarding the Marine Oil Pollution Act, the Upper Midwest floods, and the Hantavirus outbreak. He continues to work as a policy advisor to federal and state agencies, NGOs, and state health departments. He is a long time collaborator with Anthony Oliver-Smith of the University of Florida and both are fixtures of disaster panels at national and international anthropology conferences.

Major Publications

Button, Gregory. 2010 Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Left Coast Press.

2009 “Family Resemblances Between Disasters and Development-Forced Displacement: Hurricane Katrina As A Case Study,” in Development and Dispossession: The Crisis of Forced Displacement and Resettlement, edited by Anthony-Oliver-Smith, School of Advanced Research Press.

2008 Button, Gregory & Anthony Oliver-Smith. “Disaster, Displacement, and Employment: Distortion of Labor Markets During Post-Katrina Reconstruction.” In, Capitalizing on Disaster, edited by Gunewardena & Schuller, Altimira Press.

2006 “Voices From the Astrodome and Beyond: Counternarrative Accounts of Disaster,” In, Learning From Catastrophe: Quick Response Research in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, Natural Hazards Center, Special Publication # 40. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder.

2005 Forced Migration as an Index of Vulnerability in Hurricane Katrina. For the 6th Open Meeting of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Research Meeting-Expert Working Group on Vulnerability, October 11-14, 2005, UNU-Bonn, Germany. Forthcoming monograph.

2002 “Popular Media Reframing of Man-Made Disasters: A Cautionary Tale,” In, Catastrophe & Culture, edited by Hoffman & Oliver-Smith, School of American Research Press.

1995 “What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You: The Public Health Response to the Shetland Islands Oil Spill,” Human Ecology, 23 (2). Button, Gregory & Kristina Peterson 2009, “Participatory Action Research: Community Partnership With Social and Physical Scientists,” In Anthropology and Climate Change, edited by Crate & Nutall. Left Coast Press.

Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Gregory Button. 2007 Disaster, Displacement And Employment: Distortion in Labor Markets in Post-Katrina Reconstruction. In, Walnut, CA: Disaster Capitalism, edited by Schuller & Nandini, Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.

Online Resources

University of Tennessee, Dr. Gregory Button website

Informational Uncertainty in the Wake of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis (article)

Radio Interview (about Disaster Culture book)

Gregory Button on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico (podcast from WUOT 91.9 FM

NPR interview

Further Reading

Hoffman, Susanna M. and Anthony Oliver-Smith, eds. 2002 Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. School of American Research.

Oliver-Smith, Anthony and Susanna M. Hoffman 1999 The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.

Oliver-Smith, Anthony 2011 The Root Causes: The Disaster Anthropology of Gregory Button. American Anthropologist. 113(4):646-648.

Discussion Board/Comments


  1. ^ Button, Gregory. (2010) Disaster Culture: knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press
  2. ^ Button, Gregory. (2010) Disaster Culture: knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press