Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Conversations from the Coalface: Positive Asymmetry and the Culture of Silence that Surrounds the Pike River Mine Tragedy

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posted on 2021-12-07, 10:33 authored by Mulholland, Catriana

Charles Perrow (1999) once famously noted ‘Where body counting replaces social and cultural values and excludes us from participating in decisions about the risks that a few have decided the many cannot do without, the issue is not risk, but power.’ This dissertation explores positive asymmetry (Cerulo 2006) and the culture of silence that surrounds Pike River Mine disaster that killed 29 men on the West Coast of Aotearoa/New Zealand on 19 November 2010. This asymmetry involves habitual ways of thinking and behaving which increase the propensity to ignore an approaching worst case scenario in order to meet intended outcomes. Increasingly lauded in ‘get rich quick’ cultures, positive asymmetry can be lethal in mining and other hazardous workplaces where there is pressure to meet demands of the market that override pre-existing flaws in systems and culture, and it is often accompanied by practices of eclipsing (acts of banishing, physical seclusion, shunning) clouding (impressionism, shadowing) and recasting (rhetorical, prescriptive behaviours).  There is a culture of silence that accompanies this cognitive symmetry in relation to the case of Pike River Mine which existed from its early development and continues years after the fatalities in a culture of socially organised denial; which is one in which there is a collective distancing among individuals due to norms of emotion, conversation and attention (Norgaard 2011). What happened at Pike River Mine was not the result of an attention deficit model. There was plenty of information. The mine had some good safety systems. They were not utilised. So what was going on?  In this thesis, I look to the James Reason Model of Accident Causation used before the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster and argue that although this does well to describe risk and to illustrate accident causation as a failure of organizational systems, it cannot as a structural model possibly describe the cultural logic and power dynamics which lay beneath the competition driving decision-makers within these systems. Pike River Mine was a case of deliberate risk and hibernating beneath that risk was (and still can be) a base of unchecked power. It follows that any ‘errortolerant’ systems we design for safer workplaces will only work insofar as there is an ‘error-intolerant culture’ inside the industry. Pike River Mine was not an isolated incident and if we fail to look to the power that lay behind that deliberate risk taking, there will be more ‘Pikes’ to come. There exists a triple helix to this tragedy consisting of power, risk and asymmetry. In practising vigilance, we need to look to the junction of these three, for therein lies the perfect storm of conditions for future human tragedy and financial disaster in whichever industry chooses to practice it.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Social Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Grey, Sandra; Snyder, Benjamin