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Sociology, Disasters and Emergency Management: History, Contributions, and Future Agenda

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Sociology, Disasters and Emergency Management:

History, Contributions, and Future Agenda*

Thomas E. Drabek, Ph.D.

John Evans Professor, Emeritus

Department of Sociology and Criminology

University of Denver

Denver, CO 80208-2948

This chapter will summarize the contributions of sociologists to the study of disasters and the profession of emergency management. While some non-U.S.A. references will be made, most of the analysis will be limited to studies conducted within the U.S.A. by American scholars. The essay is divided into five sections: 1) history, including key literature reviews, definitions and issues of controversy; 2) major contributions to the knowledge base; 3) key points of overlap with other disciplines; 4) recommendations for emergency managers; and 5) future research agenda.

*Chapter to appear in Disciplines, Disasters and Emergency Management: The Convergence and Divergence of Concepts, Issues and Trends in the Research Literature edited by David A. McEntire, Emmitsburg, Maryland: Emergency Management Institute, Federal Emergency Management Agency (anticipated 2005). I wish to thank Ruth A. Drabek for her assistance in the preparation of this chapter.

Disasters have long been objects of study by sociologists. Indeed, prior to the 1980s the research literature was dominated by sociologically oriented analyses, followed by that of social geographers, e.g., Burton, Kates and White (1993). Given this rich and expansive legacy, this chapter will be limited to highlights, not detail. Readers desiring

additional depth are advised to review the works referenced throughout. It should be noted that many important sociological contributions have been made by scholars researching disasters that occurred outside the U.S.A. Some of special importance are noted in this chapter, but most are not. The chapter is divided into five sections: 1) history, including key literature reviews, definitions and issues of controversy; 2) major contributions to the knowledge base; 3) key points of overlap with other disciplines; 4) recommendations for emergency managers; and 5) future research agenda.


While there are many definitions of sociology, most would agree that the focus of the discipline is the study of human interaction. Hence, when disaster strikes, sociologists have asked, “how do humans respond?” From the outset, starting with Prince’s (1920) initial study of the collision of two ships in the Halifax harbor (December 6, 1917), this has been the key question that defined the sociological research agenda. The fundamental epistemological assumption was that while all disaster events were unique historic episodes, comparative analyses could identify elements of commonality, i.e., modal patterns of behavior. Literature reviews have summarized studies of individuals and their social units, ranging from families, to organizations to communities, e.g., Barton 1969; Dynes 1970; Quarantelli and Dynes 1977; Kreps 1984; Drabek 1986). More recently, under the auspices of the FEMA Higher Education Project, Drabek (1996b, 2004) prepared detailed literature summaries for instructors of courses focused on the social dimensions of disaster. Collectively, these numerous synthesizing statements integrate the research conclusions from hundreds of post-disaster field studies. While preparedness and mitigation activities have been studied, the total aggregate of such inquires, like those examining “root causes” of disaster, pale in comparison to the number of post-event assessments (e.g., preparedness studies include Quarantelli 1984; mitigation studies include Drabek et al. 1983; for assessments of “root causes” see Enarson et al. 2003).

Sociologists have argued that disasters may expose the key values and structures that define communities and the societies they comprise. Social factors that encourage both stability and change may thereby be documented. Thus, both core behavior patterns and the social factors that constrain them may be illuminated by the study of disaster. And while cultural differences may be associated with substantial variations in response, cultural similarities have been documented by those comparing the U.S.A. profile to responses by the British (e.g., Parker 2000), Australians (e.g., Britton and Clapham 1991) and others (e.g., Parr on New Zealand, 1997-1998 Domborsky and Schorr on Germany, 1986). In contrast, results from the former Soviet Union (Portiriev 1998b), Japan (Yamamoto and Quarantelli 1982), Italy (Quarantelli and Pelanda 1989) and elsewhere (e.g., Bates and Peacock 1992; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 1999) have documented the role of culture in pattern variation.

Typically, sociologists have differentiated disasters from hazards. Following most, for example, Drabek (2004) defined these terms as follows. A disaster is “. . . an event in which a community undergoes severe such losses to persons and/or property that the resources available within the community are severely taxed.” (Drabek 2004, Student Handout 2-1, p. 1). This conceptualization is consistent with these proposed or implied by the earliest research teams, e.g., Fritz 1961; Dynes 1970. In contrast, a hazard is “ . . . a condition with the potential for harm to the community or environment.” (Drabek 2004, Student Handout 2-1, p. 1). For sociologists, the term disasters referred to specific events like Hurricane Jeanne (2004) whereas hazards define a class of threats like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and so on. Thus, they refer to the hurricane hazard or the tornado hazard that reflects the risk, vulnerability, or exposure confronting families, communities or societies.

Flowing from these definitions, most sociologists view emergency management as “ . . . the process by which the uncertainties that exist in potentially hazardous situations can be minimized and public safety maximized. The goal is to limit the costs of emergencies or disasters through the implementation of a series of strategies and tactics reflecting the full life cycle of disaster, i.e., preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.” (Drabek 2004, Student Handout 1-3, p. 1).

These terms have provided an important frame of reference for dozens of scholars who have sought to use the perspectives, concepts, and methods that define the broad field of sociology in their study of disaster. These applications have been nurtured by major research centers, most notably the Disaster Research Center. Since its founding at The Ohio State University in 1963, this unit has encouraged, integrated, and applied these tools to the study of disaster. After its relocation to the University of Delaware in 1985, the process of rapid arrival to disaster scenes continued. Implementation of a “quick response” funding process that was coordinated through the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado has enabled dozens of scholars to gather perishable materials. At times these quick response field visits have facilitated larger and more focused studies. Important policy insights and recommendations have been proposed to emergency management professionals following such work.

Over time, however, key issues and concerns have precipitated much debate. Among these, two are most fundamental, and clearly are pushing alternative research agenda in very different directions. These issues reflect: 1) different definitions of the term “disaster”, and 2) degree of focus on vulnerability and/or risk based paradigms.

Clearly there are basic and very real differences in viewpoints as to how the core concept of “disaster” ought to be defined. To some, like Murria (2004) the matter may best be pursued by an engineer or other non-sociologically oriented professional. So by comparing numerous dictionaries reflecting many different languages ranging from English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on, the origins and nuances of the term “disaster” can be compared. Thus, within the Romance languages such as Spanish or French, “the noun disaster has magical, astral, supernatural and religious connotations...” (p. 127). For others, like the Poles and Czechs, “ . . . the translation of the noun disaster comes from the translation of the English word of Greek origin catastrophe, i.e., catastrophe.” (p. 127). In contrast, Dutch, Japanese, Arabs and others relate the term to such concepts as “great loss,” “terrible happening,” “big accident” or other such phrases that convey misfortune (p. 127).

Others too continue to wonder what the point of the question is. And so, even as recently as 2004, statements like the following characterize the literature. “When a hazard occurs, it exposes a large accumulation of risk, unleashing unexpected levels of impacts” (Briceño 2004, p. 5). Despite the differentiations of many others continue to use the terms “disaster” and “hazard” interchangeably.

Starting with definitions that are event based, many have proposed differentiations that reflect key analytical features of disasters. Kreps and Drabek (1996) proposed that some comparative analyses could be enhanced if disasters were viewed as a special type of social problem. Four defining features of such events, among others, are: 1) length of forewarning, 2) magnitude of impact, 3) scope of impact, and 4) duration of impact (p. 133). Reacting to criticisms from social constructionists (e.g., Stallings 1995) who emphasize the social processes whereby some events or threats are collectively defined as public concerns, while others are not, Kreps and Drabek (1996) emphasized that “ . . . the essence of disaster is the conjunction of historical conditions and social definitions of physical harm and social disruption at the community or higher levels of analysis.” (p. 142; for elaborations see Kreps 1995a and 1995b).

Such a perspective has led some to propose elaborate typologies of differentiation whereby “levels” of disaster might be defined with precision. For example, by placing disaster within a framework of collective stress, Barton proposed that sources of threat (i.e., internal or external), system level impacted (i.e., family, organization, community), and other such features could differentiate natural disasters from riots, wars, revolutions and so on. More narrowly focused, Britton (1987) proposed a “continuum of collective stress” whereby classes of events could be grouped as either accidents, emergencies, or disasters (pp. 47-53). Reflective the thinking of his Russian colleagues and also the U.S.A. research base, Profiriev (1998a), proposed a typology that integrated numerous analytical criteria whereby different types of emergencies could be compared. These included such features as the “gravity of impact’s effect” (i.e., emergencies vs. disasters vs. catastrophic situations); “conflict vs. non-conflict”; “predictability”; “rapidness of spreading’ (p. 49). Most recently, Fischer (2003) has proposed a “disaster scale” that could facilitate comparative analyses by researchers and preparedness activities by practitioners (pp. 99-106). Drawing an analogy to the use of the Richter scale for easily communicating the severity of earthquakes, his ten “disaster categories” are “. . . based upon the degree of disruption and adjustment a community(s)/society experiences when we consider scale, scope and duration of time.” Thus, “disaster category 1” is comprised of “everyday emergencies”, whereas “disaster category 4” would be restricted to events of a major scale that impact small towns. Logically following them are such categories as “DC-8” (i.e., “massive large city”), DC-9 (i.e., “catastrophe”) and DC-10 (i.e., “annihilation”).

Reflecting his symbolic interactionist theoretical perspective Quarantelli (1987; 1998) has pressed scholars to retreat from frameworks focused exclusively on analytical features of crisis events or the “agents” that “cause” them. Rather, additional research questions ought to expand the agenda, e.g., what are the social processes whereby certain types of crisis situations become “legitimate” bases for social action? Why are there massive relief efforts following a tornado and yet many resist funding for programs assisting victims of the HIV-virus or famine?

Drabek (1970, 2000) has proposed that comparisons among disaster field studies could be integrated more effectively if this question was placed within a methodological framework. That is, the issue is viewed as one of “external validity.” Researchers must answer “to what can we generalize?” By using a variety of event based criteria like “length of forewarning,” he documented that the behavior of private business employees (1999), tourists (1996a) and others varied during evacuations triggered by hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. Events reflecting different criteria were responded to somewhat differently. Of course, such conclusions from a few field studies await the integrative efforts of others if disaster research is to be cumulative. And that is another reason why this key question of definition is so paramount. Implicit in the question, “What is a disaster?” is a fundamental question of strategy. That is, which approach will best permit the systematic accumulation of research findings flowing from separate disaster studies.

The second key issue confronting sociologists who are studying disasters pertains to the paradigms used. Most do not elaborate on the theoretical perspectives that might be guiding their field work although elements of functionalism, structuralism, symbolic interactionism, and other such frameworks can be identified. Many have built upon the “collective stress” framework first outlined by Barton (1969) although the nomenclature usually is modified. For example, Drabek elaborated on his “stress-strain perspective” (e.g., 1990, 1999, 2003) which had its origins in the early DRC studies (e.g., Haas and Drabek 1970, 1973). Others have pursued the insights of social constructionists and moved into research agenda that usually are ignored by those rooted within a collective stress viewpoint. For example, Stallings (1995) carefully documented the “claims-making activities” of those who have “manufactured” the earthquake threat. This same perspective permitted Jenkins (2003) to document the shifting “ownership” of terrorism, both regarding the “guilty” and the “causes” being used to justify the killing of others.

In contrast, many (e.g., Mileti 1999) have turned to environmental studies for help. By emphasizing the social desirability of “environmentally friendly” disaster mitigation policies, concepts of “sustainability”, and “risk communication”, “adoption of hazard adjustments” and others have redefined the research agenda (Mileti 1980). Community education programs are designed and evaluated throughout the implementation process so as to guide emergency managers seeking to have community based disaster mitigation programs that will encourage development that may better “live with nature” rather than against. Mileti (1999), pp. 30-35) proposed that six core principles delineated this “Sustainable Hazards Mitigation Approach”, e.g., “Maintain and, if possible, enhance environmental quality” (p. 31); “Foster local resilience to and responsibility for disasters” (p. 32); and “Adopt a consensus-building approach, starting at the local level.” (p. 34).

Finally, some have proposed a paradigm shift reflecting a focus on the concept of vulnerability (e.g., Wisner 2001). Citing such scholars as Mileti (1999) and Geis (2003), McEntire (2004) begins a recent article by stating that: “Scholars interested in disaster studies are calling for a paradigm shift.” (p. 23). Among the reasons for such a shift, are “15 tenets” that include such observations as: “We have control over vulnerability, not natural hazards” (p. 23), “Vulnerability occurs at the intersection of the physical and social environments” (p. 24); “ Variables of vulnerability exhibit distinct patterns” (p. 25). This last “tenet” was amplified significantly by Enarson et al. (2003) who designed an instructional guide for college and university professors entitled A Social Vulnerability Approach to Disasters. Building on the poignant criticisms of scholars like Hewitt (1983), this team nicely spelled out the basic elements of a social vulnerability paradigm and specified how it differs from “the dominate view” of disasters, e.g., focus on socio-economic and political factors rather than the physical processes of hazard; goal is to reduce vulnerability rather than damage. By documenting the differential and changing patterns of risk and vulnerability, long term levels injustice are highlighted. And so the “root causes” of disaster are exposed as are the policies and practices of those who benefit most by the existing social structure. Rather than accept differential exposures and losses by the politically weak, be they female, aged, or ethnic minorities, those adopting this paradigm question the status quo. They ask, “Why must the patterns of greed and financial corruption continue to perpetuate so-called disasters wherein those most vulnerable are disproportionately hurt?”

When one starts from a social vulnerability perspective, issues of disaster take on a very different look. For example, how did the attacks on the World Trade Center (2001) become defined as a “national” disaster? Oyola-Yemaiel and Wilson (2003) insightfully propose that “ . . . we do not consider the terrorist attack itself as a disaster (system failure), we believe that the generalized conception of disaster as well as how the media and the authorities responded to the event illustrates symptoms of system failure.” (p. 27) Hence, this perspective pushes researchers to examine the nature of vulnerability to terrorism in highly differentiated and interdependent societies. And in so doing, the nature of proposed solutions reflect root causes and basic societal processes that heretofore have rarely been the focus of disaster researchers. Oyola-Yemaiel and Wilson (2003), for example, offer the following.

“. . . rather than immense and impersonal business far away where the fate of the individual, the family, and the local community are in the hands of third parties, society should move forward to a social exchange that would enable local communities to have interdependence with the national system as well as independence of operation from it. At this point each community can sustain life independently outside the whole if needed. In so doing, the communities could become isolated from the threat of terrorism.” (p. 37).

This case study underscores insightful conclusions proposed by Bankoff (2003). In contrast to western cultural norms, “ . . . vulnerability has been proposed as the key to understanding a novel conceptualization of risk that attempts to break with the more causal, mechanistic attitudes that have characterized the relationship between human societies and their environments over past centuries . . .” (p. 6). Furthermore, “Social systems generate unequal exposure to risk by making some people more prone to disaster than others and that these inequalities in risk and opportunity are largely a function of the power relations operative in every society.” (p. 6) Echoing the observations of Oyola-Yemaiel and Wilson (2003), Bankoff proposed that “ . . . complexity may be just as much a source of vulnerability as it is an answer to risk.” (p. 20). Thus, “ . . . attempts to control the environment need to be replaced by approaches that emphasize ways of dealing with unexpected events, ones that stress flexibility, adaptability, resilience and capacity.” (p. 20).
Major Contributions

Beyond the integrative reviews noted above, e.g., Dynes (1970), Barton (1969) and Drabek (1986), several collections summarize substantive contributions by sociologists to the study of disaster. Detailed statements are available in the collection edited by Dynes et al. (1987) that focus on such topics as: “Disaster Preparedness and Response Among Minority Citizens” (Perry); “Human Ecology” (Faupel); “Collective Behavior” (Wenger); “Organizational Change” (Stallings); “Emergent Structures” (Drabek) and “Social Change” (Bates and Peacock). Similarly, the collection of essays prepared in honor of E.L. Quarantelli that was edited by Dynes and Tierney (1994) also presents excellent summaries of both specific studies and broad perspectives such as “An Ecological Approach to Disasters” (Bates and Pelanda); “Public Risk Communication” (Fitzpatrick and Mileti); and “Post Disaster Sheltering and Housing” (Bolin).

As the diversity and depth of these topics indicates, a summary of contributions to the knowledge base is far beyond the limited space of this essay. But four broad topics stand out when a long term view is applied: 1) disaster myths; 2) research methods; 3) theory and 4) social criticism.

Disaster Myths. Historically, the most significant contribution of sociological research on disasters has been the correction of distorted images of human response (e.g., Quarantelli 1960; Quarantelli and Dynes 1972). Images of panic, looting, and other such anti-social behavior were debunked and properly labeled as myths. That is not to claim that such forms of anti-social behavior never occur. They do. But the image of such behavior as the prevailing response is an exaggeration that simply is wrong. Both the public and emergency officials were found to support such erroneous notions (Wenger et al. 1975; Wenger et al. 1980; Fischer 1998). One of the most widely circulated documents among local emergency managers outlined these myths and the evidence that debunked them (Dynes et al. 1972). Today, many emergency management professionals point to disaster myths as the first item of substantive knowledge they associate with sociology.

Research Methods. Several excellent statements have been published that highlight unique contributions designed by sociologists studying disasters, e.g., Cisin and Clark 1962, Drabek 1970, Mileti 1987, Stallings 2002. Concerns raised by Killian (1956) in the 1950s (see the summary of his monograph in Stallings 2002, pp. 49-93) are a sharp contrast to a range of more current issues such as those pertaining to electronic media raised by Dombrowsky (2002, pp. 305-319) or the uses of geographic information systems described by Nash (2002, pp. 320-333). Following the dictum that interesting questions should be pursued and appropriate methods designed, Drabek (2002) summarized numerous studies he directed that reflected varied types of methodological innovation. Some, like the analysis of police and fire department audio recordings built on unobtrusive data that many had not thought about collecting. Other innovations ranged from the construction of an elaborate police communications simulation to devising ways to track down tourists who were victims of Hurricane Andrew, Iniki, and other disasters.

Methodological innovations continue to be made as researchers seek to improve their understanding of disaster response and impact. Homan’s (2003) recent explanation of the use of autobiography is a case illustration. Using materials at the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, she demonstrated the utility of this approach and the range of new substantive research questions it permits. For example, “The 1989 Mass-Observation Directive sought to gauge, from personal perspectives, what people thought of the role of the media in disasters and the way in which they are reported, as well as issues apportioning blame and post-disaster relief work.” (p. 64). If comparable materials were within the U.S.A. before and after the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001, important tracking of public perceptions could be available. Comparative analyses of shifts and continuities following earthquakes, hurricanes, and the like, could be most instructive in understanding the “manufacturing” processes being used by various groups within the society.

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