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About this book

The 50th anniversary of the Disaster Research Center of the University of Delaware provoked a discussion of the field’s background, its accomplishments, and its future directions. Participants representing many disciplines brought new methods to bear on perennial problems relevant to effective disaster management and policy formation. However, new concerns were raised, stemming from the fact that we live today in a globally unfolding environmental crisis every bit as pressing and worrisome as that of the 1960s when the Disaster Research center was founded. This volume brings together ideas of participants from that workshop as well as other contributors. Topics include: the history and evolution of disaster research, innovations in disaster management, disaster policy, and ethical considerations of disaster research. Readers interested in science and technology, public policy, community action, and the evolution of the social sciences will find much of interest in this collection.

Table of Contents


Introduction: The New Environmental Crisis

The genesis of this book was the 50th Anniversary Workshop and Celebration of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in 2014. In marking that milestone in the history of the center, we wanted a workshop in which participants would reflect on what is known about disaster science—much of which is owed to DRC, to its long lineage of intellectual descendants, and to their scholarly cousins in a variety of fields. We wanted to assess where that knowledge is uncertain, where new or reinforced knowledge is needed, and also to think about the state of practice. For this collection, authors were explicitly encouraged to be provocative; to be iconoclastic; to be speculative; to try as best possible to bring in new ideas or different approaches to familiar themes. In this first chapter, we consider some of today’s pressing environmental challenges and the associated research needs, moving from there to introduce the chapters and their overall contributions to this volume.
James Kendra, Scott G. Knowles, Tricia Wachtendorf

Locating Disaster Studies


Launching the DRC: Historical Context and Future Directions

This chapter describes the historical context within which the Disaster Research Center at The Ohio State University began in 1963, both what came before and major issues confronted during the early years. Future directions in disaster research are then described. Key areas for the future research agenda include both basic theoretical issues and specific areas of inquiry reflecting paradigm shifts and emergent cultural and social changes.
Thomas E. Drabek

Disaster Studies at 50: Time to Wear Bifocals?

Other writers have cataloged the many contributions to understanding and practice that disaster studies have produced over the years, many of them, and the earliest, coming from sociology. The Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware was founded in 1963 by, and is still inhabited by sociologists, but has embraced an interdisciplinary approach over time, including core and affiliated faculty from English, history, political science, civil engineering, and environmental policy). My thoughts in this essay are not confined to the DRC’s corpus of work, but ‘disaster studies’ more broadly defined below. This said, the roots of disaster studies in sociology are deep, the classic Ur-source being an unpublished PhD study of the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This disaster continues to be a source of continuing research that provide lessons for our time. My own essay will mention some of these contributions, and they are truly something to celebrate; however, the central theme I will emphasize is what has been missed and could be added to the research agenda over the next decade or so. I employ an optical metaphor that has as much to do with philosophy of science (‘vision’ and Mao’s famous question, ‘Where do ideas come from?’) as it does with optics, optometry and the detailed application of methods at micro and macro scale. The lens is a remarkable human invention. Glass shaped and polished in one way opened up the microscopic world. Treated in another, the lens gave us the telescope. I will argue that politics – the creation, use and maintenance of power to influence other people and to control space and resources – has been a largely missing raw material, like glass, from which disaster studies could shape lenses for its own tools of inquiry. Consideration of power has not been totally missing. Yet lenses fashioned from an understanding of power have not been used sufficiently in a number of critical areas of research.
Ben Wisner

Confronting the Second Environmental Crisis


The Silence Before the Storm: Advocacy Groups’ Current Perceptions of Future Climate Vulnerability

Numerous organizations and institutions have traditionally represented, advocated for, or served those U.S. populations that are identified as vulnerable to environmental hazards and emergencies. However, we know little about how these organizations currently perceive or are acting on these threats to their constituent communities—in particular, the threats from hazards associated with climate change’s effects. This chapter documents the organizations’ current climate adaptation strategies and activities on behalf of these populations if any, and describes key themes regarding the contexts and challenges, surrounding the current state as well as the opportunities for possible future action.
Structured interviews were held with representatives from a wide pool of organizational types, from local environmental justice groups to national civil rights and environmental advocacy institutions. Responses corroborated the study’s primary finding from policy and document reviews: the groups’ current advocacy or programming related to climate change is generally nascent and, on the whole, does not extend beyond the identification of general vulnerabilities.
The silence, however, is not intentional. External and contextual barriers continue to hinder many organizations: the current national policy direction is focused almost exclusively on climate mitigation strategies over adaptation planning and action, and on equity in disaster recovery rather than in disaster mitigation and preparedness. Internal institutional barriers persist as well, such as resource constraints, gaps in technical capacity, and the lack of a demographically diverse staff that is attuned to the concerns within the vulnerable communities in question. Local groups also struggle with the task of messaging climate change in communities that face a broad array of intersecting social, economic, and environmental challenges.
To overcome these barriers, the author suggests policy and funding instruments that expand the technical and resource capacity of local organizations like environmental justice groups to better serve their vulnerable constituents’ adaptation needs. However, the investment must produce actionable programming tied to the goals of current environmental and emergency management policy and to achievable community outcomes beyond solely identifying vulnerabilities.
Carlos Eduardo Martín

Beautiful and Safe Landscapes for Sustainable Disaster Risk Reduction

Landscapes are not merely physical resources to be catalogued and managed but are “places with a story, which people take care of and with whom they develop a sense of belonging” (Williams and Patterson, Soc Nat Resour 9:507–521, 1996). Efforts to transform environments to reduce disaster risk, if not integrated with the stories and social and emotional conditions of the community at risk, may face opposition, apathy, or lack of political or financial support. At the same time, in this period of dramatic climate change and increasing disaster risks, efforts to produce only comfortable and beautiful landscapes may create potentially dangerous ones. Drawing on studies, land use planning projects, and risk reduction efforts in Norway, the US, the Netherlands, Italy, Hong Kong, and Chile, this essay argues that integrating environmental aesthetics principles, nature conservation, ecologically oriented landscape design, and disaster risk reduction can help communities create and maintain sustainable, safe, and ecologically healthy environments.
Fausto Marincioni, Cristina Casareale, Kenneth Byrne

Mobilizing Communities to Confront Global Challenges: A Phronetic Inquiry

Communities across the globe face myriad and interacting socio-economic and environmental challenges. This chapter evaluates a citizen-led, community-scale response to these challenges offered by the Transition Movement. Phronetic inquiry is used as an analytic framework to answer four value-rational questions posed: Where are we going? Is this desirable? What should be done? Who gains and who loses? The analysis points to the strengths and potential of the Transition Movement for mobilizing a community-scale response to global hazards, but it also highlights possible shortcomings, especially for who gains and loses because anecdotal evidence suggest that Transitioning communities are predominately White, educated, upper-middle class. The chapter empirically tests these anecdotes and finds that Transition host communities in the United States are indeed generally better educated and less racially and ethnically diverse than American communities on average. There is less evidence for an upper-middle-class nature of the Movement in the United States.
Philip Barnes, Andrea Sarzynski

Sleepwalking into Disaster? Understanding Coping in the Broader Field of Mental Barriers. Examples from the Norwegian Arctic in the Face of Climate Change

Despite being one of the most urgent societal tasks of the twenty-first century, public engagement with climate change remains low. Mounting research illustrates, however, that there is a significant and growing number of local citizens who are informed about climate change, appraise it as a current, visible, local and personal threat, and express concern – but they fail to act. What prevents them from translating their concern into more widespread and proactive coping action? Structural barriers such as a lack of financial capital and outdated policies are a necessary but insufficient explanation. New perspectives are needed that integrate the role of mental barriers and insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience into climate adaptation debates and nudge thinking in new directions. Against this background, the present chapter firstly seeks to advance the discourse on coping by discussing (Lazarus and Folkman’s, Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer, New York, 1984) prominent schematization of coping, appraisal and emotion from psychology. Key conceptual aspects are highlighted that help to explain the prevailing dissonance between concern and appropriate climate action. Secondly, based on these outlines and underpinned by my own empirical data on Arctic change in Norway, examples of coping in the broader field of mental barriers and their crucial relevance for practice are illustrated. The aim is to demonstrate the necessity and benefits for intellectual and policy systems of considering intrapsychic processes in climate adaptation. In this regard, selected policy considerations are discussed to indicate the possible scope of action and policy designs.
Anna Lena Bercht

Growing the Constituency: A Twenty-First Century Challenge

Interest groups that have hitherto shaped disaster policies are too small, too limited in scope and too impermanent to effect meaningful long term improvements. A major expansion of public involvement is called for. This chapter identifies three progressively larger groups that are differentially affected by disasters – the permanent, fluctuating and latent constituencies. Each of these has the potential to grow in different ways that, collaboratively, can create a revitalized basis for action capable of addressing the challenges that lie ahead.
James K. Mitchell

The Role of Landscape Experience in Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation. Is It a Strategy for Democratizing Resilience?

According to Beck’s “risk society” theory, local and global dynamics are interconnected, each contributing to frame new social, environmental and political risks in future scenarios. In this context, actors on the local scale have an active role in the production of changes and they are also extremely sensitive to the consequences of global phenomena (Wilbanks and Kates, Clim Change 43(3):601–628, 1999). Thus, as Wilbanks and Kates state (Clim Change 43(3):601–628, 1999), the study of global dynamics would present relevant benefits from giving more emphasis to the bottom-up perspectives and to the scale analysis. A bottom-up approach of place interpretation is here presented as a potential inclusive and democratizing approach. In particular, this chapter argues for a democratization of resilience policies, adopting landscape experience.
Sara Bonati

Old Problems with New Solutions


Building Disaster Resilience on the Edge of Chaos: A Systems Critique on Mechanistic Global Disaster Reduction Policies, Frameworks and Models

Since the dawn of the renaissance scientific inquiry has been guided by a mechanistic view of the world. Accordingly, the understanding of scientific theories, natural environments and human interactions under this paradigm has always aimed to simplify complex ideas as a means to facilitate greater understanding and innovation. Although this paradigm has undoubtedly served humanity well, there is an increasing realisation that a mechanistic view of the world does not provide a complete understanding of phenomena that are subject to dynamic change. This is especially true of human-environmental systems such as disaster resilience that are constantly altered through their mutual interaction between humans and their specific disaster risk contexts. This chapter argues that in spite of this reality, the mechanistic paradigm, and the linear reasoning associated with it, still dominates the theories and policies aimed at understanding and building disaster resilience and reducing disaster risks. It is argued that the presence of this type of reasoning places a lesser importance on understanding contextually specific variables and their effect on resilience profiles as well as the dynamic interaction that subsume disaster resilience. This often leads to very shallow and oversimplified understandings of disaster resilience.
Christo Coetzee, Dewald van Niekerk, Leandri Kruger

Services Not Required? Assessing the Need for ‘Coordination Agencies’ During Disaster Response

In the 1950s, North American disaster research, then encapsulated within sociology, identified the lack of interorganizational coordination as a fundamental barrier to effective disaster response. Consequently, the idea of a public agency tasked with coordinating those organizations engaged in disaster response emerged. Disaster research has since grown into a multidisciplinary endeavor that has largely affirmed the importance of some type of coordinating agency during the response phase. Jurisdictions across the United States and Canada have paralleled this academic concern by including some type of disaster response coordinating agency within their bureaucracies. However, the need for coordination agencies expressed in the literature and their prominence in actual bureaucracies does not by themselves mean that coordination agencies perform a fundamental function during disaster response. Some form of hypothesis testing where the impact of coordination agencies is the main object of study is required. Yet no extensive review of disaster case studies and response frameworks has been pursued with the explicit goal of assessing the efficacy of coordination agencies in actual disaster responses. This chapter provides – to the author’s knowledge – the first such review, where the different disciplines engaged in disaster research are kept in mind. It is shown that a discrepancy exists in the disaster literature between the ‘conceptual frameworks’ of ideal disaster response and the case studies of actual disaster events; unlike the assumption of the frameworks, the case studies demonstrate that the assumed importance of coordination agencies is unfounded.
Johanu Botha

Categories of Success: How Do We Make Who Listen?

Definitions of risk vary widely from person to person and from group to group. How then can disaster researchers prescribe effective actions and relevant information sources for all who seek to avert risk and disaster? Traditional strategies for matching particular “types of people” and/or “types of groups” to information they might find relevant to themselves have included, but are not limited to age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. This chapter challenges the traditional group categories used to assess who will find what information relevant, the manner in which information is presented, and the places the information can be found by those seeking it. We propose that the four cultures presented by social anthropologist Mary Douglas can not only shed light on the failures to deliver salient information on averting risk and disaster to those who seek such information, but also help shape (1) which information is pertinent to whom, (2) how the information can be shaped to prompt action, and (3) where to post such information so that it reaches those who are interested. These four cultures are described as “Hierarchist,” “Individualist,” “Fatalist,” and “Egalitarian.”
Rachel Dowty Beech, William Wallace

The Emergency Manager as Risk Manager

Emergency management as an institution has grown in size and scope in recent decades, but has this emergent profession brought better public decisions about managing hazards and risks? The evidence is mixed because though emergency managers have acted wisely and heroically, they are subject to institutional constraints as well as the same decision biases and barriers that affect other experts and professionals. We propose that emergency management can be improved and hazard vulnerability lessened more readily through better decision processes than through the traditional approach of incremental improvements in the quality of information. The current fascination with “big data” focuses on more and better information, but emergency and hazards managers should ensure that they use the data they already have access to well.
Patrick S. Roberts, Kris Wernstedt, Joseph Arvai, Kelly Redmond

Disaster Response as Secondary Hazard

Disaster responses are not always positive experiences for those affected. They can be seen as a separate, if related, event; a secondary hazard following the earthquake, flood, or drought. Existing literature argues that different types of disasters can have different effects on community recovery, with natural disasters triggering a therapeutic reaction in communities while technological contamination tends to have a disruptive effect. External response and recovery programs – led by NGOs, by international agencies like the UN, or by the government – can demonstrate the same characteristics described in human-produced disasters, and lead to the same fragmentation of communities. Like technological disasters, responses produce uncertainty: Who controls aid resources, and what is the best way to access them? Where and how will it be permitted to rebuild? What are the long-term consequences of participating in one aid program as opposed to another? When people believe that the government has the responsibility and ability to perfectly execute a robust, seamless response, anything less than that becomes a disaster: something that was done to them. This is complicated by the fact that domestic governments are chary of standard indicators for response successes. Without any way to define a “good” or an “adequate” response (bad responses are usually self-evident), communities fracture over their interpretations of what is lacking and whose fault it is. Responding to disasters is a humanitarian imperative, but where and to what degree that responsibility is held is not self-evident. Governments need to clarify their goals as well as their limitations.
Malka Older

Compromise and Action: Tactics for Doing Ethical Research in Disaster Zones

Research methodologies across disciplines are often based on hands-off observation for short-term research projects. Yet in active disaster zones, the imperative to do no harm has less meaning, since harm is already ubiquitous, and the imperative becomes to do good. In this case, a hands-off approach is unethical. This is true whether disasters are “fast,” such as when tornadoes move through rural communities, or “slow,” such as when food sources are contaminated. This chapter responds to a call from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to “make and do politics,” to reconsider research methodologies and ethics that “explore the full spectrum of problem definitions and suggested responses” in a world increasingly characterized by disasters (Castree 2014: 474). The problem is how to do actionable research when disaster researchers find themselves faced with dilemmas that challenge the institutional norms for ethical conduct and production of sound science. Based on two cases of fieldwork conducted in disaster zones, we argue that research is necessarily “compromised” when it remains faithful to doing good and making change in disaster zones. We extend anthropologist Charles Hale’s framework of “activist research” and the “contradictory and partly compromised path [researchers take] toward their political goals” in action-based research (2006). Our chapter offers a framework for thinking through tactics in this high stakes research contexts. We conclude by suggesting that doing practitioner-oriented, action-oriented research is always “compromised” research, even as these tactics are simultaneously the very condition for doing ethical research that matters to disaster survivors on the ground.
Jennifer Henderson, Max Liboiron

Ethics in Disaster Research: A New Declaration

The opening chapter in this volume portrayed the growing urgency of disaster research, as the nature and scope of hazards shift. People already familiar with their local environment may find that a changing climate changes their risk for certain kinds of hazards (Relf, G., Kendra, J. M., Schwartz, R. M., Leathers, D. J., & Levia, D. F. (2015). Slushflows: Science and planning considerations for an expanding hazard. Natural Hazards, 78(1), 333–354). People moving from place to place in search of better jobs or housing may move into a hazard milieu that is new to them. Political transformations with an authoritarian bent will probably increase vulnerability amongst populations already at greater risk for experiencing a disaster and for recovering more slowly, such as those in poor housing, those with chronic illnesses, and those with Functional and Access Needs. Robust research is needed, but some critics have emerged to challenge the practice and propriety of disaster research, especially quick-response research. This chapter argues for an affirmative right to conduct research.
James Kendra, Sarah Gregory

A Case for the Grand Challenge of Disaster Science

This work calls for the development of the field of disaster science. Specifically, it calls on those in the disaster research community to develop a grand vision for the field. This vision could include assembling the various disciplines that study disasters; examining large scale community and society disruption, dissembling, and destruction; and concerning itself with the social, technical, and environmental phenomenon that pertain to the causes and recognition of, as well as the reaction and adjustment to, various stages of that process. Incremental aspects of this effort already represent much of the actual work of interdisciplinary disaster researchers. The author provides an argument for why a rethinking of the field is important.
Tricia Wachtendorf
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