Social Problems Perspectives, Disaster Research and Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts, Theoretical Extensions, and Policy Implications Thomas E

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Social Problems Perspectives, Disaster Research and

Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts,

Theoretical Extensions, and Policy Implications

Thomas E. Drabek

John Evans Professor, Emeritus

Department of Sociology and Criminology

University of Denver

Denver, Colorado 80208-2948

*Revision and expansion of the 2006 E.L. Quarantelli Theory Award Lecture presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York City, New York, August, 2007. (International Research Committee on Disasters, Research Committee 39, International Sociological Association). I wish to thank Ruth Ann Drabek for her work on this paper. I also want to thank Gary Kreps for his critical review of an early draft. Partial support was provided by the International Research Committee on Disasters (IRCD) and the University of Denver through the John Evans Professorship Program. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IRCD, the University of Denver, or any of the individuals acknowledged herein.


This essay explores the intellectual contexts wherein disasters are defined as non-routine social problems. The argument is advanced that this theoretical orientation can both open new doors for researchers and assist emergency management professionals in critically reviewing existing policy and future proposals. The essay is comprised of five sections: 1) introduction (how I came to this topic); 2) social problems perspectives (key insights from past and recent analyses); 3) disaster research (sampling of theoretical issues and conclusions relevant to a social problems orientation); 4) emergency management (selected policy areas and implications) and 5) conclusions (payoffs for future theory and application).

Social Problem Perspectives, Disaster Research, and Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts, Theoretical Extensions and Policy Implications

I am honored to have been selected as a recipient of the E.L. Quarantelli Theory Award and proudly accept. I want to thank Dr. Robert A. Stallings, former International Research Committee on Disasters President (2002-2006) for his role in making this happen as well as Dr. Ronald W. Perry, our current President (2006-2010).

This award only has been made twice before and I am humbled to join the prior recipients—Drs. Russell R. Dynes (University of Delaware) and Allen H. Barton (Columbia University). I have the greatest respect for both of these scholars. Russ was one of my doctoral professors. I assisted him during the founding days of the Disaster Research Center (DRC) at The Ohio State University. His classic text (Dynes 1970) reflected some of the early literature reviews I completed. Even though it was published nearly four decades ago, it remains a useful reference book for me and many others. While I never worked directly with Allen Barton, his theoretical syntheses, e.g., 1963, 1969, stimulated my curiosity and worked like light bulbs in my formative years. I continue to admire the theory building skill he brought to the disaster case studies of his day. His work helps all of us understand better how things fit together—how differing events have parallels, how key analytic qualities of social structure and collective stress reflected patterns that might reemerge in future disasters (e.g., see Barton 2005).

I am equally humbled to receive this award named after my other DRC mentor—Henry Quarantelli. His intellectual imprint was significant initially and has grown over the years as I try to keep up with his latest contributions. Through his work my thinking has been both redirected and greatly deepened. Thanks Henry—I “talk” to you more than you ever could know.

Before turning to substance, I would be remiss if I didn’t also thank the Theory Award Selection Committee, chaired by Dr. Dennis E. Wenger (Texas A & M University, U.S.A.). In addition to Wenger, the committee members were: Drs. Linda B. Bourque (University of California, School of Public Health, U.S.A.), Wolf Dombrowsky (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany), J. Kenneth Mitchell (Rutgers University, U.S.A.), Betty H. Morrow (Florida International University, U.S.A.), and Tricia Wachtendorf (University of Delaware, U.S.A.). To each, I say, “Thanks.”

Additionally, I want to thank Drs. William A. Anderson and B. Wayne Blanchard. As many of you know, both have years of experience as program directors, Anderson at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Blanchard at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Each provided intellectual and administrative guidance that permitted the successful completion of numerous funded projects that facilitated many of my publications over the years. These broadened and enriched my understanding of both the human side of disaster and the evolving profession of emergency management.

Finally, I want to publicly thank my wife, Ruth Ann Drabek who has edited and word processed all of my work for decades. More importantly, however, she has enhanced the work by being both a “friendly” critic and an unwavering source of emotional support. You see, she always let me know, that she, had faith in me.

After Bob Stallings explained to me that the E.L. Quarantelli Theory Award required that the recipient present a public lecture, I began exploring a series of possible topics. I had just finished reading the chapter by Kreps and Bosworth (2006) in the Handbook of Disaster Research (Rodríguez, Quarantelli and Dynes, 2006) and was pleased to see their long-term efforts pushed to new heights (e.g., 1993; 1994). I also was pleased to see some of my old data (e.g., Drabek et al. 1981) being used in their analysis (Kreps and Bosworth 2006, p. 304) and the basic consistencies in their logic with my assessment of strategies used by local emergency managers to guide post-disaster response networks (e.g., Drabek 2003b). Hence, I seriously considered pushing my preliminary “theoretical model of disaster response effectiveness” (Drabek 2003b, p. 149; 2005b) another step or two through this lecture opportunity.

Days later I decided that I might develop further, document better, and expand on a lecture I presented at the National Academies Natural Disaster Round Table (Drabek 2003a). There I had used the old human ecology POET model (i.e., population, organization, environment, and technology), to examine a series of national and international trends. I also specified some of the challenges and opportunities these trends present to emergency managers. There are important new linkages that need to be integrated with those observations. For example, Clarke (2006) urges us to go beyond the confines of disaster events as “abnormal” (e.g., see p. 129). Like Perrow did previously (1984), he suggests that disaster is “normal”, at least in the sense that it should not be viewed “. . . as separate from the ebb and flow of normal life.” (Clarke 2006, p. 128). That was the underlying point of my NAS social trends lecture. But while I described a variety of technological developments that were providing opportunities (e.g., implementation of computers into disaster response agencies) and challenges (e.g., network failures during responses and privacy invasions through misuse of data bases), I really had not thought through the intricacies of the ways in which heavily networked systems—one of my trends—create new levels of vulnerability. Conversely, as Perrow (2006) points out so well, decentralized systems, like some terrorists groups, can function with high reliability, remarkable efficiency, and much less vulnerability. Hence, “. . . the loosely organized Al Qaeda network has survived at least three decades of dedicated international efforts to eradicate it.” (p. 532).

So what are the implications of these observations for some emergency management officials who argue that disaster response policy should promote greater centralization and standardization among response agencies? Might not there be something to the argument advanced by Oyola-Yemaiel and Wilson (2003) that: “System complexity in and of itself could very well be modern society’s principal vulnerability to terrorism.” (p. 26). Hence, recent policy changes might best be redirected. Or as they put it: “ . . . future development should progress from the paradigm of business and resource consolidation and centralization of power to a paradigm of decentralized power and dispersed resource allocation . . .” (Oyola-Yemaiel and Wilson, 2003, p. 26).

This insight parallels Perrow’s (2007) conclusions following his in-depth analysis of our vulnerabilities resulting from natural disasters, advanced technologies, and future terrorist attacks. Despite his realistic pessimism given a variety of serious structural flaws, including Congressional failures in meaningful campaign finance reforms, increased corporate concentrations and radical policy changes implemented by the Bush administration, Perrow concluded that “. . . we have hardly began to do the most effective thing: reducing the size of the targets that inevitably will be attacked.” (Perrow 2007, p. 325).

As I thought about these ideas for a few days, I became more and more troubled. The failed response to Hurricane Katrina kept popping up. Punctuated by images I recalled seeing in television coverage, discussions with emergency management faculty (e.g., see Drabek 2007), and scanning policy reports wherein many were proposing increased roles for the military in future disaster responses and reduced emphasis on state and local governments, I kept wondering, “How did things go so wrong?” “How did FEMA once again become the favorite target of late night comics? I thought that ended after Hurricane Andrew.”

As I reflected on conversations I had over many years with the late Lacy Suiter (former Director of Emergency Management for the State of Tennessee) who worked so hard with James Lee Witt to push the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) toward levels of excellence many thought could never happen, I began to realize that my emotions paralleled those expressed by the Dixie Chicks. Maybe you know their album entitled “Taking the Long Way”. One of the songs on this album (i.e., “Not Ready To Make Nice”) (2006) contains these lines:

“I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round.”

Of course, they were dealing with a specific event that later was documented in “Shut Up And Sing.” Like thousands of others, Ruth and I were most pleased with their recognition in the 2007 Grammy Awards (Rocky Mountain News, February 12, 2007, pp. 10-11). But the anger expressed in their song paralleled what had been building up in me for several months. And when I tried talking with some emergency management faculty, really homeland security types, about my essay on Katrina entitled “Don’t Blame the Victims” (Drabek, 2005a), I realized that reorganizations of FEMA and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), were only the tip of the iceberg. You see, I was becoming aware of new faculty who were viewing disasters, and disaster victims from a very different perspective than mine (see Drabek 2006c). When I had a few explain to me at a conference that “we are at war” and “your kind of policy criticism really hurts the morale of our troops and encourages the terrorists”, I decided I needed to go back to some basics. I firmly believe—and always have—that social values, institutional arrangements, political structures, and such, always must be examined critically. And, those who express criticism of agency doctrine, regardless of “the agency,” must be both encouraged and protected. Yet, I was encountering some homeland security and emergency faculty who were expressing the view, “If you’re not with us, you are against us.” Period!

My last book for the FEMA Higher Education Project was a revision of an instructor guide I had prepared for college or university faculty entitled Social Dimensions of Disaster (Drabek 2004; see also Drabek 2006d). This resource required an enormous amount of time and energy from Ruth and I—it totaled 1,315 pages! But I believed that it could facilitate faculty literature reviews and the preparation of program and course materials. In this book, in a chapter entitled “History of Sociological Research on Disasters,” I included a brief section with this learning objective: “Summarize the key ideas that define disasters as social problems.” (Drabek 2004, pp. 3-11 to 3-13). This section included a recommended classroom workshop built around Kreps’s (2001) article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences which was the recommended student reading. Workshop discussion questions included these: “According to Kreps (2001), how do disasters differ from other social problems?” and “What are disaster ‘claims-making’ activities?”

Students of emergency management, like their elder practitioners, need to be encouraged to examine disaster events within a social problems context. Why? Because if they are, disasters could not be approached as simply “incidents to be managed” or incidents wherein community members would be encouraged to remain uninvolved. To quote one of the “unenlightened” emergency managers I interviewed in a prior project (Drabek 2003b), “We can handle the crisis without public interference.” Disasters could not be approached as if they had no historical context. Disasters could not be approached as if there were no other social problems within the community. And the costs of disaster mitigation, in its varied forms, could be juxtaposed against both other community needs—health insurance for the non-covered, shelter for the homeless, and so forth—and basic protections of privacy and freedom. How much erosion in civil liberties do we accept just to stay safe from future floods, hurricanes, or terrorist attacks?

In short, I am very concerned about many of the policy directions and initiatives that have occurred since President Clinton left the White House in January, 2001. So I rejected the other topics I had considered for this lecture. Instead, I decided to use this occasion to elaborate and integrate a series of theoretical connections that may help future researchers frame their agenda differently. I also hope it may assist emergency managers in developing a broader perspective on their profession.

I’ll begin by explaining why it is essential to incorporate the analysis of disasters within mainstream social problems perspectives in sociology. Such perspectives highlight both objective conditions and social definitions of human harm and social disruption. Capturing how these interrelate requires attention to mainstream social problems constructs like class, status, power, ethnicity and gender. And it requires attention to both social context and change and historical and comparative research. Second, having established the relevance of social problems perspectives, I will show that disasters are a particular form of social problems. That is, by labeling disasters as “nonroutine,” we are challenged to address the implications for both theory and public policy. When such issues are raised, basic questions of generalization of findings and taxonomy are highlighted. Finally, I will demonstrate that fundamental social science research has been largely ignored by emergency management policy makers since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Consequently, many policy shifts are being implemented that are pushing the profession of emergency management in directions that have been and will continue to be both ineffective and inefficient. To put it bluntly: our nation has been going in the wrong direction since the attacks on 9-11.

Social Problems Perspectives: Past and Present

Following his work at the University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the late Charles Fritz made many contributions to the disaster studies area through his long-term stay at the National Academy of Sciences. Quarantelli’s summaries of these and other efforts are important aspects of our historical legacy (e.g., see Quarantelli 1987a). Over the years, Fritz helped organize numerous committees which brought together some of the best scholars in the country to assess a wide range of research and policy issues (e.g., Committee on Socioeconomic Effects of Earthquake Predictions 1978 [chaired by Ralph Turner] and Committee on International Disaster Assistance 1979 [chaired by Russell Dynes]).

Of much help to many, however, has been his summary chapter (Fritz 1961) entitled “Disasters” which appeared in the first edition of the widely used social problems text edited by Robert K. Merton and Robert A. Nisbet (1961). This text was revised and updated three times. The second edition, published five years after the first, did not contain Fritz’s chapter, nor did any subsequent versions, e.g., 1976 (4th edition). Did this mean that Merton and Nisbet had decided that disasters were not social problems? The rationale given at the time is informative.

“Three new chapters have been introduced—on alcohol, poverty, and war and disarmament—to deal with vital problems of contemporary society not included in the first edition. These additions have been at a price: to avoid lengthening an already long book, it was necessary to drop the chapters on problems of military life, of disaster and catastrophe, and of transportation in the metropolis, which proved to be more appropriate for graduate students than for undergraduates. Advanced students will want to consult those chapters in the first edition to learn how the sociological orientation helps to clarify problems once assumed to be the exclusive province of other specialists.” (Merton and Nisbet 1966, p. ix).

That is the message of this lecture. That is, “ . . . how the sociological orientation helps to clarify problems once assumed to be the exclusive province of other specialists.” (Merton and Nisbet 1966, ix). As the profession of emergency management continues to evolve and accommodate the constraints of any varying political ideologies and horrifying events like the attacks on 9-11, a sociological perspective has as much or more to offer today as it did in 1961. And it is the collective responsibility of at least some of us to bring our theory, including those unique insights found within our analysis of social problems, and our research, to issues confronting emergency managers.

Let me illustrate this rich social problems legacy by highlighting seven themes which I emphasize in my own courses. These enhance student capacity for critical analysis, and in the tradition of a basic liberal arts curriculum, their capacity for freedom. Those implementing new university programs in both emergency management and homeland security are advised that failure to incorporate insights like these will lessen the analytical capacity of their graduates in their future roles.

1. There is a relationship between the private troubles experienced by individuals and the public issues of their day.

For many of us, this insight is one of the cornerstones of “the sociological imagination” so well articulated by C. Wright Mills (1959) in his book by that title. Back in the 1960s, Merton and Nisbet did not use the language, but proposed similar ideas which they ascribed to such theorists as Weber (1946) and Mannheim (1936). For example, in their discussion of fatalist versus activist value systems, they wrestled with the issue of why certain social problems remain latent, off the public radar so to speak. Of course, such latency varies over time within all societies as does the degree to which fatalism reflects their major value orientation. But after referencing Weber and Mannheim, both of whom pointed this out previously, they wrote that “. . . the ethic of fatalism has often been replaced by the ethic of responsibility, in which knowledge of the sources of social problems and efforts to control them become defined as a moral obligation.” (Merton and Nisbet 1966, p. 797). And they elaborated as follows.

“To the extent that the ethic of responsibility spreads in a society, social problems tend to become manifest rather than remaining latent. But even within such a society, largely oriented toward directed social change, countervailing processes make for the continued latency for a time of certain social problems.” (Merton and Nisbet, 1966, p. 797).
And so today we might ask about the “countervailing processes” that were operative in the Gulf states especially Louisiana, that prevented officials and citizens from better anticipating and preparing for a storm like Katrina (2005). Some would wash their hands knowing that they had been successful with the exercise known as Hurricane Pam (e.g., see Brinkley 2006, pp. 18-19; Bourne 2004). Others would point to their work that documented the continued loss of wetlands that had heretofore provided greater protection (for elaboration see Bourne 2004). But the outcome remains—over 1,300 people died. Why did the changing distributions of risk—a process that had been going on for years—remain off the public agenda? Why didn’t the preparedness plans that had been designed get implemented in a manner that could have saved more lives and reduced the trauma of rescue for many survivors?

Perhaps part of the answer reflects the logic in the revision of the Merton-Nisbet text. Remember Fritz and disasters, while referenced once in the second edition, (p. 784) was replaced by Etzioni’s (1966) analysis of “War and Disarmament.” It is noteworthy that this reference came within the context of discussion of the “social origin of social problems.” This discussion explicitly raises a fundamental theoretical question for disaster researchers that I’ll explore later, that is, are social problems analysis frameworks applicable to both the phenomena of war and “natural” disasters? The only place Fritz and his earlier chapter were referenced was in answer to this question.

“For whether the forces disrupting patterns of social life are nature-made or manmade, they will, in the end, confront members of the society with the task of responding to them, and the nature of that response is, in sociological principle, greatly affected by the structure of the society, by its institutions, and its values.” (Merton and Nisbet 1966, p. 784).
To understand the failed Katrina response, like that of any other disaster event, we always must place emergency management within the community, state and federal context of the time. It was this historical context that led Hartman and Squires (2006) to title their Katrina analysis as There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster. And their sub-title Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina points us toward institutional patterns of racism, sexism, and ageism that molded and shaped this flawed response. There was much more to it than, for example, the priority shift toward terrorism among emergency officials. The private troubles of the Katrina victims reflected a whole range of public issues. This capacity to shuttle between micro and macro levels is the promise of the sociological imagination.

2. All societies are in a constant degree of change reflecting patterns of consensus and dissensus among and within institutional areas.

This theme reflects my early training with Russ Dynes when I served as a graduate teaching assistant in a social problems course directed by Si Dinitz. Later I used their text (Dynes et al. 1964) in my own courses at the University of Denver wherein we examined the processes of integration that make for stability within societies and other social systems such as communities and families. It is worth noting that neither Fritz’s 1961 chapter, nor the concept “disaster,” is referenced or indexed in this text. However, we always emphasized that the social fabric is both fragile, because it always is subject to change, and powerful, because it is taken for granted. Conflicts, however, are ever present and can boil over whenever patterns of strain become redistributed and highly polarized. Dynes and his colleagues put it this way.

“The possibility always exists that dissensus will become extreme and result in conflict among groups, threatening the stability of the society—the Civil War is an example of dissensus become group (regional) conflict.” (Dynes et al. 1964, p. 375).

I suspect that this social problems perspective greatly facilitated Dynes’ later analysis of the disaster literature (1970) that has helped many of us better understand various “mechanisms of integration.” Focusing on the community level, he carefully wove case study data into a comprehensive whole. So following a disaster event, various types of organizational units—reflected in the four cells of the DRC Typology—respond to disaster demands. At times local officials, both within and among agencies, must define areas of “emergency consensus” so that the “mass assault”, to use Barton’s (1969) term, can be coordinated. Such processes, when viewed within the social problems perspective, become much clearer to any trying to understand the reality of disaster, be they researcher or practitioner.
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