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



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3. Because social problems are socially constructed, so too must be their solutions.

Many of us use the phrase, “society as patient.” By this, of course, we can illustrate the role of social structure as a constraint in both how social problems are defined and the search for solutions. Unlike what we hear from some politicians today, Merton and Nisbet (1966), of course, rejected the doctrine that “evil is the cause of evil”. Instead they proposed “. . . that, to a substantial extent, social problems are the unwilled, largely indirect, and often unanticipated consequences of institutionalized patterns of social behavior.” (p. vii).

Today many of us would point to intercommunity crime rates and reference documentation of how these co-vary with various measures of social disorganization (e.g., Oh 2005). Or we might describe recent research from the Netherlands that validated and extended Durkheim’s (1951) classic work on suicide (van Tubergen and Ultee 2006). Following World War II, suicide rates in the U.S. did not drop as Durkheim would have predicted whereas they did in European countries that remained neutral. The researchers concluded “. . . that Durkheim’s political integration theory could explain these empirical problems if it takes into account people’s expectations for the future and if it considers the social integration of groups.” (van Tubergen and Ultee 2006, p. 233).

Certainly, the near daily reports of suicide bombers in Iraq and elsewhere leads us to be curious about possible linkages among religious ideologies, different socialization processes, and resulting motivations related to such behavior. Merton and Nisbet (1966) devoted an entire chapter to the topic of suicide (e.g., Gibbs 1966). While data from middle-eastern countries is absent, Durkheim’s analysis of “altruistic” suicides is summarized and illustrated as a reflection of “. . . excessive social integration.” (p. 313). More recently, Bergesen (2006) has emphasized that despite our limited data bases, several recent empirical studies such as Papes (2005), clearly document that: “In general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane, or economically destitute individuals, but are most often educated, socially integrated and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future.” (Papes 2005, p. 200 as quoted by Bergesen 2006, p. 459). So today, social problems analysts, like Neubeck et al. (2007), trace out these linkages in their analyses of “martyrdom”, i.e., “. . . to sacrifice one’s life in the name of the cause . . .” (p. 605). Hence, “. . . a strong connection to one’s faith or to political organizations devoted to resisting what they see as oppression actually enhances the chances of suicide rather than acting, as Durkheim predicted, as a deterrent . . .” (p. 605).

Remembering the acute and chronic poverty that defined New Orleans long before Katrina, we might instead focus here. And if poverty is to be reduced, like any other social problem, our focus must be on elements of structure. It is these elements that are bringing more and more American citizens to their breaking points every day. While the rates vary a bit from study to study, we currently have nearly 20 percent of our population—55 million people—living in a state of poverty (Block et al. 2006). Why? One research team summarized the situation very well and in so doing, they illustrate my third theme.

“Looking abroad also shows that government policies can dramatically reduce poverty levels. The probability of living in poverty is more than twice as high for a child born in the United States than for children in Belgium, Germany, or the Netherlands. Children in single-mother households are four times more likely to be poor in the United States than in Norway. The fact that single-parent households are more common in the United States than in many of these countries where the poor receive greater assistance undermines the claim that more generous policies will encourage more single women to have children out of wedlock. These other countries all take a more comprehensive government approach to combating poverty, and they assume that it is caused by economic and structural factors rather than bad behavior.” (Block et al. 2006, p. 17).


4. As with wealth and other forms of privilege, the socially powerful also have greater influence in defining what is and is not a social problem.

This theoretical principle was reflected in the Merton-Nisbet text in several chapters. In Merton’s (1966) “Epilogue” which he subtitled “Social Problems and Sociological Theory,” he emphasized that there is marked inequality in the judging process regarding this matter.

“Social definitions of social problems have this in common with other processes in society: those occupying strategic positions of authority and power of course carry more weight than others in deciding social policy and therefore, among other things, in identifying for the rest what are to be taken as significant departures from social standards.” (Merton 1966, p. 765).
Domhoff’s (2006) look back at C. Wright Mill’s (1956) classic statement on the concentration of power within the United States is a good illustration of this theme. While acknowledging the depth and breadth of Mills’ analysis, he suggests that it had weaknesses. For example, the military “chieftains” do comprise part of the power elite, but Mills was “. . . wrong to give them equal standing with the corporate rich and appointees to the executive branch of the policy-planning network.” (p. 548). Domhoff’s examples inform out analysis of social problems, including disasters and approaches to solution.

“This point is demonstrated most directly by the fact that military leaders are immediately dismissed if they disagree with their civilian bosses, as seen numerous times since the early 1960s, and most recently in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when a top general was pushed into retirement for daring to say there was a need for more troops than former corporate CEO and current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his think-tank advisors thought necessary.” (Domhoff 2006, p. 548).


So while more recent research, including his own (e.g., Domhoff 2005) has confirmed most of the conclusions presented in The Power Elite, it is Domhoff’s judgment that both “ . . . historical and sociological research leads me to place far more emphasis than Mills did on corporate capitalism and class conflict as the dominant factors in the power equation.” (Domhoff 2006, p. 550). This is not to deny that an independent power base is represented by the military, but only to acknowledge that it is less influential than the corporate cluster. Indeed, as we have seen since Mills’s death, additional power bases have emerged, although they are more transitory and less potent. As Domhoff (2006) noted, “. . . power also can be generated from a religious organizational base, as seen in the civil rights movement, the rise of the Christian Right, and the Iranian Revolution.” (p. 550).

5. There is an interdependence among social problems, including their origins, analysis, and solutions.

Many of us have emphasized this element of the social problems perspective. Hence, aspects of crime and poverty may be linked directly to issues of race and educational failure. Merton and Nisbet (1966) put it this way: “Owing to the systematic interdependence among the parts of a social structure, efforts to do away with one social problem will often introduce other (either more or less damaging) problems.” (p. viii).

Perhaps no where has this principle been explored better than in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For example, in the analyses compiled by Hartman and Squires (2006), these interdependencies were highlighted through powerful prose.

“ . . . some noted the sickeningly high poverty rate among the city’s black residents, but said nothing about how radicalized poverty contributed to the crisis. Neither the concentration of subsidized housing, nor the lack of car ownership among poor blacks—which made it impossible for many African Americans to flee New Orleans because the city’s middle-class-oriented evacuation plan was predicated on people leaving in their own vehicles—were mentioned. Racialized disinvestment in schools, public health, and other critical institutions in the core city, which impacts the suburbs as well, has existed for decades, but unlike the wind and the water, it garnered little attention. We do not believe that anyone intended to strand poor blacks in New Orleans. But it was predictable . . .” (powell et al. 2006, pp. 64-65).


While interdependent with race and poverty, Gullette (2006) focused on the elderly, especially females who represent an important pocket of vulnerability. Such areas of vulnerability are not sought out by hurricanes or earthquakes, but the impacts really are worsened. While many of us have emphasized the growing vulnerabilities reflected in the changing age distribution of the U.S. population, few have analyzed emergent perceptions of “age anxiety”. Daily doses of media coverage that portray “old geezers” living within the opulence of manicured retirement villages create a fiction that denies the poverty experienced by most elderly.

“Age anxiety is being cleverly manipulated into a political tactic on behalf of a conservative agenda. The image of expensive codgers distracts attention from class warfare coming from the top—the Bush tax cuts for the rich, the budget surplus turned into a Frankenstein deficit, the cuts in social programs, the deadly quagmire in Iraq. All these costs much, much more than the modest changes Social Security needs to thrive beyond 2042, or than national health care. Once the alarms have been sounded, then come the ‘remedies’—weakening the very programs that are our nation’s slender warrant of being a humane democracy.” (Gullette 2006, p. 113).


6. Sociological analyses of social problems preclude blaming the victims.

Living in poverty means much more than dollar levels communicate. Yet, during the past six years the number of poverty stricken Americans not only has increased, but their income has dropped below previous levels. In short, the poor within our nation have become even poorer (e.g., see Jones-DeWeever and Hartman 2006, p. 86). While all humans make choices, even the poor, sociological analyses unveil the webs of social constraint that narrow visions of option and cloud the last vestiges of hope. Degrees of freedom are socially constructed by all of us, but among those at the bottom of the economic pile, the perceived constraints become so narrow that the very word “choice” becomes offensive. Yet, many, if not most who outside the poverty pit, continue to ask, “why don’t they just get a job?” Unfortunately, even among the compassionate, the reality of “the society as patient” remains poorly understood. Why? Rubington and Weinberg (2003) put it succinctly in their introduction to Wagner’s (2003) insightful “critical analysis”. “It is in the interest of a capitalist society to endorse solutions to social problems that treat individual persons, thereby creating a market for treatment industries while discouraging solutions that call for a radical change in the social structure.” (p. 251).

This was the social problems context within which I viewed the failed Katrina evacuation. Years ago, this general theme was well articulated by Ryan (1971). But for me, it caused back flashes to an earlier disaster—the Big Thompson Canyon Flood of 1976—when other officials chastised victims. “We warned them, but they didn’t leave.” Rather than accepting the outcome of 139 deaths as “unavoidable”, my social problems perspective caused me to ask these officials a different kind of question, one rooted in the assumption base that blaming the victims results in poor public policy. “But Sheriff, isn’t it your job to devise an evacuation plan that works?” My application of this logic to the failed Katrina response resulted in an essay entitled “Don’t Blame the Victims” (Drabek 2005a). Reactions among emergency managers have been telling—some see the big picture, others don’t.

In his reflective essay regarding what is and what is not a “disaster”, Barton (2005) offered a view that parallels mine. In so doing, he added important insight as to why a social problems perspective helps us view disaster victims differently.

“The role of a dominant ideology which blames the victim or stereotypes them as less than human is to reduce communication by and with them, to weaken their ability to organize themselves, and to make the rest of society unwilling to listen to them or talk about them.” (Barton 2005, p. 142).
Years ago, Henry Quarantelli and I (1967), explored post-disaster blaming processes and emphasized parallels documented for other social problems. That is, by a focus on personal “guilt”, required structural changes—root causes, rather than symptoms—may never be considered, much less implemented. Our case example was the 1963 explosion at the coliseum in Indianapolis where the search for “the guilty” deflected attention away from a basic structural element—an inadequate inspection procedure. “We believe that putting other persons into the same position could have made little difference.” (Drabek and Quarantelli 1967, p. 16). But the consequences of such wrong-headed blame assignment processes are even more insidious. “Not only does individual blame draw attention from more fundamental causes, but it might actually give the illusion that corrective action of some sort is being taken.” (Drabek and Quarantelli 1967, p. 16). This is not to say that personal blame assignation never precipitates structural change, as we acknowledged. But it is to say that too often, especially in American society, this perspective detracts from analyses focused on structure; analyses wherein a society, or other social unit, is viewed as “the patient.”

7. Like war in earlier analyses, terrorism is now commonly accepted as a social problem.

Following the attacks on 9-11, the threat of terrorism quickly became identified and widely accepted as a social problem. While informative analyses of terrorism have been completed, linkages to the research literature on other disasters are lacking, however. I did not try to review every current text on social problems, but I did read five. Of course, neither Merton and Nisbet (1966) nor Dynes et al. (1964) included any references to terrorism. Nor did any of the authors selected by Rubington and Weinberg (2003) for their sixth edition. The insights from various “social constructionists” contained in this volume, however, are most relevant to the process of “acceptance.” Best’s (2003) analysis, for example, not only reviews some of the criticisms that have been made over the years, but also differentiates between “strict” and “contextual” constructionism. Hence, when we analyze terrorism as a social problem we should remember Best’s suggestions. For example, “. . . any analysis of the social construction of child abuse or any other social problem—requires locating claimsmaking within at least part of its context.” (Best 2003, p. 344).

John Palen has written several urban sociology texts (e.g., 1997), but decided to assess the general social problems area in 2001. The last chapter of his book is entitled “The Environment: War and Terrorism.” He assessed these topics through the lenses of the same three theoretical approaches used throughout, i.e., functionalist, conflict, and interactionist. He introduced students to such topics as population change, environmental racism, and both air and water pollution, before brief discussion of “eco-terrorism”. This brief section served as the bridge to his final section on war and terrorism. “Revolutionary” terrorism was illustrated with such examples as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma, and the 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway (p. 477). Although military targets have been selected in some attacks, e.g., Muslim radicals bombing U.S. airbases in Saudi Arabia, “soft” targets are more popular because they better advance civilian disruption and fear. Being weak militarily, isolated politically, most terrorists perceive their actions as legitimate religious or racial struggles. Hence, “. . . whether you label someone a terrorist or a freedom fighter depends on your position.” (Palen 2001, p. 477). Despite the chapter context of “the environment” and discussion of certain unintended consequences of environmental policies, e.g., widespread use of insecticides, no link was made to other forms of disaster or our rich research legacy.

McVeigh and Wolfer (2004) devoted much more space to revolts by numerous groups of varied political persuasion ranging from the Ku Klux Klan as “an instrument of terror” (p. 133) to Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). In an effort to expose the “root causes” of such acts of violence, they emphasized the later as “. . . a desperate move on the part of the poor to share in or equalize the wealth . . .” (p. 298). Hence, actions like these are put into historical context with others that indicate the “normalcy” of such events when perceptions of injustice prevail, e.g., the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), the Flour Riot (1837), and so on. All of these occurred long before the “Kerner Report” pinpointed the linkages among racism, poverty, and urban riots (i.e., U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which was chaired by Governor Otto Kerner, Summary Report, 1968). Hence, crises or disasters such as these were placed into the broader contexts of structural inequality and the conflicts that result when activists goad the poor into saying: “Enough is enough, we’re not putting up with this anymore.”

But by 2004, the reality of globalization was apparent and social problems—all of them—were best viewed as having “. . . some kind of international connection . . “ (McVeigh and Wolfer 2004, p. 365). Hence, a jump from Giddens’s (2000) view of a “runaway world” to corporate concentrations of power through multi-nationals was a logical way to lead into the root causes of terrorism. “Most sociologists argue that multi-nationals are harmful as they exercise power over the governments, societies and environments of underdeveloped countries in such a way that they actually function as colonial machines of exploitation.” (McVeigh and Wolfer 2004, p. 371). Within this context, war emerges as the most important social problem confronting American society. And in order to begin to understand it, we must recognize the economic interdependencies between economic growth and war related products. Just weapons production alone is a staggering reality. “The United States is the world’s leading arms supplier to other nations, $842 billion worth in 1997 . . .” (McVeigh and Wolfer 2004, p. 386). Thus, despite the adoption of various social policies to reduce the number of wars and frequency of terrorist attacks, they argued that the U.S. “. . . still ignores the basic value conflicts, ideas and ideals between Western and Eastern cultures” (p. 394). And here at home, the largest government reorganization in our history was implemented through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002. This bureau has responsibility for all disasters regardless of agent or origin. McVeigh and Wolfer (2004) briefly discussed a range of issues pertaining to the then newly created DHS, including the controversial conflict regarding workers represented by unions and “managerial flexibility” requirements. Even more controversial were DHS policies regarding citizen surveillance and border protection. Value conflicts regarding “the limits” of civil liberties and roles of illegal immigrants in the work force are but two of the interdependencies that must be illuminated if we are to begin to understand these social problems.

Robert and Jeanette Lauer (2006) also ended their recent text with chapters entitled “War and Terrorism” and “The Environment.” Starting with Mills’s “personal troubles—public issues” framework, they reviewed the familiar litany of three broad study areas (i.e., 1: behavioral variance, e.g., crime and delinquency; 2: inequality, e.g., poverty and 3: social institutions, e.g., family problems) which can best be understood by using three overlapping theoretical perspectives (i.e., structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism). Neither the term “disaster” nor “natural disaster” appear in the index, but both the Bhopal (1984) plant tragedy (p. 437) and the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion (p. 448) are presented as examples of the types of threats industrialized societies must recognize and try to prevent. Growing public fears of future terrorism attacks (p. 416) are juxtaposed against rising military expenditures (p. 418) and their value question is stated baldly. “What if the United States invested the billions spent on military preparations in electronics, education, health, and other sectors that benefit human beings?” (p. 419). Loss of civil liberties, perhaps willingly given up because of fears of terrorist attacks (p. 420), is integrated with detailed cross-national data on military expenditures (p. 421), weapons sales (p. 424) and the manipulation of public threat perceptions.

“Many Americans accepted the notion that Iraq was involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that Iraq had developed and was prepared to use weapons of mass destruction, and that a good part, if not most, of world opinion favored the American position. The news media, particularly Fox News, helped shape these misperceptions.” (Lauer and Lauer 2006, p. 427).
Finally, Neubeck, et al. 2007, published the fifth edition of their popular text, Social Problems: A Critical Approach. As they reorganized and updated prior work, they introduced materials on terrorism and expanded their discussion on war (now Chapter 3). Extensive data on military arms sales and expenditures were used to introduce the topics of terrorism and “the effects of militarism” (e.g., see pp. 76-86). And assessments then follow.

“Militarism affects the quality of life in more than just economic ways. It also interferes with our democratic rights and civil liberties.” (p. 87).


“If human survival is the goal, then disarmament will play an important role in meeting it. But the first step is to reduce the ready access to weaponry. The United States, now the number one arms exporter, must stop making the world into an unstable armed camp through its sale of arms and military-related technology to other nations.” (p. 90).
“It is up to people in the United States and elsewhere, starting at the grass roots through their political associations, community groups, religious institutions, or student organizations, the name a few, to begin to communicate loud and clear to society’s elites. ‘Enough is enough.’” (p. 91).
These seven themes provide important context for why I believe it will be useful to pursue a definition of disaster as a special type of social problem. For social problems are both manifest and latent conditions of communities, regions, societies, and the entire world. The processes by which social problems are socially constructed, redressed, or unaddressed call attention to the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations at all of these levels. Historically, sociology has and must continue to play a key role in unraveling these processes.

But let me be clear before proceeding. I am not proposing a consensus on values, nor am I proposing that this definition and approach are the only ones researchers should use. They are one among many that I believe will help us sort things out so that basic and badly needed theoretical work can continue. Also, I believe that this perspective opens new doors through which we should go to insure broader dissemination and use of the findings and conclusions of our work.


Disaster Research: Integrative Approaches and Conceptual Issues

When we put disaster research into the types of social problems perspectives I summarized above, what theoretical issues are recast and illuminated? I will explore this question by briefly developing six themes: 1) contributions being ignored; 2) some basic distinctions; 3) studies of claims makers; 4) emergence of a complementary perspective; 5) disasters are a non-routine social problem; and 6) payoffs.


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