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



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5. Disasters are a nonroutine social problem.

In 1992 Russ Dynes sent a draft paper to me which was the basis for remarks he made at a conference in Spain on the uses of sociological research (see Dynes 1992). He asked for reactions and additional examples that might be incorporated into a future article for publication. I found his basic argument interesting, of course, and after several exchanges we decided to co-author a new draft wherein we summarized a few key sociological findings and their policy impacts (Dynes and Drabek 1994).

“The consequences of the research tradition has been to transform policy approaches to disaster. That transformation has been most complete in the United States, but, in general, those policy changes have also had other national and international implications. In the United States, responsibility for disaster was ‘demilitarized’. At the national level, this has meant pulling together diffuse functions to create a Federal Emergency Management Agency with responsibility for ‘comprehensive’ emergency management. An all hazards approach is emphasized conceptually which can be implemented through the development of integrated emergency management systems within local communities.” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 15).
We then looked toward the future and began by summarizing an insightful paper by Quarantelli (1991) regarding various social trends that in his judgment would “. . . produce more and worst disasters.” (p. 18). The nine trends we selected from his paper emphasized technological and population changes that jointly increased vulnerability. For example, we summarized Quarantelli’s conclusion that “more vulnerable kinds of populations will be impacted, e.g., in many areas such as Florida in the U.S., new retirement communities and large concentrations of tourists are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes.” (p. 19).

After listing these trends, we quoted his conclusion because we were in complete agreement.

“‘It is that solutions are not to be found primarily in new technologies or better use of existing ones. The difficulties note stem from social factors. Social problems can only be dealt with socially; technological improvements can only address technological problems.’” (p. 27, in Quarantelli 1991)) (as quoted in Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 19).
Quarantelli’s use of the concept of social problems in this context reminded me of his earlier objections to the position I had advanced previously. But that was not the specific point Dynes and I were trying to develop. Rather, beyond Quarantelli’s analysis, we saw the need to place disaster research within a much broader theoretical perspective. We illustrated this by noting Smelser’s (1991) analysis of three large scale “master trends” from which additional types of changes could be identified. Among the eight we specified was that “. . . social problems will become increasingly internationalized” and that not only would there be “. . . a continuation of widespread problems of chronic instability” but also a “. . . continuing erosion of traditional forms of social stability.” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, pp. 19-20).

Among the several points made in our brief conclusion that are most relevant to my analysis here are these.

“As the profession of emergency management matures and disaster researchers are pressed to specify the limits of generalizability of increased numbers of localized data bases, higher priority will be given to more fundamental questions: How and why do societies differ in their coping responses to risk? What social constraints pattern the differential distribution of risk, both temporally and globally, as new policy initiatives are implemented that are intended to mitigate disaster impacts and improve disaster preparedness, response and recovery?” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 21).
While not very extensive, we believed that the empirical base and theoretical orientations flowing from disaster and hazard researchers “. . . had a rather profound effect on public policy.” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 21). But the types of issues emerging on the horizon would require that disaster researchers and emergency managers “. . . look toward the discipline of sociology for relevant theoretical paradigms.” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 21). So we ended on a note of caution regarding the future of sociology and its potential contribution to the emerging profession of emergency management.”

“A new partnership may emerge that could prove to be mutually beneficial. To the extent that the discipline fragments substantively, stagnates intellectually and withers politically, it will fail to provide the insights needed.” (Dynes and Drabek 1994, p. 21).


About a year after this piece was published, Gary Kreps asked me to co-author an elaboration of my 1989a article which we entitled “Disasters Are Nonroutine Social Problems.” (Kreps and Drabek 1996). Therein we advanced our case by pointing out that the “. . . phase ‘nonroutine events’ distinguishes disasters as unusual and dramatic social happenings from the reservoir of everyday routines and concerns . . .” (p. 133). Furthermore we emphasized how our “. . . reference to ‘historical conditions’ and ‘social definitions’ underscores the need to understand how social definitions of disaster emerge and the mix of competing definitions that may be involved.” (p. 134). Finally, we illustrated how the threshold of social disruption and physical harm must be linked to the complexity of the system selected for study, e.g., family versus community, and be socially defined. (p. 134). On this last point we were underscoring the wisdom implicit within Barton’s (1969) collective stress perspective.

From our vantage point, however, the work of social constructionists, like the Stallings (1995) study, complemented the approach we proposed. Using the controversy noted above regarding the conference organized by Wright and Rossi (1981), we argued that “. . . the false dualism advocated by some functionalists and many social constructionists . . .” (p. 139) was a pitfall that should be avoided. Rather, both the objective aspects of disaster highlighted by functionalists and the claims-making activities studied by social constructionist types should be included in the future research agenda.

Kreps (2001) elaborated on these themes in his entry entitled “Disasters, Sociology of” for the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Unlike poverty, he proposed, disaster events can be demarcated in social time and space. Generally speaking, however, disasters remain a low priority for local officials and the public because the probability of impact is low. When certain triggering events occur, however, the perception of risk distribution may be redefined by key interest groups thereby permitting temporary acceptance of selected preparedness and/or mitigative actions like the airport security changes after the 9/11 attacks. In short, “. . . disasters are nonroutine problems because social processes related to them change dramatically, depending on what stage of their life histories is being considered.” (Kreps 2001, p. 3719). In my opinion he has it exactly right.

6. There are many payoffs to approaching disasters as nonroutine social problems.

Careful reading of the works cited above could produce a longer listing, but here I will highlight six of the most important.

a. Historical context. Social problems require that the subject matter, including disasters, be placed within their historical context. In his review of five recent books on disaster, Stallings (2006a) illustrated this by starting his essay with a summary of Dynes’s (2000) analysis of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake wherein the local government, for the first time, “. . . wrested power from the church and assumed primary responsibility for response, recovery, and rebuilding.” (Stallings 2006a, p. 223). Thus, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, “. . . the cultural repertoire of causal explanations for disasters had grown considerably.” (p. 223).

b. Root causes. Social problems perspectives push analysts to dig deeper so as to identify root causes. Thus, the responses during Katrina, for example, surprised some. But the underlying patterns of racism, sexism, ageism, and classism that I noted above, reflected pre-event patterns of vulnerability. The concept of vulnerability offers much to the study of social problems, including disasters, e.g., McEntire 2004; Enarson et al. 2003; Wisner et al. 2003; Bolin 2006; Enarson et al. 2006. Rodríguez and Barnshaw (2006) illustrated this nicely in their review essay which included At Risk (Wisner et al. 2003).

“The authors argue that a number of variables, including ‘class . . . occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, disability, health status, age, immigration status’ and the ‘nature and extent of social networks’ (p. 11) impact disaster vulnerability. . . . The authors also discuss how factors such as wars, national debts, famines, droughts, illness, and urbanization place people at risk, increase their vulnerability, and makes the disaster recovery process extremely difficult.” (Rodríguez and Barnshaw 2006, p. 220).
Similarly, Quarantelli (2005) has proposed that disasters “. . . are overt manifestations of latent social vulnerabilities, basically of weaknesses in social structures or social systems.” (p. 345). In this sense, like other social problems then, disasters can be seen as ‘normal’ (e.g., Perrow 1984). As Quarantelli (2005) elaborated in comparing disasters to Perrow’s concept of ‘normal’ accidents, “. . . disasters are similar in that they latently exist in the larger social systems, and are the result of a convergence of a variety of social factors none of whom might be very important in themselves.” (p. 346). These insights bring us close to themes highlighted in chaos theory; a complex set of epistemological and mathematical developments that I believe may provide a great deal of help to future disaster researchers (e.g., see Koehler 1996; Piotrowski 2006).

c. Terrorism. As noted above, terrorism has become constructed as a social problem. Of course, there are those who confuse the issues by referring to a “war on terrorism”. Hard to wage war on a strategy! But that point aside, many sociologists and other social scientists who had been studying disasters with other qualities tried to bring their methods and theory to various attacks by groups using this strategy, e.g., Aguirre, et al. 1998; Waugh 2006.

In short, by adopting a social problems perspective, the analysis of disasters in general can be incorporated. Aside from mentioning a few specific events, however, the social problems texts I reviewed did not make this connection.

This is not to say that terrorist attacks are exactly like other disasters. Some have proposed certain differences beyond the dimension of intentionality or conflict. For example, Waugh (2006, p. 392) has highlighted that such events are crime scenes which in turn places unique constraints on responders. The major difference is that the roles shift, i.e., “ . . . the lead roles of agencies and officials responsible for capturing or killing the perpetrators rather than performing lifesaving roles and helping reduce the impact of the disaster on people and property.” (pp. 392-393) (see also McEntire et al. 2001).

Once again, the question of generalization raises its head. And unlike Quarantelli (1998, p. 3) who would exclude conflict situations from his definition of disaster, my preference is to include them as part of the study area and empirically explore which research conclusions fit and which don’t. By making such comparisons we can better inform our efforts to construct a theoretical structure that can guide us in determining the appropriateness and limits of generalization of our findings. As Quarantelli (2005) has noted, however, this matter is very complex and requires much further exploration (e.g., see especially pp. 336-338).

d. Technological disasters. Events like the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (e.g., Perrow 1984) and the deadly explosion at the Union Carbide facility in Bopal India (e.g., Shrivastava 1987), introduced response patterns and policy issues that most disaster researchers had not considered. Such risks, how they might be measured, and the social factors that might constrain both their distribution and perception evolved into a discipline which only a few tried to bridge (e.g., Slovic et al. 1974; Kunreuther and Ley 1982). Similarly, controversies regarding potential toxicity impacts, like the school children exposed at Love Canal (e.g., Levine 1982) or the long smoldering underground coal fires in rural Pennsylvania (e.g., Kroff-Smith and Couch 1990), suggested to some analysts like Erikson (1994) that a “new species” of troubles had emerged. Hence, Picou and his colleagues (1997) placed their case study of the Exxon Valdez oil spill into Erikson’s framework since the patterns of anger, hostility, rage, and other responses differed significantly from those typically reported by disaster researchers. Indeed, they concluded that: “. . . technological disasters differ from natural disasters in their characteristics and consequences for human communities.” (Picou et al. 1997, p. 13). But they also concluded “. . . that technological disasters can be conceptualized, understood and recognized as a modern social problem.” (p. 314). Both of these themes were introduced in the opening essay of their edited collection of reports on this event which broadly assessed the social, economic, ecological, psychological and legal consequences. As integrating conceptual tools, these two themes put their case study of this single event into a much broader theoretical context. And from the native peoples they met during this process they learned the reality of cultural differences in interpreting events like this especially as they pondered the significance of phrases like “the day the water died”. The emergence of bewilderment, then distrust, followed by uncertainty were parallels to what Erikson (1994) also had observed at his previous study locations. And as he emphasized in his “Foreword” to the Picou et al. (1997) text, one consequence of such emergence may be damage to the social fabric of the community (Erikson 1997, p. xiii).

I am in total agreement with Picou and his associates regarding the desirability of placing events like the Exxon Valdez spill into a social problems framework. I disagree with them and Erikson, however, regarding the utility and desirability of using either “agent toxicity” or “technological” as a sole differentiating event characteristic for the future theory development of a sociological theory of disaster. Rather, I find Quarantelli’s position far more inviting. That is, our differentiating criteria must be both social in nature and abstract (see Quarantelli 2005, pp. 339-341).

So what might such criteria be? While the agent characteristics that Kreps and I (1996) proposed were useful for evacuation studies and others—qualities like event scope, duration of impact, and length of forewarning—other dimensions of a different quality are required for a more comprehensive theory. If I were writing the paper today, which I obviously am not, I would explore the utility of these five: 1) perceived scope of impact (i.e., is the impact perceived to be local, national or global in scope of impact); 2) perceived degree of routiness (i.e., to what degree are the relevant social and physical structures perceived to be understood and subject to manipulation; see Perrow 1967); 3) perceived degree of intentionality (i.e., to what degree is the event perceived to be a consequence of human intent, error, accident or failure); 4) perceived degree of social worth of impacted objects (i.e., given the cultural values of the impacted system, including people, physical structures, and their social significance); and 5) perceived degree of collective stress (i.e., to what degree do the disaster demands exceed the system capacity including various forms of system vulnerability, e.g., see McEntire 2004). This is a complex puzzle that others will have to address, but having given the matter some thought, I am convinced that future classification systems of disaster will reflect such matters as these.



e. Parallel processes. Once disasters are placed into a social problems perspective, we begin to ask, as noted above, how do they differ from other matters of public concern and policy? But we also can be informed by analyses of other social problems. Parallels in the processes of blame assignation, for example, and the search for root causes that reflect strains within social structure are obvious examples. The late Lou Zurcher (1989) did not want to abandon “social change theory”, but did not view this as a requirement to using a social problems perspective as a way to enrich and expand disaster research. Indeed, at the 1989 Kreps conference he identified “. . . six major characteristics that seemed to correspond with the typologies of disaster response.” (p. 362). Among these were such themes as “The social problem is defined and morally evaluated by human beings” (p. 363) and “the social problem has a significant element of social causation” (p. 362). His conclusion underscored my theme here of “parallel processes.”

“Perhaps, depending upon the particular orientation of social problems theory, Drabek is right that there can be an effective merging with disaster theory. The parallels seem obvious.” (p. 363).


Stimulation of thinking in both of these directions and others will benefit the quality of future disaster research.

f. Policy guidance. I noted above the efforts Russ Dynes and I (1994) made to illustrate how past disaster research had influenced some policy development. Since that essay was published, a great deal of impact occurred within the Higher Education Project sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (e.g., see Drabek 2006d). Many faculty now teaching within the over 100 formal emergency management degree programs have been influenced and assisted by the materials flowing from that project. As their students become acquainted with the research literature from sociology and other social science disciplines, future policy will be impacted at all levels of government. Unfortunately, the past six years has not reflected a continuation of the pattern Dynes and I saw emerging in 1994. But I remain convinced that the introduction of a social problems perspective into the curricula experience of future emergency managers would be a good thing. Without it, I fear the profession will drift into a series of policy failures that will hinder their capacity to be effective. Such constraint will reduce the ability of the entire nation to cope with the diverse and horrific challenges we surely will confront.


Emergency Management Policy Implications

A social problems perspective on disasters has many policy implications for emergency managers. The most important of these is that it provides a more strategic perspective on their profession. More comprehensive, complex, and internationally based views of history, social structure, and alternative value positions, can help inform alternative policy approaches and choices. Far too often, especially during the past six years, emergency management has been drifting in directions that are inconsistent with many fundamental values and constitutional protections that reflect the very ethos of this nation. And these directions are inconsistent with much of the disaster research legacy. I’ll elaborate on this conclusion by briefly examining nine interrelated issues: 1) coordination; 2) managerial models; 3) intergovernmental partnerships; 4) catastrophic planning; 5) military roles; 6) professional training; 7) homeland security interface; 8) civil liberties; and 9) a necessary shift in priorities.



1. The primary task of emergency managers is to facilitate the coordination of agency and organizational activities related to the preparedness for, response to, recovery from and mitigation of disasters.

Although this has not always been the case, since the late 1970s an all-hazard approach to emergency management has evolved and become widely accepted as legitimate (e.g., see Dynes, Quarantelli and Kreps 1972; Drabek and Hoetmer 1991;McEntire et al. 2002; Haddow and Bullock 2003; Perry and Lindell 2007; McEntire 2007; Lindell and Perry 2007; Rubin 2007). This coordination function extends horizontally across all sectors of a community, whatever the jurisdictional authority happens to be from village or town to city and county boundary. It also extends vertically from a local area to a region, to state and federal levels.

Since all disasters are local in their initial and immediate impact, coordination processes are most effective when the lowest level of government is the principle planning unit and the central point of authority and control. Thus, as with most other social problems, the primary locus of decision-making ideally should reside at the lowest level of government, with resources becoming available for specialized purposes and on a temporary basis when nonroutine situations demand such action.

In short, the emergency management function must be revisited and greatly enhanced. Such enhancements must occur within local, state and federal agencies. At the federal level this must occur by making significant changes within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) so that emergency management becomes whole once again as many have recommended (e.g., see Office of Inspections and Special Reviews 2006, pp. 135-136), or through the recreation of an independent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as many advocated in the wake of the failed response to Hurricane Katrina (e.g., Mikulski 2006). Recent reorganizations are steps in the right direction, but much more is required (e.g., “Post-Katrina Management Reform Act,” April 1, 2007). Indeed, a UPI/Zogby national poll (Waterman 2007) indicated that over seven in ten (71%) Americans “. . . believed that FEMA should be restored to the status of an independent agency.” (p. 1).



2. The most effective managerial model for emergency managers is one rooted in community problem solving and change that emphasizes cooperation, communication, and coordination.

In recent years, older notions of “command and control” have been reintroduced as “the appropriate” model (Tierney 2006). Despite numerous critiques (e.g., Buck et al. 2006; Quarantelli 2004a; Dynes 1994; Kuban 1993; Neal and Phillips 1995; Wenger et al. 1990; Drabek 1987, p. 289; 2006b, p. 232), various versions of command and control philosophy have been proposed and/or mandated (e.g., see DHS 2006). For example, upon documenting the flawed interagency coordination that characterized much of the initial response to the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, (e.g., see pp. 285-303), the 9/11 Commission (NCOTAUTUS 2004) recommended nationwide adoption of the Incident Command System (ICS) (p. 297). Some policy reviews, like that of Bea (2004) cautioned against such mandates for several reasons.

“Some might contend that the imposition of the ICS system, as set out in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), signals federal involvement in an arena traditionally administered by state or local governments. Such individuals might argue that such an approach could lead to practices and decisions that may result in inefficiencies, more bureaucracy, or an erosion of state authority guaranteed under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” (Bea 2004, p. 14).
Equally important, as with any standardized federal policy, the ICS may not be equally applicable to emergency management programs in communities with different histories, sub-cultures, demographic characteristics, and varying modes and degrees of involvements by voluntary groups and associations. Citing such works as Kendra and Wachtendorf (2003), Lowe and Fothergill (2003) and the ICMA Greenbook that Hoetmer and I edited (1991), Bea stated that “the ICS framework may help as well as hinder spontaneous and creative responses by volunteers.” (p. 15). Regarding community variability, he raised red flags.

“The system may not be appropriate for local governments with small or mid-sized fire departments and may require considerable refitting for nonfire emergency activities. Regardless of the size of the community, the ICS application should be flexible enough to allow for local differences in organization, politics, and needs. ICS should therefore be reviewed for applicability before it is adopted.” (Bea 2004, p. 15).


While appropriate as a tactical strategy for many first responders, especially law enforcement and fire agencies in large Metropolitan areas, the ICS is not a panacea (Wenger et al. 1990; McEntire 2006). Even community level emergency management, and especially that relevant to most state and federal agencies, requires a much more complex model, one rooted in multiple strategies that facilitate cooperation and coordination (e.g., see Drabek 1987, 1990, 2003b; Moynihan 2006). Unfortunately, as I noted above, policy doctrine flowing from the White House after Hurricane Katrina reflects a very different vision, one reflective of approaches that failed in the past.

“One model for the command and control structure for the Federal response in the new National Preparedness System is our successful defense and national security statutory framework. In that framework, there is a clear line of authority that stretches from the President, through the Secretary of Defense, to the Combat and Commander in the field. . . . Although the Combatant Commander might not ‘own’ or control forces on a day-to-day basis, during a military operation he controls all military forces in his theater; he exercises the command authority and has access to resources needed to affect outcomes on the ground.” (White House 2006, p. 71).

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