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



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1. Defining disasters as nonroutine social problems provides a powerful framework for interpretation, context, and future research.

Disasters, from this perspective, are interpreted as normal events largely originating within identifiable historical and structural conditions. Like other social problems, understanding the private troubles experienced requires the capacity to shift abstraction levels and examine relevant public issues. And sometimes the analysis must transcend the public concerns of any given era and identify latent juxtapositions of social trends and structural conditions that will ignite in future areas of conflict, instability, and human hurt.

This orientation provides a context for drawing upon the insights seen by others who have selected different areas of human travail for study ranging from crime to race relations to poverty and so on. As with analyses of these areas, however, there is no inherent bias toward the negative. Disasters do at times, and for some much of the time, have positive consequences (e.g., see Drabek and Key 1984).

What this perspective forces the analyst to specify, however, is a definition of the value judgments that are being made to declare any given behavior as “positive” or “negative.” Hence, the cultural context of the definer is made explicit and may be contrasted with that of others whose circumstance and value position may differ. So-called “good business practices” that some would define as “unethical” illustrate a type of analysis that similarly permits enhanced understanding of the historical contexts and ideologies that foster classrooms of children who will become suicide bombers within the next few years. The same can be said for the thousands of American citizens who will be injured or killed because of domestically birthed gang violence. The same can be said for the billions of young girls from centuries past, like millions today, whose personal security requires unquestioning obedience and loyalty to unjust systems rooted in patterns of inequality, abuse, and intolerance.

Clearly, this orientation presses analysts to ask new research questions not just about “routineness” but also many other important matters. In what ways, and with what consequences, are disasters “nonroutine”? What additional differences, and of course similarities, can be identified when disasters are compared to other social problems? In what ways are these processes similar, and different, across the range of societies existent today and over centuries past? If the society is the patient, as a social problems perspective assumes, what is being said to disaster researchers as they pursue their craft?

2. Defining disasters as nonroutine social problems does not preclude or invalidate other definitions that may be required for other theoretical frameworks and research agenda at this point in the history of the field.

At the time Kreps and I (1998) reviewed and extended the social problems application, my focus was on community evacuations. I documented that several key event characteristics were helpful in understanding certain aspects of evacuation behavior (e.g., Drabek 1994, 1996). This work, along with that of the Kreps team (e.g., Kreps and Bosworth 1994), led us to identify the four properties I noted in the definition above, e.g., scope of impact. While helpful for some limited and specific purposes like these, I am in full agreement with Quarantelli (2005) that these are not a final answer to the complex issue of taxonomy.

Indeed, I totally agree with Quarantelli that we must go beyond the obvious as did the biological community when they created the category of “mammal” that placed whales, humans, and bats into the same taxonomic niche. That is exactly the type of reasoning that led Kreps and I to propose further analysis of the concept of “routineness” along the lines that Perrow (1967) had done in his development of a typology of organizations. Rather than traditional sortings done commonly on mission, often mistakenly labeled “goal”, for example, fire departments vs. schools vs. voluntary disaster agencies, this approach offers an alternative pathway. Through it, we can go beyond the traditional weather category groupings or assuming that all aspects of technological crises are qualitatively different from those originating from so-called “acts of nature” or human caused conflict. We must continue to struggle creatively with this fundamental issue so as to specify the limits of generalizability of our study findings. But let’s never forget the error in the logic that led some to assume that “better research” required, or was characterized, by simply having a larger number of “cases.”

3. Defining disasters as nonroutine social problems highlights the multidirectional pathways that can enhance the flows of research findings and theoretical frameworks among other sociologists, those oriented in other social science disciplines, and members of related professions be they practicing emergency managers, fire and law enforcement, public health, law, planning, and the like.

When I began my reviews of several recently published social problems texts, my initial vision of this conclusion was totally inadequate. Being blinded by the past, I envisioned future social problems texts wherein the disaster research legacy would be displayed. Whether the insights were sprinkled throughout standard chapters on family, poverty, crime, etc., or be highlighted in a separated chapter like Fritz’s (1961) did not matter to me as I pondered the challenge with excitement. Then I recall thinking, as I often do, “A does not preclude B.” So I saw a lot of work ahead for many.

It didn’t take long, however, as my pen pushed my thinking as it commonly does, to realize the severity of my impaired vision. The challenge goes far beyond future social problems textbooks. And the information flow must be multi-directional. As we reach out more frequently to bring our “goods” to others working within different academic and professional settings, we too will grow in unanticipated ways. Sometimes it will be because of questions or criticism. But other times it will be because someone else has had a creative insight about a statistical method or conceptual framework that helped them understand some aspect of crime, or how certain elementary school classrooms traumatized students trapped therein. If we are open to such ideas, new ways to thinking about disasters and hazards will stimulate growth. To the degree that we encourage isolation and separateness, our growth will be constrained. Thinking through the numerous linkages afforded within social problems perspectives will stimulate such growth among disaster researchers.

4. Defining disasters as nonroutine social problems highlights a focus on root causes, both domestic and international.

Recent writings by Wismer et al. 2003, Enarson et al. 2003 and many others have pressed all of us to think harder about the meaning of “social vulnerability” (e.g., McEntire 2004). Patterns of risk are shaped by social processes that usually reflect the contours of power and privilege. Does the risk of living in a flood prone area parallel the pathway that results in the death of a hate crime victim whose sexual orientation is despised by his killers? And do either of these risks merit the amount of public expenditures currently being allocated daily to ensure that all airline passengers remove their shoes before boarding? We often hear rhetoric about funding decisions for disaster mitigation and preparedness programs being based on threat assessments. But what range of threats are really being assessed by those holding and directing the flow of dollars? And when we return to the orientation proposed by Hart (2006), and ask about the real sources of insecurity confronting all American citizens, not just the well off, the linkage to social problems perspectives becomes much clearer. For it has been within these frameworks, enriched by basic sociological studies of crime, poverty, sexism, racism, ageism and the like, that our understanding of root causes of social problems has been most enhanced.

Increasingly, we must frame our research agendas within cross-national and historical contexts. The pollutants of Love Canal fame (e.g., Levine 1982) did not arrive there like the 1999 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma (Drabek 2003b). And the woman who was beaten badly by a spouse, whose sense of frustration with flood relief run- arounds and cleanup fatigue boiled over, is every much a victim as those temporarily living in a Red Cross shelter (e.g., Fothergill 2004). But we must dig deeper and ultimately confront the realities of “the power elite” and their roles in the changing distributions of risk and patterns of victimization. While most may prefer to stay within the confines of flood studies, for example, even if they accept the challenge of cross-societal analysis, even they must confront the human caused nature of flooding be it reflections of timber harvesting, failed levee and dam construction or maintenance, unregulated upstream development, or just stupidity. Others must venture into the less charted waters of conflict disasters and their root causes. Record levels of arms production and sales, expanded military training facilities, and the like, are linked directly to the economic security of many, not just those at the top. How such economic interdependencies fuel policy decisions within both the public and private sector require scrutiny. For it is within such structural arrangements that the root causes of the most violent disasters are to be found. One need not accept the strategy or the value set of the “environmental justice movement” (e.g., Pastor, et al. 2006), for example, but it might very well be a good place to start.

And so too is further reflection on the implications of the conclusions reached by Thomas Paine in his initial essay on the “Rights of Man” (original publication, 1791). For example, ponder the relevance of these words to an analysis of “root causes” of disaster.

“Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue; and in any event of war, in the manner they are now commenced and concluded, the power and interest of Governments are increased. War, therefore, from its productiveness, as it easily furnishes the pretence of necessity for taxes and appointments to places and offices, becomes a principal part of the system of old Governments; and to establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to Nations, would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches.” (Paine 2003, p. 254).
5. Defining disasters as nonroutine social problems can provide emergency managers with a theoretical foundation that will enhance their capacity to more effectively practice their profession.

Since the creation of FEMA in 1979, the profession of emergency management has experienced acceleration in its long-term evolution (e.g., Petak 1984; Drabek 1991; Wilson and Oyola-Yemaiel 2000). From two university degree programs in 1996, by a decade later over 100 were operating. Additionally, over 50 programs were introducing students to aspects of homeland and defense security (Blanchard 2006). I noted these earlier and my concern about the current capacity and interest of faculty in critical examination of emergency management policy. I believe firmly that the social problems perspective on disaster that I have herein proposed would assist these faculty, and subsequently, those practicing within this profession to develop a more strategic perspective on their profession. By explicitly recognizing and better understanding the mix of social trends and structures within which their agencies are embedded, ranging from the local community to the international context, they will better be able to provide the leadership and technical expertise reflected in the vision statements of their professional associations (e.g., International Association of Emergency Managers, IAEM).

And they will better be able to grasp the policy implications of broad historical analyses like Barry’s (2005) analysis of military troop movements and emergent quarantine efforts that resulted in both the rapid spread of the 1918 influenza virus and poorly implemented mitigation policies. Furthermore, an understanding of how social processes and structures, interact with environmental realities like those described by Jared Diamond (2005) in his theoretical framework of societal collapse, can provide emergency managers with the breadth of knowledge essential for more informed policy review and creation.

“When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to loose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.” (Diamond 2005, p. 516).


Disasters are nonroutine social problems. At least that is one way of viewing conjunctions of historical conditions and social definitions of physical harm and social disruption. It is not the only way, nor does it preclude other definitions and perspectives. But it is a perspective that offers some unique insights, integrative mechanisms, and linkages to both substantive areas of study and the future practice of emergency management. Thank you for your attention during my effort to explore this option.
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