Monday, 27 March 2017

On the Human Dimension of Disasters

Disasters open an extraordinarily revealing window on the workings of society. Through the disruption and the exigencies that they create, they expose, as it were, the "soft underbelly" of the social organism. With this in mind, I will now offer some reflections on the 'human condition' as seen through the lens of a student of disasters, crises and major incidents.
Each of us has a special skill to bring to disaster risk reduction, but experience of crises and emergencies suggests--proclaims, even--that our interventions should be made with careful attention to the context of our work, as well as that of the events themselves (Hewitt 2013). Disasters are multi-faceted phenomena and the threats and impacts that they create require multi-disciplinary responses (Kruchten et al. 2008). Such is the growing complexity of society that before long virtually all disasters and major incidents of a certain size will be cascading events, which cannot be understood in monodisciplinary terms (Pescaroli and Alexander 2015).

One effect of disciplinary specialisation has been a tendency to shy away from the bigger picture, which includes underlying risk drivers that represent the fundamental causes of disaster. These lie in the domains of poverty, marginalisation, the incidence and prevalence of disease (and in some countries malnutrition), conflict, displacement, and, increasingly, climate change adaptation. So powerful are the forces that create vulnerability, and so persistent is the problem of disasters, that some analysts have begun to urge us to study disaster risk creation, not disaster risk reduction (Oliver-Smith et al. 2016). And so begins the search for reality in its stripped-down form.

As an initial question, to what extent should policies and decisions be based on evidence? The current fashion for "evidence-based practice" began in medicine (Sackett et al. 2000). If a particular surgical operation was accomplished with a consistently low level of success, there would presumably be evidence in the operating theatre of what was going wrong, which would explain why practices should be changed. Ostensibly, it is a good idea to base decisions on the evidence of what actually happens when implementation takes place. Evidence can be precise and decisive, and thus able to support good decision making. However, it can also be equivocal, ambiguous, puzzling or uninterpretable--evidence of what? Moreover, it can be ignored, distorted or used selectively so that the picture of what is going on produces radically different interpretations depending on which evidence is selected (Lau et al. 2006).

For some key issues, we have very little evidence. For example, the role of perception and self-protective behaviour in saving people's lives when buildings collapsed in earthquake disasters is very poorly understood (Goltz and Bourque 2017). Although in earthquake injury epidemiology we have more than 40 years of concerted studies, the evidence is fragmentary and does not add up to useful empirical generalisations on which with confidence and security we can base policy. In migration studies, evidence is used in a highly selective manner. For example, in the Western world migration policy tends to assume that immigrants are a drain on the health and welfare services and national economies, and that they take jobs from indigenous workers. The evidence tends to support the opposite conclusion (Dustmann and Frattini 2014), but this does not affect policy when it is based on political considerations rather than cold socio-economic logic. This consideration is important to disaster specialists, as there is a substantial risk that a human mobility crisis will overlay with another form of disaster and create a compound event of extraordinary reach and intensity (Pigeon 2017).

In recent years there has been an increasing divergence between policy and reality, if the latter can be represented by something in the moral, ethical and legal domain. We live in the age of mass cognitive dissonance (Metzger et al. 2016). On the one hand there are xenophobia, the distrust of unfamiliar people, rejectionism, the sense that it is not our problem, and distancing, or "not in my back yard". On the other hand there is compassion, the desire to help the needy, and charity, a willingness to donate. Seldom has the human race been at such a crossroads!

This points to a major lesson to be learned. None of us will be able fully to understand the problem of disasters, let alone solve it, until we start to be realistic about the world in which we live. As the work of Naomi Klein and Anthony Loewenstein has shown us, in the field of 'disaster capitalism', disasters consolidate power structures, augment profits, redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, allow the introduction of conveniently repressive measures and permit gratuitous social engineering, including that which is achieved by forced migration (Klein 2008, Loewenstein 2015). Put simply, disasters are a vehicle for economic, social and political opportunism. Klein and Loewenstein argue that this is because the dominant forces treat the economic and physiological enfeeblement that disasters cause to affected populations as an opportunity for exploitation. In a world in which half of all trade (and US$7.6 trillion), is funnelled through 87 tax havens and eight men control as much wealth as 3.6 billion other citizens, inequality and resource hoarding are a major influence on disaster potential in all countries without exception (Oxam 2017).

Despite the imperatives, sadly policy makers at all levels of government, commerce and industry are generally uninterested in disaster risk reduction. Politically, it has the 'negative kudos' of the "no votes in sewage" syndrome, i.e. that a politician will not be elected for promising to build a new waste-water treatment plant. As a consequence of this, and the predominance of other political considerations, decisions are seldom made on the basis of evidence and research.

One by-product is that throughout the world corruption is one of the principal causes of disaster. This can be seen in the erosion of planning laws (and the lack of adherence to them) in floodable parts of London, England. It can be seen in the nuclear release at Fukushima Dai'ichi, Japan, and it can be seen in the mass collapse of relatively new buildings during earthquakes in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. Indeed, studies have shown that, at the national level in seismically active countries, the gravity of earthquake disasters correlates most strongly with weak governance and corruption in planning, construction and building code enforcement (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011). The greatest difficulty with this thesis is how to measure corruption, which is often dangerous to study, is often pervasive, is always occult and does not necessarily involved the transgression of laws. However, as vulnerability is the root of disaster, corruption adds to it--immeasurably, in both senses of the word.

Much of world policy on disaster risk reduction is national and international in genesis and is therefore "top down". Field studies suggest that it does not easily reach the local level. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has endeavoured to counteract this by organising the 'Safe Cities' initiative, with principles and guidelines for reducing disaster risk at the local level (UNISDR 2013). A thousand towns and cities have joined the initiative, but as there are more than a million urban settlements above the village level, only about 0.1% of the world's cities are involved.

Despite this, theorists, and many practitioners, believe that local-level activism is possible and the community is the best vehicle for measures to reduce disaster risk and impact (Berkes and Ross 2013). That is fine, but it ushers in some thorny problems. One is that there is no innate geographical scale at which to define the concept of 'community'. Is a community a street, a neighbourhood, a city, a world-wide group of like-minded individuals, or what? Secondly, communities are often neither homogeneous nor harmonious. Rivalry and rancour abound in them. Thirdly, identification with the community is a highly variable phenomenon. As sociologists discovered nearly 40 years ago, disasters can produce subcultures, represented by very heterogeneous groups of people who have a common agenda, and subcultures can produce emergent groups, such as survivors' networks and pressure groups (Wenger and Weller 1973). However, these are not always therapeutic phenomena and not always graced with longevity.

Fourthly, power structures are evident in the make-up of communities, which tend to be dominated by the interests of their most powerful members or overlords. One consequence of this is 'elite capture', in which the popular agenda is captured by the dominant interests (Kundu 2011). It is as likely to be encountered in the Thames basin of outer London as it is in the villages of Bangladesh. Another consequence is marginalisation, in which groups of people are deprived of the economic, political and social power needed to achieve self-determination. Marginalisation has been found to be strongly correlated with vulnerability to disaster, as has the poverty that accompanies it (Wisner and Luce 1993). Again, these are features of all societies, rich and poor.

In a just society, imbalances of opportunity would be counteracted by welfare, a term that, curiously, all and sundry seem to shy away from defining. It is clearly too much of a political hot potato, but here is my own definition: "The provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves." In disaster, welfare assumes paramount importance, but it is easily subverted by politics and opportunism. We therefore need to look carefully at what welfare is not, as much as at what it is. What is legitimate care and support, and what is a debilitating source of aid-dependency or a political sweetener in exchange for votes?

The dismal picture of dark forces and negative changes that I have drawn is the result of a pervasive tendency not to tackle the root causes of disaster. Perhaps we lack the means, but there is also a reluctance to look reality in the face, and that leads to a further tendency to underestimate the power of disaster and to misinterpret its causes. In 1983 a book entitled Interpretations of Calamity appeared, edited by the Canadian-British geographer Kenneth Hewitt (Hewitt 1983). The authors of this volume promoted what has come to be known as the 'radical critique', which argues that vulnerability is the key to disaster, while hazard, or threat, is merely the trigger of events. Paradoxically, since the mid-1980s, we have seen the massive growth of hazard studies and only a modest increase in vulnerability studies. The money is in seismology, volcanology, and the 'technofix' solution to everything from storms to terrorism. In the meantime, vulnerability continues to grow, proliferate and send its insidious feelers into many aspects of life.

Does the explanation for such paradoxes lie in culture, perhaps? As scientists we are taught that there is only one reality and science can somehow "nail it down". Other interpretations are fallacious and to be despised. However, 37 years spent studying disasters have convinced me that there are many realities, and they stem from remarkably different interpretations of what constitutes rationality. If, as happened in June 2015, a Malaysian cabinet minister states publicly that an earthquake occurred because tourists took their clothes off on a sacred mountain, we may chortle and dismiss the assertion, but it nevertheless influences people's perceptions and thus has a concrete effect.

We have long known that the enigma of people's attitudes to disaster, and actions in the face of disaster risk, are a function of human cultures. Anthropologists have been quick to claim the high ground here, and they have conducted some notable field studies of disaster culture (Oliver-Smith 2004). However, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in trying to understand how culture influences other aspects of disaster and other fields by which disaster is interpreted.

Culture is remarkably hard to measure. It is something we are born with and develop as we mature. Many of the aspects of culture that are thus created are, to use the terminology of the linguist Kenneth Pike, 'emic', or culturally specific (i.e., not common to all cultures, or to many of them--Franklin 1996). In the modern age, cultural metamorphosis is driven largely by technological developments, which are decidedly 'etic', or culturally universal. This promotes fusion and the constant reinterpretation of cultural norms. By and large, emic elements of culture mutate less rapidly than etic ones do (Alexander 2000). They are the 'ballast' of culture. Cultural change can be achieved, but only by persistent application of effort and recognition that change will be slow and continuous, for cultures do not change overnight. In the meantime, projects that are culturally compatible are likely to succeed, while those that are not will fail, no matter how rational and laudable they are. A more unstable factor is represented by risk perception. Forces are constantly at work that both create risk and abate it. Which of these wins, and how the balance is tipped, depends on the 'wild card' of risk perception. Note, however, that the 'wild card' is constrained by the cultural filter (or lens) by which we interpret the world at all levels from the individual to the international.

It is vital that the social sciences embrace cultural analysis. Cultural differences may explain, for example, why the sociological definition of panic is so different from that entertained by psychologists (Alexander 1995). In this sense, it is a matter of both how these constituencies interpret the meaning of culture, and how the cultures of sociology and psychology operate to constrain the interpretations. The picture is complicated by the fact that at the individual level, culture is like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls: it is a multiple phenomenon. No wonder it is hard to pin down in any scientific manner.

In conclusion, we live in a world of changing realities. Identity and sovereignty have remained relatively immutable for four hundred years, but they are now entering a period of radical change. Welfare, entitlement and human rights are essential elements of disaster risk reduction, but they are under extreme duress in a world in which equality is a receding goal.

Many of these ruminations have no apparent practical outcome, but the reader will ask what we can do as individuals and groups. The first thing is to search for the underpinnings of reality, read between the lines, strive to interpret events in more fundamental ways. Awareness is the lynch-pin of action. We must all advocate and strive for policies, practices and procedures that take account of the world as it really is. If we understand the fundamental drivers of disaster we can concentrate on reducing them, rather than merely prodding away at the symptoms.


Alexander, D.E. 1995. Panic during earthquakes and its urban and cultural contexts. Built Environment 21(2/3): 171-182.

Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, U.K., and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Berkes, F. and H. Ross 2013. Community resilience: toward an integrated approach. Society and Natural Resources 26(1): 5-20.

Dustmann, C. and T. Frattini 2014. The fiscal effects of immigration to the UK. The Economic Journal 124(580): F593-F643.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.

Franklin, K.L. 1996. K.L. Pike on etic vs. emic: a review and interview. Summer Institite of Linguistics. SIL International, Dallas, Texas, 9 pp.

Goltz, J.D. and L.B. Bourque 2017. Earthquakes and human behavior: a sociological perspective. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 21: 251-265.

Hewitt, K. (ed.) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 304 pp.

Hewitt, K. 2013. Environmental disasters in social context: toward a preventive and precautionary approach. Natural Hazards 66(1): 3-14.

Klein, N. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 576 pp.

Kruchten, P., C. Woo, K. Monu and M. Sotoodeh 2008. A conceptual model of disasters encompassing multiple stakeholder domains. International Journal of Emergency Management 5(1-2): 25-56.

Kundu, D. 2011. Elite capture in participatory urban governance. Economic and Political Weekly 46(10): 23-25.

Lau, J., J.P.A. Ioannidis, N. Terrin, C.H. Schmid and I. Olkin 2006. Evidence based medicine: the case of the misleading funnel plot. British Medical Journal 333: 597-600.

Loewenstein, A. 2015. Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. Verso Books, London, 376 pp.

Metzger, M.J., E.H. Hartsell and A.J. Flanagin 2016. Cognitive dissonance or credibility? A comparison of two theoretical explanations for selective exposure to partisan news. Communication Research 1-26.
Oliver-Smith, A. 2004. Theorizing disasters: nature, power and culture. In S.M. Hoffman and A. Oliver-Smith (eds) Catastrophe and Culture The Anthropology of Disaster. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico: 23-47.

Oliver-Smith, A., I. Alcántara-Ayala, I. Burton and A. Lavell 2016. Forensic Investigations of Disasters (FORIN): A Conceptual Framework and Guide to Research. FORIN Publication no. 2. Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, Beijing, 36 pp.

Oxfam 2017. An Economy for the 99%. Oxfam Briefing Paper. Oxfam, Oxford, 48 pp.

Pescaroli, G. and D. Alexander 2015. A definition of cascading disasters and cascading effects: going beyond the “toppling dominos” metaphor. Planet@Risk 3(1): 58-67.

Pigeon, P. 2017. Dike risk: revealing the academic links between disaster risk reduction, sustainable development, climate change, and migration. In K. Sudmeier-Rieux, M. Fernández, I.M. Penna, M. Jaboyedoff and J.C. Gaillard (eds) Identifying Emerging Issues in Disaster Risk Reduction, Migration, Climate Change and Sustainable Development. Springer, Berlin: 67-80.

Sackett, D.L., S.E. Straus, W.S. Richardson, W. Rosenberg and R.B. Haynes 2000. Evidence-Based Medicine: How to Practice and Teach EBM (2nd edn). Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 280 pp (and subsequent editions).

UNISDR 2013. Making Cities Resilient: Summary for Policymakers. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 20 pp.

Wenger, D.E. and J. Weller 1973. Disaster subcultures: the cultural residues of community disasters. Preliminary Paper no. 9, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, 18 pp.

Wisner, B. and H.R. Luce 1993. Disaster vulnerability: scale, power and daily life. GeoJournal 30(2): 127-140.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Definitional Disaster Scene

Dr Noguchi: "Just do it."

  • Logic, etc. The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means.
  • A precise statement of the essential nature of a thing; a statement or form of words by which anything is defined.
  • A declaration or formal explanation of the signification of a word or phrase.
    - 1382-6, from the Wycliffe Bible and Chaucer. (OED)
For many years now disaster risk reduction and affiliated disciplines have been locked into a debate on definitions. Aficionados (presumably with a tendency towards stamp collecting) have amassed more than 200 definitions of 'resilience' (no, I am not going to supply a reference). More modestly, papers and books have been written with tables of multiple definitions of different terms (e.g. Weichselgartner 2001, O'Brien and O'Keefe 2013, pp. 130-131). Glossaries have appeared, of which the most respected are probably those of the United Nations (UNISDR 2009, cf. UN 2016). Despite that, Mayner and Arbon (2015) analysed 52 glossaries that defined the term 'disaster'. They hinted - or do I mean threatened? - that computerised text analysis would be needed in order to obtain a consensus on definitions. If that is what happens I shall oppose the consensus on principle. There is nothing like a spanner in the works for making the machine go faster!

The whole debate reminds me of when I was considerably younger and an inmate of a geography department. Geography went through many years of examining its navel and trying to define itself. Whole books were written on the subject of "what is geography?". Rather surprisingly, there was an answer, which was "geography is what geographers do". This was generally accepted because it did no harm to anyone and explained nothing. Armed with geography degrees, I went on to submit a paper to a geography journal and have it rejected because, as the editor wrote, "it's not geography".

In the introduction to his 1998 book "What is Disaster? Perspectives on the Question" Henry Quarantelli wrote eloquently and perceptively on the definitional morass. He said (a) it was healthy to have a debate about our inner meanings, but (b) if we can't agree, our discipline has identity problems. Quarantelli had been worrying away at the definitional question for years (Quarantelli 1985, 1995). He was not able to solve it. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the 1998 book turned out to be Volume 1 of 2 - or more (time will tell). In latter years we have been going round and round in ever smaller circles: more terms, more definitions, more debate, less conclusion. Perhaps we no longer need "new answers to old questions (Perry and Quarantelli 2005), but "no answers to any such questions", or "old answers to new questions".

An example is the MOVE framework for vulnerability. The paper by Birkmann et al. (2013) introduces a key diagram that defines vulnerability in terms of its relationships with other terms, such as 'fragility', 'hazard' and 'adaptation'. That one diagram required six solid days of argument between 20 people about the meaning of the various terms. The glossary for the MOVE project was due to be presented in month 2 of the project: it was completed, reluctantly, in month 39 (it was a 36-month project).

In the middle of Fukushima Prefecture there is a museum dedicated to the celebrated epidemiologist Dr Hideyo Noguchi. It contains a robotic simulation of the great doctor sitting at his desk and giving a lecture. At a certain point, the robot interrupts its discourse in Japanese, turns around and says, with a flourish of its robot arms: "Just do it!"

Good advice indeed.


Birkmann, J., O.D. Cardona, M.L. Carreño, A.H. Barbat, M. Pelling et al. 2013. Framing vulnerability, risk and societal responses: the MOVE framework. Natural Hazards 67(2): 193-211.

Mayner, L. and P. Arbon 2015. Defining disaster: the need for harmonisation of terminology. Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies 19(SI): 21-25.

O'Brien, G. and P. O'Keefe 2013. Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: Beyond Fragmented Responses. Routledge, London, 217 pp.

Perry, R.W. and E.L. Quarantelli (eds) 2005. What is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions. Xlibris Press, Philadelphia, 375 pp.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1985. What is disaster? The need for clarification in definition and conceptualization in research. In B. Sowder (ed.) Disasters and Mental Health: Selected Contemporary Perspectives. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: 41-73.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1995. What is a disaster? International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 221-229.

Quarantelli, E.L. (ed.) 1998. What is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question. Routledge, London, 312 pp.

UN 2016. Report of the open-ended intergovernmental expert working group on indicators and terminology relating to disaster risk reduction. United Nations General Assembly, Geneva, 41 pp.

UNISDR 2009. Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 30 pp.

Weichselgartner, J. 2001. Disaster mitigation: the concept of vulnerability revisited. Disaster Prevention and Management 10(2): 85-94.

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Importance of Context in Disaster Risk Reduction

It is an amusing, but macabre, fiction that Marie-Antoinette said "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche."

The Achilles heel of disaster studies is the way we tend to analyse risks and events without adequate reference to their context. We make assumptions about direct cause-effect relationships between disasters and the agents that give rise to them, but in this age of interconnected, concurrent, cascading impacts, many of the effects are strongly influenced by the political, economic and social realities of modern life. Here are some of the forms taken by the context of disasters and disaster risk reduction.

Trust and communication. Trust in authority and acceptance of emergency messages may be influenced by the general status of communication. This is the age of 'fake news', distortion and excessively selective use of the facts. How can we equate the need to provide life-saving information to people if they become accustomed to disbelieve what they hear, see and read in the news?

Image. Such is the power of mass communication in the modern age that entertainment values have replaced many earlier moral philosophies in the popular mind. This has profound implications for how people respond to disaster, which at worst is seen as a spectacle to enjoy, rather than a source of misery and suffering. Alternatively, aid can be switched on and off by manipulating news and using celebrities to determine the popular agenda (cf. Müller 2013).

Shelter. The population of hazardous areas need homes that will survive and resist disaster. What price shelter in an age of unattainable home loans and unaffordable rents? In many places, the excessive cost of housing is driving down the quality of shelter, as well as its accessibility.

Livelihoods. Livelihoods are the key to recovery from disaster and to the generation of resources for resilience. However, they are under threat from shifting production, artificial intelligence allied to robotisation and mechanisation, the deskilling of jobs, and the decoupling of work from social security and health insurance.

Social and health care. In a global financial climate of austerity, healthcare and social safety nets are being rolled back and downsized. Disaster response is fundamentally about social protection, but in ordinary times this is dwindling. If it loses its continuity with long-term assistance to people who are in need, disaster response will become a transient phenomenon. There is a reluctance to define welfare and an even greater reluctance to implement it unless it carries immediate political benefits.

Migration. Unplanned population movements are giving rise to xenophobic responses. This pervasive phenomenon will surely have some repercussions for the 'therapeutic community' that is supposed to prevail in the immediate aftermath of disaster and for solidarity with people affected by disaster.

Wealth. Imbalances in wealth between the ultra-rich and the poor are increasing constantly. This has been a steady trend since the early 1970s. As disaster risk reduction requires both public and private money to be spent for the common good, we may ask what effect the concentration of wealth is having on the resources available for DRR.

These and many more issues with context demand an answer to the question of how to incorporate it into disaster studies. There is no magic answer, but here are a few observations on possible strategies and procedures.

First, we need to track events and developments in politics, economics and society. We need to ponder their implications for disaster risk reduction.

Secondly, we need to make more effort to add culture to the DRR equation. It has elements that are stable and historical, but also mutable and dynamic. It is an elusive concept, but it needs to be understood, conceptualised and interpreted (Krüger et al. 2015). We need to answer the following questions: (a) What opportunities and constraints does culture offer DRR? (b) In direct terms, how does culture affect DRR? (c) How does cultural metamorphosis affect the exigencies of DRR?

Thirdly, we need to make very careful analyses of risk and disaster situations. We need, not only to make rigorous use of scenarios, but also to extend them to include contexts. The trends inherent in the factors listed above (and many more) need to be identified, understood and analysed in terms of their effect on disasters and disaster risk reduction.

The penalty for not including a thorough analysis of context is that explanations and causal influences will be misidentified, misunderstood and analysed only superficially. That would not be in the interests of anyone who wants to know why we have disasters, why they show particular trends, and what we can do to bring them under control.


Krüger, F., G. Bankoff, T. Cannon, B. Orlowski and L.F. Schipper (eds) 2015. Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction. Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 282 pp.

Müller, T.R. 2013.'The Ethiopian famine' revisited: Band Aid and the antipolitics of celebrity humanitarian action. Disasters 37(1): 61-79.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

'Optimisation' in disaster relief is a bad joke

Some of the principal characteristics of disaster situations are as follows. (1) Conditions on the ground are uncertain and liable to change in unpredictable ways. (2) Knowledge of conditions is incomplete and likely to remain so for the duration of the emergency, despite the best efforts of all concerned. (3) A common operating picture is created and shared only slowly and with much arduous work. (4) Field commanders and coordinators want simple solutions that require no great effort of thought or computation, not because they are unintelligent, but because they must devote almost all of their attention to directing emergency work. (5) Face-to-face communication is the most vital means of conveying information and the only one that can utilise the full range of people's sensory attributes. (6) Managing the convergence reaction is such a complex logistical exercise that it is inevitable that the outcome is approximate rather than precise.

Recently, there has been a sudden upsurge in the application of operations research (OR) to the management of sudden impact disasters. Mathematical and statistical algorithms are being written in the hope of optimising logistical actions. The circulation of traffic, the evacuation of cities, stockpiling and warehousing relief goods, improving vehicle fleet management, and so on, are some of the goals. Much of the work is inductive and relies on vacuuming up data, whacking them into order and squeezing them through a set of equations or matrices in order to produce the 'perfect' output.

Imagine this in the field. The earth shakes, producing massive destruction and a substantial toll of casualties. We whip out the iPad or laptop computer and turn it on. We turn to WiFi, but it has gone. So has the cable-based network and the local electricity supply. Nevertheless, the device still has some battery power. We crank up the algorithm and work out where best to stockpile relief goods. The solution that the algorithm proposes is unworkable because (a) we have no time and resources to build warehouses; (b) the accessibility of places has changed radically because of route blockages (rubble in the street, buildings in danger of collapse, damaged bridges, etc.); (c) rendezvous points have to be agreed with many organisations.

The process of OR modelling for optimisation of disaster relief is completely dependent on the quality of the assumptions that underlie it. In most cases these are scarce, threadbare, or simply unworkable. They do not mirror the real situation, as most of the modellers have no experience of conception of what that is like.

Science is very susceptible to fads and fashions. Perhaps the stimulus which motivates the current craze for mathematical optimisation of disaster relief is a desire to bring order to chaos. What could be more attractive than turning a messy, inefficient situation into one which is clean, streamlined and super-functional? If this is the motivation, then it ignores--at its peril--the old Aristotlean idea of generatio and corruptio. In disasters, as in so much else, forces are at work that break down order while other forces that create it are also at work and conflict with them. Many disaster plans have gone haywire because people have not done what the assumptions said they would do. One assumption is that we all have the same motives and objectives. We do not.

Perhaps the biggest chasm that would need to be bridged here is the one that occurs between the academics and the field coordinators. How can algorithms work if the cultures are different, have different receptivities, work towards different goals, and have different expectations? Disaster management would be so simple if no people were involved. People are such a nuisance, with their huge variety of attitudes and behaviours (Kirschenbaum 2003).

Will artificial intelligence do the trick? The current craze is to use the analytical hierarchy process (AHP), which uses inductive reasoning to make decisions. Rather than substituting the decision process, AHP merely shifts it to a different part of the process. If the initial decisions are wrong, so is the outcome, a classic "garbage in, garbage out" syndrome (Whitaker 2007).

When we have finally got the algorithm to spit out the perfect solution for step one, and have applied it by directing all traffic down one road to one site, the battery finally fades out and the computer is dead. Has anybody got a spare battery? No.

In disaster relief, we do not optimise: we try to muddle through until the end and keep wastage to less than ten per cent.


Kirschenbaum, A. 2003. Chaos, Organisation and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 318 pp.

Whitaker, R. 2007. Criticisms of the analytic hierarchy process: why they often make no sense. Mathematical and Computer Modelling 46(7-8) 948-961.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

What is essential reading in disaster studies?

Disaster studies have grown enormously since I started in the field 37 years ago. At that time there were few protagonists, two journals and not many papers. Now there are more than 80 journals that deal entirely or mainly with disasters or closely related topics, and more than 500 that publish papers in this field at intervals that vary from occasionally to frequently. There are now many thousands of 'disasterologists' in universities, research institutes and planning and policy offices throughout the world.

As a journal editor who deals with about 800 unpublished manuscripts a year in this field, it often strikes me that one of the biggest issues with papers is that the authors do not have an adequate grounding in the field. This induces them to ignore fundamental research or, equally often, to "reinvent the wheel" by duplicating previous research that they have not read. Lack of familiarity with the field induces model makers to adopt untenable assumptions, which would not stand up in real situations. Theoretical developments are stymied by the tendency of those who have not read enough to go round and round covering debates that have already happened many times before (what is resilience? Who cares?). Finally, the opportunities for discussion are reduced by lack of common ground.

In another of these postings I put forward the idea that 2017 is the centenary of academic studies of disaster. Whether or not that is the case, we are close to some kind of anniversary, as the 1920s were a time in which disaster studies set sail on the choppy sea of academic endeavour.

In conversation with colleagues, it seems that there is some support for the idea that we can compile the core curriculum. This would consist of key academic works that broke new ground and are fundamental to an understanding of what the field is and where it has gone during its century of existence.

I do not wish to be dictatorial. I have no power, moral, intellectual or otherwise, to mandate what should be read. However, I have some ideas about key works and I list them below. Many, even the oldest of them, are available as downloadable pdfs. Please note that the list is tentative and by no means exhaustive. It would be best not to overextend it, but I am sure to have left of some highly significant works. I list the works chronologically and not alphabetically. No doubt the list will grow as others take up the challenge and argue to add, or even subtract, works.

I have not included textbooks. There are some very good ones in circulation, but the choice is up to the reader. I have included books that, in my view, have had a seminal impact upon the development of the subject.

Towards a core curriculum

Dunant, Henri 1859. A Memory of Solferino. International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 38 pp.

Walford, Cornelius 1879. The Famines of the World, Past and Present. Edward Stanford, London, 303 pp.

Prince, Samuel Henry 1920. Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law no. 94. Colombia University Press, New York, 151 pp.

Barrows, Harlan H. 1923. Geography as human ecology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13: 1-14.

Carr, Lowell Julliard 1932. Disaster and the sequence-pattern concept of social change. American Journal of Sociology 38(2): 207-218.

White, Gilbert Fowler 1945. Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States. Research Paper no. 29. Department of Geography, University of Chicago, 225 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and Eli S. Marks 1954. The NORC studies of human behavior in disaster. Journal of Social Issues 10(3): 26-41.

Moore, Harry Estill 1956. Towards a theory of disaster. American Sociological Review 21: 734-737.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1956. Human Behavior During Extreme Situations. Disaster Study no. 1. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 35 pp.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1956. Tornado in Worcester. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Disaster Study no. 3. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 166 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and J.H. Mathewson 1957. Convergence Behavior in Disasters: A Problem in Social Control. Disaster Study no. 9. National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 102 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and Harry B. Williams 1957. The human being in disasters: a research perspective. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 309: 42-51.

Barton, Alan H. 1963. Social Organization Under Stress: A Sociological Review of Disaster Studies. Disaster Study no. 17, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 208 pp.

Barton, Alan H. 1970. Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. Doubleday, New York, 368 pp.

Bates, Frederick L. 1963. The Social and Psychological Consequences of a Natural Disaster: A Longitudinal Study of Hurricane Audrey. Disaster Study no. 18, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. 190 pp.

Anderson, Jon W. 1967. Cultural adaptation to threatened disaster. Human Organization 27: 298-307.

Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates and Gilbert F. White 1968. The Human Ecology of Extreme Geophysical Events. Natural Hazards Research Working Paper no. 1. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 29 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth 1970. Probabilistic approaches to discrete natural events: a review and theoretical discussion. Economic Geography Supplement 46(2): 332-349.

Russell, Clifford S., 1970. Losses from natural hazards. Land Economics 46: 383-393.

Hewitt, Kenneth and Ian Burton 1971. The Hazardousness of Place: A Regional Ecology of Damaging Events. Research Publication no. 6, Department of Geography, University of Toronto. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 154 pp.

Kates, Robert W. 1971. Natural hazards in human ecological perspective: hypothesis and model. Economic Geography 47(3): 438-451.

White, Gilbert F. (ed.) 1974. Natural Hazards: Local, National, Global. Oxford University Press, New York, 288 pp.

Dynes, Russell R. 1975. The comparative study of disaster: a social organizational approach. Mass Emergencies 1: 21-31.

O'Keefe, Phil, Ken Westgate and Ben Wisner 1976. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature 260: 566-567.

Haas, J. Eugene, Robert W. Kates and Martyn J. Bowden (eds) 1977. Reconstruction Following Disaster. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 331 pp.

Davis, Ian 1978. Shelter After Disaster. Oxford Polytechnic Press, Oxford, 127 pp.

Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates and Gilbert F. White 1978, 1993. The Environment as Hazard. First edn Oxford University Press, New York, 240 pp; Second edn Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.

Timmerman, Peter 1981. Vulnerability, Resilience and the Collapse of Society. Environmental Monograph no. 1, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, 42 pp.

Davis, Ian (ed.) 1981. Disasters and the Small Dwelling. Pergamon, Oxford, 220 pp.

Douglas, M. and A. Wildavsky 1982. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 224 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth (ed.) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 304 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth 1983. The idea of calamity in a technocratic age. In K. Hewitt (ed.) Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 3-32.

Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Trans M. Ritter. Sage, London, 260 pp.

Blaikie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner 1994, 2003. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters. Routledge, London, 320 pp.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. 1995. What is a disaster? International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 221-229.

Horlick-Jones, Tom 1995. Modern disasters as outrage and betrayal. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 305-315.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. (ed.) 1998. What is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question. Routledge, London, 312 pp.

Mileti, Dennis S. (ed.) 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. John Henry Press, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 351 pp.

Perrow, C. 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (2nd edn). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 386 pp.
Perrow, C. 2001. Accidents, normal. In N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Pergamon, Oxford. 33-38

Slovic, P. (ed.) 2000. The Perception of Risk. Risk, Society and Policy Series. Earthscan, London, 384 pp.

Stallings, Robert A. (ed.) 2002. Methods of Disaster Research. International Research Committee on Disasters Book Series no. 2. Xlibris, Philadelphia, 524 pp.

Perry, Ronald W. and Enrico L. Quarantelli (eds) 2005. What is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions. Xlibris Press, Philadelphia, 375 pp.

Rubin, C.B (ed.) 2012. Emergency Management: The American Experience 1900-2010 (2nd edn). CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 314 pp.

General science

Some works of more general science are particularly useful to disaster studies. Here is my selection.

Paine, Thomas 1794. The Age of Reason. Edition 2009, Truth Seeker Company, Escondido, California, 358 pp.

Kant, Immanuel 1798. The Conflict of the Faculties (Der Streit der Fakultäten). Trans. Mary J. Gregor, Edition 1979, Amaris Books, New York, 221 pp.

Maslow, Abraham Harold 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370-396.

Von Bertalanffy, K. Ludwig 1950. The theory of open systems in physics and biology. Science 111: 23-29.

Von Bertalanffy, K. Ludwig 1950. An outline of General Systems Theory. British Journal of Philosophical Sciences 1: 139-164.

Simon, Herbert A. 1956. Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63: 129-138.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962, 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 222 pp.

Simon, Herbert A. 1962. The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106(6): 467-482.

Ackerman, Edward A. 1963. Where is a research frontier? Annals of the Association of American Geographers 53(4): 429-440.

Harvey, David 1969. Scientific explanation: the model of natural science. Ch. 4. Explanation in Geography. Edward Arnold, London: 30-43.

Simon, Herbert A. 1978. On how to decide what to do. The Bell Journal of Economics 9(2): 494-507.