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. CarreƱo, 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.