12 Significant Sociological Publications on
The Human Dimension of Disasters: How Social Science Research Can Improve
Preparedness, Response, and Recovery
October 27, 2003

1. Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas
Clarke, Lee, ed. 2003. Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas. Vol. 11, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. Stamford, Connecticut: JAI Press.

This edited volume focuses on what social scientists have learned from 9/11. The majority of authors suggest that politicians, policy makers, or security experts have not absorbed these lessons. For example, the research cited here shows that civilian involvement could improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorist policy, yet it is expert systems rather than bottom-up systems that receive the bulk of anti-terror funding. Experts cling to the myth that civilians panic during disasters despite decades of social science research to the contrary. Examples are given of how large-scale bureaucracies are developed that create hierarchies and cultures of risk acceptance and secrecy. The result is increased citizen perceptions of civilian government and military failure. Research shows that programs to reduce human vulnerability are less likely to be funded than those to protect property or technology. Volume authors distinguish between natural disasters in which citizens pull together and technological disasters that create “corrosive” rather than “altruistic” communities, when lawsuits are likely to be filed because large-scale corporations refuse to accept blame. The Exxon Valdez is an example of such a scenario. As a result of the disparities between the findings of social science research and the actions of politicians and policy makers, the authors of this volume are pessimistic that the U.S. population is safer now than prior to 9/11. To improve reaction and recovery, they call for a review of disaster policies.

2. Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster
Clarke, Lee B. 1999. Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mission Improbable enters the world of disaster and emergency managers and experts who develop complex plans based on improbabilities that societies can be rebuilt after nuclear war, that evacuations of huge numbers of people after nuclear meltdowns can be effectively carried out, and that huge oil spills can be cleaned up. It is a world where people have to think they can control the uncontrollable. Unlike other fantasies, though, these fantasies are important because people represent them as real promises that can be kept. These promises are folded into plans, which Clarke dubs "fantasy documents." Complex, highly interactive systems increasingly insinuate themselves into society. The justifications that are attached to those systems often mask failures that we need to see more clearly. Fantasy documents are used to convince audiences that dangerous systems are safe, that experts are in charge, that all is well. Fantasy documents make danger seem normal by allowing organizations and experts to claim that the problems are under control. Clarke emphasizes the rhetorical nature of managers’ and experts’ promises. Though people are increasingly skeptical of big organizations they have no choice but to depend on them for protection from big dangers, so they expect their experts to tell the truth. But the reassuring rhetoric these experts construct may have no basis in fact or experience and thus may not include the interests of society.

3. The Gendered Terrain of Disaster
Enarson, Elaine and Betty Hearn Morrow. 1998. The Gendered Terrain of Disaster. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

This edited volume focuses on the neglect of gender issues in disasters and the specific experiences of women. Women are less likely to be the front-line responders, the organizational managers, the public spokespersons, and the technical specialists than are men. In contrast, women are expected to do the unpaid work of clean up to help families, friends, and communities recover from disasters. As a result of disaster, women’s unpaid work increases dramatically. The authors in this volume agree that much systems-oriented disaster research, funded by government agencies, avoids an analysis of social inequalities including vulnerability to risk and access to resources for recovery. As articles in this volume show, through specific cases from the United States, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Australia, both vulnerability to risk and access to resources are shaped by gender, age, physical ability, citizenship status, and race and ethnicity. In addition, volume authors claim that much systems research employs a “bounded rationality” model rather than examining actual human experience of disaster, as it varies by gender, age, physical ability, citizenship status, and race and ethnicity. Several authors state that the less powerful groups are the missing voices in disaster research. They call for new models of disaster research and recovery that emphasize empowerment rather than systems management models. The editors conclude that “disaster specialists rarely speak in the language of empowerment, but social justice is in fact the linchpin of effective disaster mitigation; women’s services, organizations and grassroots advocacy can and must make the voices of women heard—in risk assessment and hazard planning, in crisis and in reconstructing human settlements.”

4. A New Species of Trouble. The Human Experience of Modern Disasters
Erikson, Kai. 1995. A New Species of Trouble. The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Disasters caused by human beings have become more and more common in the 20th century. Unlike earthquakes and other natural catastrophes, this "new species of trouble" afflicts persons and groups in particularly disruptive ways. Erikson describes how certain communities have faced such disasters. For example, the Three Mile Island and other man-made disasters result in years of litigation to punish the “polluter” and created community tension and acrimony. Erikson shows that attention must be paid to the experiences of communities suffering from these disasters if people are to maintain elementary confidence not only in themselves but also in society, government, and even life itself. This book illustrates how administrative power and market forces, when they are not responsive to the people they affect, can have devastating consequences, destroying the trust without which people cannot live resilient lives. Erikson proposes interventions to help communities recover from “collective trauma.”

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago
Klinenberg, Eric. 2002. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klinenberg's award-winning book examines the social processes that contributed to the unprecedented death toll of 700 Chicago residents during a one-week heat wave in July 1995. Comparisons of the 1995 heat wave to earlier heat waves have shown that the 1995 mortality rates are not natural and are not solely attributable to the weather. Klinenberg shows how the social, spatial, and political structure of Chicago contributed to the isolation and vulnerability of many of its older citizens, especially single men. "Social autopsy" examines both the everyday social conditions that helped produce such a massive catastrophe, and the conditions that made the disaster so easy to overlook, dehumanize and forget. Some of these conditions included the denials of city officials, the mismatch between the capabilities of the most vulnerable and the skills required to access city services, the lack of coordination between city and privatized services, the lack of commercial development in some areas of the city, and the anonymous burial of the dead. Some solutions that were eventually implemented in Chicago, included hotlines, cooling shelters, transportation to cooling centers, door-to-door surveying of needs in areas with high numbers of senior citizens, and monitoring of hospital emergency rooms.

6. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States
Mileti, Dennis. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington D.C.: John Henry Press.

The purpose of this book is to evaluate what is known about natural hazards and to develop ways to reduce their social and economic costs. Seven of the 10 most costly U.S. disasters occurred between 1989 and 1994. The states of California, Texas and Florida experienced the greatest losses from natural hazards during the study period. The major thesis of the book is that the difficulty in reducing the costs of losses from natural and related technological hazards in the United States is the result of “narrow and shortsighted” development patterns and attitudes and ideology toward the natural environment and science and technology. The author claims that the really big catastrophes are getting larger and will continue to get larger, partly because of the use of technology to reduce risk. For example, building a dam or levee may protect a community from the small- and medium-sized floods, but additional housing or commercial development that occurs because of this protection will mean even greater losses during a big flood that causes the dam or levee to fail. Mileti concludes that many of the accepted methods for coping with hazards have been based on the idea that people can use technology to control nature to make them safe without controlling other problems such as over-development. This book proposes a new framework that links natural hazards to environmental sustainability and to the social resiliency of communities.

7. Normal Accidents
Perrow, Charles. 1999. Normal Accidents. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Normal Accidents analyzes the social side of technological risk. The major finding of Perrow’s book is that the conventional engineering approach to ensuring safety—building in more warnings and safeguards—fails because systems complexity makes failures inevitable. He asserts that typical precautions, by adding to complexity, may help create new categories of accidents. (At Chernobyl, tests of a new safety system helped produce the meltdown and subsequent fire.) Systems with sub-components that are tightly intertwined, where failure of one part of the system occurs simultaneously with failures of other parts of the systems are particularly at high risk. For example, at Three Mile Island all major systems experienced failure within 13 seconds. Under these conditions, the system operators, who work with imperfect information, cannot figure out what is happening to the system quickly enough. Contrast systems, whose sub-components are not tightly linked, can respond to shocks because operators do have time to figure out what is happening and damage can more easily be contained. The results of “tightly coupled” systems is the immediate taking of life as well as long-term effects that can last for generations. Perrow concludes that systems must be designed to meet the social and cultural rationality that most people use to operate in daily life rather than absolute rationality. Those systems with high potential for disaster (such as nuclear power plants) where less costly alternatives exist should be abandoned.

8. Major Criteria for Judging Disaster Planning and Managing and Their Applicability in Developing Societies
Quarantelli, E.L. 1998. Major Criteria for Judging Disaster Planning and Managing and Their Applicability in Developing Societies. Newark, Delaware: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware.

This publication answers the questions of what is good disaster planning and what is good disaster management, based on more than 40 years of empirical research by behavioral and social scientists. He suggests a series of criteria for each. Most of the research is based on disasters that occurred in first-world countries and are only partially applicable to third-world countries. Research suggests that “good” planning activities emphasize the following: rehearsals, public education, developing linkages among groups; empowering community members to take part in planning; general planning that crosses agencies and types of disasters; resource coordination rather than the centralization of authority; coordination among planners including police, hospitals, military and private sector organizations; and using social science knowledge rather than myths and misconceptions.

Good disaster management recognizes the following: there are needs generated by the disaster itself (e.g., exposure to flooding, radiation) and problems generated by the response itself (such as the effective mobilization of resources and people); there are generic functions for all types of disasters—warnings, evacuations, sheltering, emergency medical care, and search and rescue; there needs to be task delegation and a division of labor so that conflicts over responsibilities and clashes between emergent and established groups are minimized; there needs to be multiple information flows not secrecy or denial; overall coordination models, and the blending of emergent and established groups (even if not planned for).

In conclusion, Quarantelli calls for systematic, cross-country research in both first and third world countries. Although this research should not assume that the organized systems in the first world are the best models of disaster planning and management in the third world, nonetheless top down models tend to have questionable results in all countries.

9. After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City
Sorkin, Michael and Sharon Zukin. 2002. After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City. New York: Routledge.

On September 11, New York City irrevocably changed. Not just the historic financial district—all of the city, all of the boroughs. In After the World Trade Center, Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin and seventeen of New York's urban scholars analyze the attack and its aftermath in a broad social, economic, and political context. They investigate lower Manhattan as a contested terrain. For example, in recounting how the World Trade Towers were built, they describe the neighborhoods that were destroyed to build them. The authors move outward from Ground Zero to Queens, and then outward again to the global conflicts that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the sixteen-acre site. The contributors stress the fault lines that developed between diverse economic groups in New York during the years of boom growth, cracks that the disaster has laid bare. Ground Zero is currently being built under the auspices of a redevelopment commission, free of democratic oversight. The essays offer guidelines for a more democratic New York, one where voices from all the city's communities count, one that can check the power of “big money” and the city's traditional power brokers, and one can that develop consensus. Through a multitude of perspectives on the emerging city, After the World Trade Center provides alternative visions to the power relations that are expected in redeveloping the lower Manhattan landscape, as well as all of the city’s communities from Tribeca to Jackson Heights.

10. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America
Steinberg, Theodore. 2000. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The ten most costly catastrophes in U.S. history have all been natural disasters—seven of them hurricanes—and all have occurred since 1989. Why has there been an increase in the costs of disasters? While some claim that nature is the problem, in fact, much of the death and destruction has been well within the realm of human control. Surveying more than a century of losses from weather and seismic extremes, Steinberg exposes the fallacy of seeing such calamities as simply random events. This book investigates the history of so-called natural calamities, the decisions of business leaders and government officials that have paved the way for the greater losses of life and property, especially among those least able to withstand such blows—America's poor, elderly, and minorities. Seeing nature or God as the primary culprit, Steinberg argues, has helped to conceal the reality that some Americans are better protected from the violence of nature than their counterparts lower down the socioeconomic ladder. For example, the hardest hit areas in hurricanes have often been low-income neighborhoods, especially in areas without enforced building codes. Beginning with the 1886 Charleston and 1906 San Francisco earthquakes, and continuing to the present, Steinberg highlights the problematic approach to natural hazards by real estate interests, the media, and policymakers. As a result, fundamental flaws are not remedied, class divisions are maintained, and unsafe practices continue unquestioned. In spite of increased scientific knowledge, reckless building continues unabated in seismically active areas and flood-prone coastal plains, often at taxpayer expense.

11. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States
Tierney, Kathleen J., Michael K. Lindell, Ronald W. Perry. 2001. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Washington D.C.: John Henry Press.

This book presents an overview of the last three decades of research on disaster preparedness and response in the United States. A major finding is that disasters do not have random or unpredictable effects but disproportionally harm socially vulnerable groups that are already marginal. The authors review diverse theoretical perspectives and explore how research sheds light on human and organizational behavior in disasters. They also address how variations in social settings can affect disaster preparedness and response and suggest ways in which research-based knowledge can help improve disaster programs. For example, risk information is filtered through discussions with friends, relatives, and co-workers. Racial and ethnic differences influence perceptions of what is a threat and attitudes towards agencies disseminating information. Community organizations need to have mechanisms for resolving conflicts among them in order to be effective. The authors review the influences that shape the U.S. governmental system for disaster planning and response, the effectiveness of local emergency agencies, and the level of professionalism in the field. They also compare technological versus natural disaster and examine the impact of technology on disaster programs.

12. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA
Vaughan, Diane. 1996. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, millions of Americans watched. In The Challenger Launch Decision, Diane Vaughan recreates the steps leading up to that disaster. Journalists and investigators have historically cited production problems and managerial wrongdoing as the reasons behind the disaster. The Presidential Commission appointed to investigate the disaster uncovered a flawed decision-making process at the space agency as well, citing a well-documented history of problems with the O-ring and a dramatic last-minute protest by engineers over the Solid Rocket Boosters as evidence of managerial neglect. In contrast, Vaughn applies a sociological theory that mistakes are socially organized and systematically produced in order to answer, “Why did NASA managers, who not only had all the information prior to the launch but also were warned against it, decide to proceed?” In retelling how the decision unfolded through the eyes of the managers and the engineers, Vaughan uncovers an incremental descent into poor judgment, supported by a culture of high-risk technology. She reveals how and why NASA insiders, when repeatedly faced with evidence that something was wrong, normalized the deviance so that it became acceptable to them. Vaughn investigates how unacceptable risk became part of the taken-for-granted aspects of the organization. For example, the economic and political environments in which NASA operated changed so that it was no longer viewed as a research and development agency by Congress and the White House. Instead it was viewed as a competitive business organization with dominant cost and efficiency goals that increased the willingness to accept risk. NASA’s top administrators accepted these goals and allowed for the acceptance of more risk. In addition the agencies’ culture reflected an acceptance of bureaucratic authority, structural secrecy, and hidden constraints to disagreement. The result of context, structure, and culture was a worldview that made high-risk normal and blinded people to the consequences of their actions.