ASA Holds Another Successful Congressional Briefing . . .
The Human Dimension of Disasters:
How Social Science Research Can Improve
Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

Washington, DC, October 27, 2003—On a rainy Monday morning in Washington as the Santa Ana winds caused fires to rage in Southern California, the American Sociological Association welcomed congressional staff, federal agency leaders, a local city mayor and staff, scientific association representatives, and other policymaking stakeholders to a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill. The briefing, titled "The Human Dimension of Disasters: How Social Science Research Can Improve Preparedness, Response, and Recovery," addressed an issue of great concern to policymakers and those beyond the policy realm, especially since September 11, 2001. (See the media advisory.)

The briefing was co-sponsored with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University (GWU) and was represented by director and engineer John F. Harrald. The second co-sponsoring organization was the Senate Natural Hazards Caucus Work Group, represented by David Applegate. The briefing attracted an engaged crowd of nearly 60 people from a variety of organizations — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Government Reform Committee to the American Geological Institute. The Disaster News Network reported on the briefing.
Pictured at right: The audience at the Oct. 27 congressional briefing at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.

At the briefing, speakers discussed the contributions that sociologists bring to disaster research. They reminded the participants that the effects of hurricanes, floods, fires, etc., are considered "disasters" and not simply "hazards" because of the human toll that is associated with these events. Kathleen Tierney, Director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, discussed the individual and collective preparation needed in order to prevent disasters or to mitigate the adverse impact of possible disasters. Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University expert on organizations, culture, and disasters, discussed the best response and communication means to actual disasters. Eric Klinenberg, author of the award-winning Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago discussed the response and recovery from the effects of disasters.
Pictured from left to right: The congressional briefing panel included William Anderson, Kathleen Tierney, Lee Clarke, Eric Klinenberg, and John Harrald.

ASA Executive Officer Sally Hillsman opened the briefing saying, "Sociologists have been studying human and natural disasters for a century or more-well before September 11 made our country more acutely aware of the consequences of not understanding disaster preparation, response, and recovery and of not using the scientific knowledge we have." Hillsman made special note of a recent quote of Wayne Hale, the new director of NASA’s space-shuttle mission teams: “Being trained as an engineer, I'm wishing I'd taken more sociology classes in college.” Hale had made this statement following the August release of the report of the Accident Investigation Board on the cause of the February 2003 Columbia space-shuttle crash. The quote was noteworthy because it is an informed acknowledgement that a purely “technology-based fix” is not sufficient to avoid or respond to disasters.

The "Godfather of Disaster Research," William A. Anderson of the National Research Council (NRC) (National Academies), moderated the presentations. He cited Dennis Mileti's 1999 NRC report, Disasters by Design, saying, "from 1975-1994 an estimated 24,000 persons died in the United States as a result of disasters, and that the nation suffered an estimated $250 billion to $1 trillion in property and crop losses. Truly such losses indicate the need for the development of sound disaster policy, and sociology and the other social sciences can help further this process." He also mentioned the importance of funding from federal agencies to enable sociologists and other social scientists to carry out disaster research over the years.

William Anderson, Director of the Disasters Roundtable at the National Academies, moderated the panel of speakers.

As the first presenter, Tierney explained the key areas of focus in sociological research. They are social factors and disaster vulnerability, disaster-related collective behavior, social networks and resilience, and risk communication and disaster warnings. Clarke, the second presenter, made three main points: (1) Disasters, warnings, and bad news do not induce panic; (2) there is a crucial difference between “official” responders (e.g., police, fire fighters) and “first” responders (e.g., people who are first on the scene at the disaster site such as family, friends, coworkers, and other disaster victims); and (3) trust is the key to effective risk communication. Lastly, Klinenberg explained that a social autopsy of heat waves, the most deadly of the "natural disasters," can help to prevent futures disasters. A file (1.8MB) containing all three speakers' PowerPoint presentations is accessible here. Individual speakers' presentations are accessible here (file size is in parentheses): Tierney (83KB), Clarke (848KB), Klinenberg (81KB). Harrald offered concluding remarks on the future of disaster research.

For additional information on social science disaster research, see the annotated bibliography on key social science publications related to disaster research.

For more information contact Johanna Ebner ( or 202-383-9005 x332), Roberta Spalter-Roth (, or Lee Herring (