The sociologist director of the Natural Hazards Center discusses how sociology helps us understand responses to disasters

While disasters seem to be a growing area of interest across academic disciplines, a sociologist who is the director of the Natural Hazards Center talks about how sociology approaches the topic:

What’s sociology’s role in emergency management?

Sociology is a broad area, and sociologists are interested in a variety of things related to disasters and emergency management. They certainly do research and know a lot about individual, group and organizational behavior in disasters; a good deal about warning processes and warning systems; risk perception; the social factors that are associated with preparing for disasters, disaster recovery and some of the social factors that contribute to differences or disparities in the recovery process and outcomes; the politics and economics of disaster mitigation. These are some topics sociologists are interested in.

Have you done any research on what motivates people to prepare for disasters?

There’s been a lot of research on preparedness, especially household preparedness, and the research has [found] that being better prepared is associated with having higher levels of income, homeownership, to some extent with previous disaster experience, and having children in the home. These are all sociological factors that help to explain preparedness…

During your research, has there been a finding that most surprised you?

I found a lot of things that are contrary to common sense or the way most people might think about disaster behavior. One is the overwhelming altruistic pro-social response that most people engage in during disasters. It’s not like the disaster movies. I also think there are many important findings about the importance of volunteer groups and emergent groups in disasters. Ordinary community citizens can be very resourceful and can engage extensively in self-help and mutual aid when disasters happen. They don’t need to be told what to do by others. I’m seeing growing recognition that while we need experts in emergency management — we need well trained, well educated people — that the whole community is involved in mitigating, preparing for and responding to and recovering from disasters. That whole community approach was a big focus last year and will be this year from FEMA and other agencies. But it’s what sociologists have been saying all along.

I like the reference to how disaster movies tend to play up the atomistic responses to disasters. Movies, books, and TV shows tend to play up the image of the lone wanderer (typically a male?) or a few people trying to pick their way through issues with other people and the natural environment. Some of this seems to underlie recommendations about disaster preparedness: you can’t count on others to help and indeed, you might need to protect what you have from others. Granted, a large enough disaster will disrupt the response of organized government but ordinary citizens can still help each other.

This reminds of a humorous scenario I’ve discussed with several family members. In this hypothetical situation, family members would live on some sort of large piece of property where everyone could have a house yet still have some space. On this “compound,” different people could carry out different tasks that could serve the group in the event of some large disaster in the larger world. For example, being a nurse would be really useful here. However, when the conversation turns to what I could contribute to the larger group as a sociologist, I’m left suggesting something like I could help “enhance critical thinking skills.” Now I know I can contribute something else: I can help everyone work together and can helpfully point out the social factors that will aid or hinder our efforts.

Also, perhaps sociology majors would be uniquely suited to work in the area of emergency management?

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