Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Dynamics of Disaster

Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and Recovery

Edited by Rachel A. Dowty and Barbara L. Allen
London: Earthscan
2011, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781849711432

Here's a briefly annotated Table of Contents followed by a review of the volume as a whole.

Foreword, Alan Irwin
Introduction, Rachel A. Dowty and Barbara L. Allen

Part I: Environmental, Cultural and Political Concerns

1. Katrina's Contamination: Regulatory Knowledge Gaps in the Making and Unmaking of Environmental Contention, Scott Frickel and M. Bess Vincent
Examines the institutional logic operating at the EPA and the manner in which this logic produced knowledge gaps with specific spatial-temporal dimensions in order to explore the connection between knowledge gaps and contentious politics.

2. Organizational Culture and the Katrina Response in Louisiana, Rachel A. Dowty, Peter J. May, Colin E. Beech, and William A. Wallace
Uses Mary Douglas's grid-group typology to link the organizational cultures of various actors involved in responding to Katrina (FEMA, the Coast Guard, the White House, emergent groups) with the actions they took.

3. Disasters as System Accidents: A Socio-ecological Framework, Gary Bowden
Articulates a framework for analyzing disasters not as events but, rather, as the actualization of system vulnerabilities embedded in a diverse set of analytically distinct systems (natural, technological, social) operating at multiplicity of spatial-temporal scales (micro, meso, macro).

4. Conceptualizing Disasters as Extreme Versions of Everyday Life, Edward Woodhouse
Argues that Hurricane Katrina emerged from the same basic decision-making processes and strategies that govern other facets of techno-social life in the US and, hence, the same analytical lens should be applied to both disasters and other less dramatic social outcomes.

Part II: Relocation, Rebuilding and Recovery Concerns

5. Mind Maps, Memory and Relocation after Hurricane Katrina, Kathryn Henderson
Uses interviews and mapping exercises with Katrina survivors to examine the situatedness of local spatial knowledge in daily interaction, its disruption by the hurricane, and the manner in which situated spatial knowledge affects attempts to rebuild.

6. Post-Katrina Neighbourhood Recovery Planning in New Orleans, Roberto E. Barrios
Explores how superficial labels like 'participatory democracy' perpetuate repressive cultural politics through an ethnographic examination of the ways that experts (architects and urban planners) produce the 'voices of city residents' through so-called participatory planning.

7. Rebuilding the Historic Treme Neighbourhood: Lessons in the Repatriation of New Orleans, Barbara L. Allen and Isabelle Thomas Maret
Uses the reconstruction of an historic Creole neighbourhood as a case study to explore what the neighbourhood defined as 'success' in rebuilding, the complications they faced, and the strategies that worked to effectively build networks and synergies among residents, government agencies and NGOs.

Part III: International Disasters and Katrina Comparisons

8. The 2002 Flood Disaster in the Elbe Region, Germany: A Lack of Context-Sensitive Knowledge, Juergen Weichselgartner and Emilie Brévière
For both the Elbe flood and Katrina the potential for disaster was understood years in advance and the awareness of potentially triggering events existed for days in advance. This leads the authors to focus on various barriers to the transfer and implementation of existing research-based knowledge.

9. Social Dynamics of Unnatural Disasters: Parallels between Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 European Heat Wave, Melanie Gall
Examines social vulnerability at the individual, community and organizational levels, particularly as it relates to the public health experts conceptualization of 'excess mortality.'

10. After Disasters: Emergences of National Insecurity in Sri Lanka, Vivian Choi
Explores the interconnection between the Sri Lankan approach to managing natural disasters following the 2004 tsunami and the country's approach to managing war and terrorism.

11. Response and Recovery in the Remediation of Contaminated Land in Eastern Germany, Alena Bleicher and Matthias Gross
Discusses slow developing 'creeping' disasters resulting from polluted former industrial sites in terms of decision-making processes that involve different shadings of ignorance.

Afterword, Rachel A. Dowty and Barbara L. Allen
Ties together the chapters in light of the concepts in the book's title: lessons on risk, lessons on response, lessons on recovery, and their implications for the dynamics of disaster.

As evident from the above annotated Table of Contents, Dynamics of Disaster brings together a diverse mix of international scholars to deliver an interesting blend of distinctive, and occasionally quite original, contributions to the Disaster Studies literature. While space limitations preclude any detailed discussion of individual chapters, they are of consistently high quality; a remarkable achievement for an edited volume.

Viewed as a whole, rather than in terms of the contributions of the individual chapters, the book has two interesting features. First, while deeply rooted in the specifics of a particular disaster (Hurricane Katrina), the book retains a comparative focus. A number of the chapters in the first two sections (which emphasize the experience of Katrina from the top down and the bottom up respectively), draw connections to other events. The chapters in the third section have an explicitly comparative purpose. The decision to structure the volume in terms of comparisons is particularly interesting in light of the heavy emphasis on contextual specificity present in many of the chapters. The logic of comparison is typically associated with what Andrew Abbott termed the 'variables paradigm' -- the idea that there exist certain theoretical categories (gender, bureaucracy, capitalism) that remain largely invariant across time and space and, hence, they (or the set of causal relations among them) can be compared. In contrast, many of the chapters in the volume treat social facts as located -- that is as embedded in a specific social/geographical time and space -- and, as a result, call into question the invariant nature of those abstract theoretical categories often used to facilitate comparison. Significantly, the volume successfully squares this circle through the emphasis on process implicit in the title: Dynamics of Disaster. It is process, rather than a specific set of causal connections, that operates meaningfully across time and space. The Afterword does an excellent job of pulling together a number of disparate threads from the various chapters and weaving them together into a process-oriented tapestry.

Second, the volume purports to be the first book to bring a science and technology studies perspective to disaster studies. Given that STS and Disaster Studies both involve a diverse set of perspectives drawn from a wide range of disciplines that are held together by their relevance for understanding a particular topic (science/technology and disasters, respectively), it isn't inherently obvious that an STS focus will have anything new to say to specialists in Disaster Studies. Dowty and Allen emphasize two particular approaches from the STS toolkit: the public use/understanding of science and the new political sociology of science. The former asks questions about the politics of technical and scientific knowledge formation and the construction of expertise surrounding issues of risk, scientific knowledge and technological know-how. The latter reconceptualises the politics of science in light of the existence of a richer array of interactions among scientists, citizens, government and the private sector than occurred in past decades. The pay off from this is less obvious than one would hope. Not all of the individual chapters fit neatly into one or the other of those categories. Moreover, the connection of these ideas to the material in the chapters is rarely explicit and, hence, the reader is left to do this on their own. Finally, disaster scholars are broadly aware of the issues involved in the politics of knowledge. Thus, it is the heightened nuance and subtlety found in the treatment of these questions by way of the STS tradition, rather than the discovery of previously uncharted territory, that individuals working in Disaster Studies will appreciate. All things considered, this is a small objection to what is otherwise an excellent collection deserving wide circulation among disaster scholars.

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