Disasters Fast and Slow: Crafting a Multidisciplinary Research Agenda for Risk Reduction

AHA Session 9
Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Gabrielle Hecht, University of Michigan
Disasters Fast and Slow: The View from Environmental Studies
Scott Frickel, Washington State University Pullman
Disasters Fast and Slow: The View from Sociology
Lori Peek, Colorado State University–Fort Collins

Session Abstract

Disasters Fast and Slow: Crafting a Multi-Disciplinary Research Agenda for Risk Reduction

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that globally since the year 2000 disasters have killed 1.2 million people, affected 2.9 billion, and claimed $1.7 trillion dollars in material damage.  The United States has moved into a “new normal” of frequent, billion-dollar hurricanes.  Nine of the ten costliest hurricanes in United States history have hit since 2004, at a cost of over $200 billion.  An additional $100 billion has been lost to riverine and flash flooding since 2003.  Insured flood losses in the United States in 2012 reached $58 billion.

Contemporary disaster researchers working across the humanities and social sciences are rejecting traditional chronologies of disaster.  Rather than conceptualizing disaster as an event that takes place at one time, and one discrete location, research now points to disasters as revealing long-term patterns of risk, technological dysfunction, and natural hazard.  Disasters have a history, and reactions to disaster often re-inscribe historically traceable patterns of social vulnerability.  By stretching out the time frame, scholars are rewriting the history of disasters, telling stories more inclusive of contests over political power and environmental quality.

Questions abound: if we don't assume that disaster is a discrete one-time event—then how do we proceed with our policymaking, and our research?  Take it further and challenge the event itself—what was the “real” disaster in Hurricane Katrina: the wind, the water, the breach of the levees, the failure of the pumps, the drownings, the failures of FEMA?  When did it begin and when did it end—and how many perspectives must we collect to be sure?  When is recovery over—when the levee is rebuilt, the population returns, or the last federal aid dollar expended?  The answers will no doubt be tantalizingly variable.  As a thought experiment to start: exchange the temporal and spatial fixity of disasters for the slow disaster, what previously obscured vested interests come into view?

This roundtable considers the multiple methodologies of disaster research, particularly looking to understand the dialogue among historians and other disciplines describing and theorizing "slow" disasters.  Working across anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, and political science this roundtable looks for interdisciplinary creativity in the practice of re-imagining disaster as a long-term historical process.  What is gained and lost by shifting time scales in disaster analysis?  How might historical methodology provide useful context for other disciplinary approaches?  How is the research itself disparately politicized based on the time frame selected for the work--and how might a hybrid disaster studies discipline bring the power of scholarly practice to the work of contemporary policy challenges?

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