Monday, 29 July 2019

Disasters: Knowledge and Information in the New Age of Anomie

Bertrand Russell once observed, "Most people would die sooner than think--in fact they do so." Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the common failure of risk estimation and the tendency willingly to take unnecessary risks. However, an understanding of risk requires, not only an ability to think things through, but also enough information with which to make informed decisions. It could be argued that people do not seek the relevant information, or when supplied with knowledge and expertise they wilfully ignore it. However, there is another side to this, one which has parallels with looting.

Quarantelli and Dynes (1970) developed a three-stage model whereby property norms are progressively abandoned as a neighbourhood descends into an outbreak of uncontrolled looting. What was previously forbidden by custom, practice, sanction and retribution becomes possible, even desirable, as the emerging group of looters frees itself from the shackles of normal constraint. Something similar has happened with the Internet and social media. The former has been in widespread use since about 1993, and the latter since around 2009. In a quarter of a century and a decade, respectively, attitudes and customs have changed profoundly. Early views of social media (e.g. Bird et al. 2012) found that the negative aspects, such as the diffusion of unfounded rumour, were self-correcting. Early views of the Internet and disasters (e.g. Gruntfest and Weber 1998) were optimistic and identified its positive attributes. However, by the Haiti earthquake of 2010, a different picture had become to emerge and establish itself (Alexander 2010).

In the last decade there has been a massive and utterly profound change in the way that modern, technological channels of information dissemination are used. Although not characterised by loss of control, there has been a change in the way that media, and the information they purvey, are controlled. The change is achieved through apomediation (bypassing information gatekeepers), and control now rests in the information itself, and how it is served up to its consumers (Alexander 2014).

By analogy with the abandonment of property norms, there has been a trend towards forsaking basic ethics and loss of adhesion to the truth. The result is a communication process which has been termed chronic contagion (Pomerantsev 2019). Pronouncements are made on the basis of whim, prejudice and predilection, rather than any solid analysis of evidence or morality. Arbitrary rule is, of course, nothing new, but what is new is the role of networked electronic communication. Vast resources are now devoted to distorting the picture, and all three superpowers are busy utilising them (Druzin and Gordon 2018, Merrin 2019, Rudick and Dannels 2019).

One could argue that this is an inevitable outcome of political ideology and international rivalry, given the new tools that are available forcefully to disseminate views that would not survive any kind of sober, rational analysis. Population growth, migration, proxy wars and environmental change have together generated a current climate of nihilism, sometimes characterised as 'identity politics' and distinguished by a retreat from globalism and a global outlook. In reality, what has evolved is a sort of 'apolitical politics' characterised by the ideology of prejudice, unbridled competition and, often, plain vindictiveness.

To understand this situation, one needs to turn back to the work of the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). He coined the term anomie, which he defined as a reduction in interaction between social groups leading to a breakdown in mutual understanding, perhaps with a clash of norms, values and ideologies. He attributed it to rapid population growth. Since the late 20th century, the concept of anomie has been reinterpreted (Allan 2005, pp. 128-130). It has also been related to the growth of individualism (Marks 1974, p. 335).

Any attempt to relate the current anomie to disaster risk reduction (DRR) must take account of the 'egg hypothesis'. In this, the factors that directly affect DRR are the yolk, which reposes in the white, which is their political, social, economic and environmental context. Another way of looking at this is that problems caused by disasters cannot be solved in isolation from more general afflictions. For example, if people are poor and their lives are generally precarious, they cannot be made resilient against disasters such as floods and earthquakes unless the problem of vulnerability to life's exigencies in general is reduced. That is where anomie comes in, with a modern interpretation based upon the nihilism and anarchy that has crept into global electronic networked communication. The result, negative as it is, can be seen in Figure 1. Obviously, there are many exceptions to this picture. Its antidotes are thought, reasoning, action, activism, and the application of ethics and morality. People must not allow themselves to be absent from the debate, and they must be willing to learn and reason. Misinformation is successful because of the ability to generate it both forcefully and copiously, but also because of passive acceptance.

                              Figure 1. Anomie and shortage of disaster governance.

There is also a factor associated with official mindsets. In modern disaster risk reduction, problem solvers abound. They vary from individual researchers to major pan-national organisations. One thing they have in common is a tendency to look for the solutions to disaster problems by concentrating on the problem, not its context. This is understandable because in many cases the context is highly complex, subtle and sophisticated. It may pose issues that could well be regarded as intractable. However, the solution often lies in the context, not the problem. For example, great progress has been made in seismology and seismic engineering. However, two analyses (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011) suggest that the principal cause of earthquake disasters is corruption, which weakens or prevents defensive anti-seismic measures. The question then becomes "What is the process whereby a morally neutral threat such as an earthquake is turned into one with strong moral connotations by the spread of corruption?"

The tendency in research and policy advice is to assume that everyone in power has a strong desire to reduce hazards and threats. In contrast, we are all too often confronted with a situation that varies along a spectrum which extends from utter indifference to a desire to orchestrate conditions for private gain or personal aggrandisement. To shy away from such situations, especially in times of mass manipulation of the global means of communication, is to miss out on understanding why disasters prove to be such intractable problems. Further study of this essential problem requires that we develop a thorough understanding of how real issues, real developments and real knowledge are affected by anomie and its vital relationship with chronic contagion.


Alexander, D.E. 2010. News reporting of the January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake: the role of common misconceptions. Journal of Emergency Management 8(6): 15-27.

Alexander, D.E. 2014. Social media in disaster risk reduction and crisis management. Science and Engineering Ethics 20(3): 717-733.

Allan, K. 2005. Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, 448 pp.

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Bird, D., M. Ling and K. Haynes 2012. Flooding Facebook: the use of social media during the Queensland and Victorian floods. Australian Journal of Emergency Management 27(1): 27-33.

Druzin, B. and G.S. Gordon 2018. Authoritarianism and the Internet. Law and Social Inquiry 43(4): 1427-1457.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.

Gruntfest, E. and Weber, M. 1998. Internet and emergency management: prospects for the future. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 16(1): 55-72.

Marks, S.R. 1974. Durkheim's theory of anomie. American Journal of Sociology 80(2): 329-363.

Merrin, W. 2019. President Troll: Trump, 4Chan and memetic warfare. In C. Happer, A. Hoskins and W. Merrin  (eds) Trump’s Media War. Springer, New York: 201-226.

O'Connor, D. 2009. Apomediation and the significance of online social networking. American Journal of Bioethics 9(6-7): 25-27.

Pomerantsev, P. 2019. This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. Faber & Faber, London 256 pp.

Quarantelli, E.L. and R.R. Dynes 1970. Property norms and looting: their patterns in community crisis. Phylon 31: 168-182.

Rudick, C.K. and D.P. Dannels 2019. “Yes, and …”: continuing the scholarly conversation about the dark side of social media. Communication Education 68(3): 393-398.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Disaster Risk Reduction is not a Paradigm

In 1973, when I was a young undergraduate, I was taught the rudiments of the philosophy, theory and methodology of science. In the library of the London School of Economics there was an entire shelf that contained 29 well-thumbed copies of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1970). This was standard reading on many courses in the social sciences. It was accepted orthodoxy, but was Kuhn's model right?

According to Kuhn, researchers perceive a particular approach or methodology to be promising and productive. It seems to enable them to make progress with their collective enquiries. Gradually, they exhaust its potential. Pioneer researchers discover and propose a new approach that appears to be able to solve problems that the old way could not. Bit by bit, the community of scholars is convinced and progressively abandons the old approach while taking up the new one. Thus a 'scientific revolution' is born. Kuhn's is a model of innovation diffusion, based on observations of the 'model of natural science' (Harvey 1969). It lacks the spatial dimension of the 1960s work of the geographers Torsten Hägerstrand (1968) and his colleagues, but it has all the other components.

Because it is such a well-known, powerful and simple explanation of modern scientific method, the Kuhnian paradigm has elements of self-fulfilling prophesy. The model has been criticised both because it is too simple and because there are rival theories of paradigms. One of the most penetrating criticisms is that in any discipline many parallel paradigms are operating. In other words, there are different ways of seeing a problem and hence different methods of solving it can exist together at any point in time. If there are many paradigms, there is in effect no paradigm. It would be premature to suggest that there is also no discipline, but there is currently a process of combining and recombining forms of knowledge in new ways. Science is reorganising itself to meet the demands of a very difficult century, and the interpretation of the plethora of knowledge so far produced.

The 1970s were a period in which Kuhn's ideas were vigorously debated by people who were much more knowledgeable in the philosophy of science than I will ever be (Meiland 1974, Nickles 2003, Scheffler 1972). However, my point here is not to bring in the heavyweight models of that discipline, but to make a simple point about the misuse of terms. In fact, 'paradigm' is one of the most misused words in the scientific lexicon. It is used lazily for any common thread in scientific endeavour.

So do we have a paradigm in disaster studies? If we do, is it going to be overthrown by a scientific revolution (or a social scientific one)? Some researchers evidently think so (Ismail-Zadeh et al. 2017), but to answer the question properly, we have to ask another. Is our field (may I call it a discipline? - perhaps not!) susceptible to fads and fashions instead of true paradigms? To begin with, let us introduce some rigour: a vaguely defined way of doing things, or thinking about them, does not constitute a true paradigm. Secondly, a paradigm should involve parallel but independent investigations upon similar lines, and many of them. By contrast, a fad or fashion involves imitation rather than strictly parallel endeavour (a fad is a more pejorative version of a fashion). Imitation involves adapting other people's reasoning to a new set of data or circumstances. It does not require careful reasoning to choose the right tools for the job, or exactly the right question to ask in order to obtain the most productive answer.

Consider the notorious case of René Thom's catastrophe theory (Zeeman 1979). The name was attractive, although highly misleading, as it was not a theory about catastrophes. It was instead a mathematical interpretation of discontinuities (singularities) in state space. Only the lowest level of singularity could be used to model any physical reality. This severely limited the applicability of the theory. Its use in earth sciences (Henley 1976) produced few interpretable results and did almost nothing to shed new light on the problems to which it was applied. It was soon dropped, despite having been hailed as the start of a new paradigm. In reality it was a fad.

Such examples illustrate a rather shallow idea of what represents the 'cutting edge' in any discipline. Sadly, a follow-the-herd mentality all too easily develops among researchers. The residual question is how to liberate and encourage creativity. Like any field of study, disaster risk reduction needs lateral thinking. In other words, it needs diverse entities to be linked in new and productive ways. A paradigm is a concerted attack on a problem by many researchers with similar aims and parallel but diverse perspectives. DRR is now a large enough field to generate this. Indeed, will cascading disasters be a paradigm? Time will tell - or scepticism will dismiss the idea! Fads and fashions are far too imitative to be efficient, effective ways of addressing our problems. A non-paradigm approach might simply bring widely different perspectives to play, thus generating a more pluralistic approach. This is probably what is happening. It is a healthy sign in a field that draws upon more than 40 disciplines for its knowledge (Alexander 2013). My only reservation about this is that we may need the impact of a recognisable paradigm in order to gain the recognition that the field needs.


Alexander, D.E. 2013. Approaches to emergency management teaching at the Master's level. Journal of Emergency Management 13(1): 59-72.

Hagerstrand, T. 1968. Innovation Diffusion As A Spatial Process. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 334 pp.

Harvey, D. 1969. Scientific explanation: the model of natural science. Ch. 4. Explanation in Geography. Edward Arnold, London: 30-43.

Henley, S. 1976. Catastrophe theory models in geology. Journal of the International Association for Mathematical Geology 8(6): 649-655.

Ismail-Zadeh, A.T., S.L. Cutter, K. Takeuchi and D. Paton 2017. Forging a paradigm shift in disaster science. Natural Hazards 86: 969-988.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (first edition 1962). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 222 pp.

Meiland, J.W. 1974. Kuhn, Scheffler, and objectivity in science. Philosophy of Science 41(2): 179-187.

Nickles, T. (ed.) 2003. Thomas Kuhn. Contemporary Philosophy in Focus. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 314 pp.

Scheffler, I. 1972. Vision and revolution: a postscript on Kuhn. Philosophy of Science 39(3): 366-374.

Zeeman, C. 1979. Catastrophe theory. In W. Güttinger and H. Eikemeier (eds), Structural Stability in Physics. Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg: 12-22.