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Lee Clarke Possibilistic Thinking: A New Conceptual Tool for Thinking about Extreme Events IN SCHOLARLY WORK, THE SUBFIELD OF DISASTERS IS OFTEN SEEN AS narrow. One reason for this is that a lot of scholarship on disasters is practically oriented, for obvious reasons, and the social sciences have a deep-seated suspicion of practical work. This is especially true in soci­ ology. Tierney (2007b) has treated this topic at length, so there is no reason to repeat the point here. There is another, somewhat unappreci­ ated reason that w ork on disaster is seen as narrow, a reason that holds some irony for the m ain th ru st of my argum ent here: disasters are unusual and the social sciences are generally biased toward phenom ena that are frequent. Methods textbooks caution against using case stud­ ies as representative of anything, and articles in m ainstreams journals that are not based on probability samples m ust issue similar obligatory caveats. The premise, itself narrow, is that the only way to be certain that we know som ething about the social world, and the only way to control for subjective influences in data acquisition, is to follow the tenets of probabilistic sampling. This view is a correlate of the central way of defining rational action and rational policy in academic work of all varieties and also in m uch practical work, which is to say in term s of probabilities. The irony is th at probabilistic thinking has its own biases, which, if unacknowledged and uncorrected for, lead to a conceptual social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 669 neglect of extrem e events. This leaves us, as scholars, paying attention to disasters only w hen they happen and doing that makes the accumu­ lation of good ideas about disaster vulnerable to issue-attention cycles (Birkland, 2007). These conceptual blinders lead to a neglect of disasters as “strate­ gic research sites” (Merton, 1987), which results in learning less about disaster than we could and in missing opportunities to use disaster to learn about society (cf. Sorokin, 1942). We need new conceptual tools because of an upward trend in frequency and severity of disaster since 1970 (Perrow, 2007), and because of a growing intellectual attention to the idea ofworst cases (Clarke, 2006b; Clarke, in press). For instance, the chief scientist in charge of studying earthquakes for the US Geological Service, Lucile Jones, has w orked on the com bination of events that could happen in California th at would constitute a “give up scenario”: a very long-shaking earthquake in southern California just w hen the Santa Anna winds are m aking eveiything dry and likely to burn. In such conditions, m eaningful response to the fires would be impossible and recoveiy would take an extraordinarily long time. There are other similar pockets of scholarly interest in extrem e events, some spurred by September 11 and m any catalyzed by Katrina. The consequences of disasters are also becom ing m ore severe, both in term s of lives lost and property damaged. People and their places are becom ing m ore vulnerable. The m ost im portant reason that vulnerabilities are increasing is population concentration (Clarke, 2006b). This is a general phenom enon and includes, for exam ple, flying in jum bo jets, w orking in tall buildings, and attending events in large capacity sports arenas. Considering disasters whose origin is a natural hazard, the specific cause of increased vulnerability is that people are m oving to w here hazards originate, and m ost especially to w here the w ater is. In some places, this m akes th em vulnerable to hurricanes th at can create devastating storm surges; in others it makes them vulnerable to earthquakes th at can create tsunam is. In any case, the general problem is that people concentrate themselves in dangerous places, so w hen the hazard comes disasters are intensi­ 670 social research fied. More than one-half of Florida’s population lives w ithin 20 miles of the sea. Additionally, Florida’s population grows every year, along w ith increasing developm ent along the coasts. The risk of exposure to a devastating...


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