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Enrico L. Quarantelli Conventional Beliefs and Counterintuitive Realities THIS PAPER DISCUSSES MAJOR MYTHS AND WIDELY HELD INCORRECT beliefs about individual and group behaviors in disaster contexts. Why can we categorize such views as invalid? Because now there has been m ore than half a century o f systematic social science studies (and an earlier half century of less well known scattered works) that have estab­ lished the actual param eters of the behavior of individuals and groups in natural and technological disaster situations (for recent summaries of the extensive research literature, see Lindell, Peny, and Prater, 2006; N ational Research Council, 2006; and Rodriguez, Q uarantelli, and Dynes, 2006). All is not known, and serious gaps rem ain in knowledge about im portant topics, but we are at this tim e far beyond just educated guesses on m any dim ensions of the relevant behaviors. Our focus is on six different behavioral aspects ofdisasters,prim ar­ ily occurring around the im pact tim e period of such crises. Stated in just a few words, we look at panic flight and at antisocial looting behav­ ior, supposed passivity in emergencies, role conflict and abandonment, severe m ental health consequences, and the locus of w hatever prob­ lems surface. We present w hat is often assumed, believed, or stated on these m atters—at least in popular discourse and to a varying extent in policy, planning, and operational circles—as over against w hat study and research has found. The concept of “m yths” was coined in the early 1950s by research­ ers who were studying the natural and technological “disasters” that social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 873 were taking place in Am erican society at that time. These research­ ers were never under any illusion th at these were the only kinds of collective crises th at societies could suffer. This idea was reinforced in the early 1960s w hen there were m any urban and university riots that “disaster” researchers studied even as they recognized they were along some lines qualitatively different from the earlier natural and technological disasters looked at in the field. To some researchers these became known as “conflict crises.” In the decades that followed, addi­ tional notions about mega-disasters/catastrophes, as well as even newer kinds of crises, also qualitatively different, crept into the literature. W ithout going into the uneven historical evolution of the think­ ing about different kinds or types, we need here to identify distinc­ tive aspects of the four kinds of collective crises ju st noted. This is because the idea of the m yths is not equally applicable across the board. Particularly im portant is th at the idea makes sense for disasters but needs qualification for catastrophes. A few researchers have argued for decades that there are disasters and there are catastrophes. This is not simply substituting or replacing one word w ith another to try to m aintain the idea of disaster myths, as has been incorrectly implied (Handmer, 2007, for example). Rather, it involves an attem pt to differentiate m ajor differences between one kind of social crisis and another as the result of the im pact of a destruc­ tive natural or technological agent (see Quarantelli, 2005a). The charac­ teristics of a catastrophe in ideal-type term s are the following. In a space-time framework, a catastrophe occurs when 1) w ithin a relatively short time period, 2) a large but not necessarily fully contiguous area with multiple land uses and diverse communities, is 3) perceived as being subjected to veiy m ajor threats to life and property, thus 4) requir­ ing immediate responses to start restoring a routine social order. This kind of social occasion results in: ►m ost eveiyday com m unity functions and social institutions being sharply and concurrently interrupted (in contrast to this not happening in a disaster); 874 social research ►m any organizations, including those that are emergency oriented, either cease operating or do so in a m arkedly reduced m anner (in contrast to a disaster w here few organizations in a com m unity dete­ riorate to such a degree); ►m any local com m...


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