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Lee Clarke Introduction: Thinking Possibilistically in a Probabilistic World DISASTERS SERVE AS FOCUSING EVENTS— FOR PUBLICS, THE MEDIA, politicians, and academics. As the papers in this special issue show, there has been an increase in the num ber of disasters over the past 30 years or so. There has also been an increase in the severity of disas­ ters—m ore deaths and greater loss of property. That frequency and consequence are both on upward trends should lead us to expect that attention will be focused ever m ore sharply on disaster. Indeed, after Hurricane Katrina, scholars throughout the social sciences, even those w ithout any background w hatsoever in environm ental studies, disas­ ter research, or risk studies, set out to do research on New Orleans or the Gulf Coast. A wide array of reasons can be given for this, but the essential point is that Katrina focused academic attention too. So will the next worst case. W hen those new researchers prepare to go into the field to do interviews, or prepare to field a questionnaire, or whatever their particular planned foray, they would do well to review the papers in this volume. The papers in this section dem onstrate several interesting points about disasters, and about academic interest in them . One is a rem ark­ able convergence of perspective about w hat is im portant. All agree obviously th at the extent and dim ensions of people’s suffering as a result of disaster is im portant to study. This ranges from the psychologi­ cal phenom enon of post-traum atic stress disorder to the destruction social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 933 of community. The damages from disaster can be persistent and deep, these authors conclude. Their conclusion contrasts sharply w ith one of the common pieces of received wisdom from the m ainstream disaster research community: that individuals and com m unities bounce back and even thrive relatively quickly after disaster. (An overwhelm ing am ount of research on so-called technological disasters contradicts the m ainstream disaster conclusion, although none of that w ork is refer­ enced here.) A nother notable aspect of these readings is th at there is broad agreem ent that conventional approaches to thinking about disaster are insufficient, although again no attem pt is m ade to engage the extant literatures in social science that also quarrel w ith convention. In any case, one of the slow but significant developments in social science, and in some of the work here, is the realization that the idea of “natural” disaster is m ore than wrong: it misleadingly draws attention away from the pre-existing conditions th at make people vulnerable to hazards in the first place. This has been a commonplace in writings about hazards and disasters since Hewitt (1983) and long before that Sorokin (1942) noted it, obliquely. Katrina and the 2004 tsunam i in Indonesia m ade quite clear th at poverty, lack of political power, race, and economic development massively com pounded the damage that waves and winds can bring. As Basher says about the effects of disasters, in rich countries people lose their property but in poor countries people lose their lives. All agree, too, that at least two of the three of the big troika of inequality—race, class, and gender—are crucial. We m ust understand m ore fully than we have th e dynamics of inequalities to understand both the consequences of disasters and the institutional conditions that either protect people or m ake them vulnerable. Notably absent at the conference from which these papers came was any deep discussion of gender; indeed, notably absent from the program were women. Their absence was not because of lack of effort on the part of the conference organizers to invite female scholars. Female scholars were invited, but could not attend. Their absence is evidence of a paucity of female schol­ ars in the field. 934 social research W hile we learn new and interesting things about inequalities and disasters from the papers presented in this section, the broader intel­ lectual issue is not generalized and developed: there are patterns in the way society is...


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