Dombrowsky Disaster as a Trigger Joseph Scanlon  Essay

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"Disaster" as a Trigger

Joseph Scanlon, Director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University, states that the term "disaster" has undergone a transformation in the wake of 9/11. Its transformation is the center of debate for researchers whose work relies on an adequate definition and understanding of "disaster" -- yet Scanlon makes clear that he has been particularly struck "by how much of the debate [is]...influenced by awareness of various events and how much of that awareness [is] media related" (Scanlon 2005:13). In the field of emergency communications, that awareness has led to a new culture of "disaster" maintenance, and it has been largely influenced by media representation. According to Wolf Dombrowsky, "the term 'disaster' has only ephemeral significance. It is a trigger, a flag to signal a meaning, a stimulus to produce a specific reaction" (Dombrowsky 1998:15). Dombrowsky's assertion has been challenged by several researches, but his premise, essentially, is confirmed by Scanlon, who sees the media as the flag-bearer, "forcing us into definitions that are adjusted to those events we know or think we know" (Scanlon 2005: 16). This paper will discuss Dombrowsky's definition of "disaster" within the context of a post-9/11 world climate, examining the conceptual dimensions of the term, its ontological significance, and the way it is applied in the field of crisis management. It will also expand on the idea of "disaster" being a term that has "ephemeral significance."

Ron Perry signifies the importance of such a discussion by stating, "The extent to which we are able to identify and manage disasters of the future is contingent upon our collective understanding of the meaning and dimensions of the concept" (Scanlon 2005:16). Likewise, Perry notes that "as we sharpen our conception of disaster, we identify the disciplinary niches and their value in a field that is almost inherently interdisciplinary" (Perry 2005:20). The discussion also has a practical element to it -- not merely a theoretical:

With the investment of resources, governments expect more from the community of disaster researchers. To answer such questions regarding the need for and implementation of warning systems, appropriate mitigation measures, tactics for response and recovery, researchers need to have a firm grasp on what a disaster is and what it is not. This is especially relevant to the issue of comprehensive emergency management and integrated emergency management systems. (Perry


Dombrowsky, accordingly, takes a "sociological approach" to the term "disaster": "Epistemologically, the definitions used in science and practice are classified and redefined as programmatic declarations" (Dombrowsky 1998:13). Because, Dombrowsky argues, definers of the term are dictating policy in response to the what the term signifies, both "problem and perception" and "solution and exigency" may be mismatched, since terminological conceptions are likely to differ according to one's "prestructure" of "reality" (Dombrowsky 1998:13).

The importance of making sure problem matches perception and solution matches exigency cannot be understated, since, as David Alexander points out, "On average about 220 natural catastrophes, 70 technological disasters and three new armed conflicts occur each year" (Alexander 2005:25). Alexander iterates the importance of discussions of "disaster" in three ways: 1) "Any failure to mitigate hazards is shown up in their impacts;" 2) "Corruption is exposed by bringing its consequences to light;" 3) "Human relations are made more explicit and conspicuous by the increased levels of socialization that commonly occur in the immediate aftermath of disaster" (Alexander 2005:26).

However, Dombrowsky's contention with Alexander stems from the fact that Alexander provides only interpretation: "Alexander does not advance a notion of what 'disaster' could be in reality nor in scientific terms, because to him 'the definition depends on shifting portrayals and perceptions of what is significant about the phenomenon'" (Dombrowsky 2005:82) That is exactly what, Dombrowsky argues, organizations all over the world do:

The German Red Cross, for example, defines disaster as an 'extraordinary situation in which the everyday lives of people are suddenly interrupted and thus protection, nutrition, clothing, housing, medical and social aid or other vital necessities are requested...The German law that states the laws of disaster protection itemizes phenomena (such as storm, flood, blizzard, explosion, etc.)

which are seen as typical in releasing disasters...German insurance companies define disaster as a situation involving damage and/or loss of lives beyond one million German marks and/or 1,000 persons killed. (Dombrowsky 1998:14).

The point to which Dombrowsky aims this exchange is this: the term "disaster" is a trigger that, when pulled (or used), produces an effect: that effect depends largely on how the term is applied -- in what manner it is construed, and towards what disposition it inclines: "Sometimes the wrong trigger produces a lack of vital necessities, which is the case when charity is hampered by repulsive pictures...instead of being spurred by pitiful pictures" (Dombrowsky 1998:15).

Dombrowsky breaks down his argument into three lines of demarcation: 1) "the question of how language is structuring our perception of the world"; 2) "how reality is transformed into the mechanics of problem-solving"; 3) "how disaster sociologists and their ways of conceptualizing disaster will be affected by all this" (Dombrowsky 1998:15). Dombrowsky instantly takes issue with lingual expressions that carry connotations of irrelevant or misleading sense: for example, the phrase, often heard in media, "disaster strikes" is a hyperbolic absurdity. Lightning may strike, but not disaster: "Disasters do not cause effects. The effects are what we call a disaster" (Dombrowsky 1998:15). By personifying "disaster," the term is given a larger-than-life significance that can have unpremeditated ramifications on a listening public. Not only this, but "disaster" is reduced to a level of subjectivity that requires continuous redefinition. Dombrowsky accuses Alexander of concluding that such subjectivity is inevitable; Dombrowsky says no: such an idea "challenges the traditional principles and practice of scientific craft" (Dombrowsky 2005:84).

Rather, Dombrowsky insists that words be defined and used cautiously, not haphazardly or without due respect -- for every word carries weight and meaning, and to rely on successive interpretations to relay or convey a fixed idea is like relying on the wind to scatter debris into an ordered stack. The origin of this subjectivity with regard to "disaster" research has its roots in the 9/11 attack:

The 11th September attack has focused the theorizing of Cutter and Alexander upon catastrophic terrorism and motivated them to do something about the shocking brutality of international terrorism. As their first step, they combine the incompatible together: vulnerability, disaster, danger, failure, hazards, threat, risk, emergency, terrorism, and war. Because they do not appreciate the origins and advances in science, 'new understandings', cannot take place." (Dombrowsky


Susan Cutter, however, argues that she is "skeptical of the continuing definitional debates and arguments regarding the terminology that is used in our discourse involving hazards, risks, disasters, and vulnerability" (Cutter 2005:105). Cutter sees no point in debating the definition of terms -- she embraces their utility, defines them, and applies them to research. In fact, she sees Dombrowsky's "line of scholarly inquiry into semantics (or ontological debates) is counter-productive at this point in the intellectual development of the field...Disaster research is a relevant and pragmatic endeavor; one that uncovers new knowledge and then applies it to reduce the impacts of disasters on society" (Cutter 2005:105).

Cutter also places emphasis on the integration of research studies concerning "specific hazard etiologies," which to some extent finds favor with Dombrowsky. As Dombrowsky articulates, "Most definers of 'disasters' act in the way that Prometheus used his bed. In the first place, their definitions of disaster do not focus on the vital problems of the victims, but on the solutions they have at hand or can provide" (Dombrowsky 1998:16). The problem with such an assessment is that it often tends to ignore or marginalize reality. Reality is assessed according to what solutions are available to meet that reality -- not vice versa, in which case solutions would be drawn up to meet the needs of the reality. In such a sense, Cutter's belief that integration of "hazard etiologies" would help establish a greater awareness of the reality of "disaster" falls in line with Dombrowsky's perspective. However, Dombrowsky insists that integration does not necessarily imply reality-based solutions: it only establishes a wider breadth for research-based solutions. Reality oftentimes does not correspond to research-based or textbook definitions of problems and solutions: "The cases where warm clothing was sent to African famines, or thousands of tons of contraceptives or cough mixtures were sent to mass casualty situations are not only mistakes, but the logical outcome of the internal dynamics of self-preserving organizations" (Dombrowsky 1998:16).

For this reason, Dombrowsky uses the idea of "disaster" as a "flag" or "trigger." For example, to remain within the confines of legality, each country and/or state must implement a code of disaster regulation. These regulations are fundamental to developing an emergency framework. The risks and hazards associated with that framework can differ according to levels and the department for which each risk or hazard is responsible. The law establishes the regulations based on "flags" or "triggers" given off by the use of the term "disaster," which Dombrowsky…

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