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Learning from Calamities? Reflexions and evaluations of the outcomes of our research year



It is widely assumed that humanity should be able to learn from calamities (e.g., emergencies, disasters, catastrophes) and that the affected individuals, groups, and enterprises, as well as the concerned (disaster-) management organizations and institutions for prevention and mitigation, will be able to be better prepared or more efficient next time. Furthermore, it is often assumed that the results of these learning processes are preserved as "knowledge" in the collective memory of a society, and that patterns of practices were adopted on this base. Within history, there is more evidence for the opposite: Analyzing past calamities reveals that there is hardly any learning and, if so, that it rarely lasts more than one or two generations. This book explores whether learning in the context of calamities happens at all, and if learning takes place, under which conditions it can be achieved and what would be required to ensure that learned cognitive and practical knowledge will endure on a societal level. The contributions of this book include various fields of scientific research: history, sociology, geography, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, development studies and political studies, as well as disaster research and disaster risk reduction research. Foreword Kathleen Tierney. Acknowledgments. 1. Introduction: Can Societies Learn from Calamities? Heike Egner, Marén Schorch, and Martin Voss Part I: Opening the Fields of Learning and Calamities 2. Learning from Disasters in an Unsafe World: Considerations from a Psychoanalytical Ethnological Perspective Bernd Rieken 3. Learning About Disasters from Animals Greg Bankoff 4. Beyond Experiential Learning in Disaster and Development Communication Andrew E. Collins Part II: Learning from History? 5. "The Monster Swallows You": Disaster Memory and Risk Culture in Western Europe, 1500-2000 Christian Pfister 6. A Disaster in Slow Motion: The Smoke Menace in Urban-Industrial Britain Stephen Mosley 7. Historia Magistra Vitae, as the Saying Goes: Why Societies Do Not Necessarily Learn from Past Disasters Uwe Lübken Part III: Educational Concepts for Disaster Preparedness 8. Using a Spare-Time University for Disaster Risk Reduction Education Ilan Kelman, Marla Petal, and Michael H. Glantz 9. Communicating Actionable Risk: The Challenge of Communicating Risk to Motivate Preparedness in the Absence of Calamity Michele M. Wood 10. Critical Reflection on Disaster Prevention Education Marla Petal Part IV: Organizational Patterns of Interpretation and Practices of Learning 11. Normalization and its Discontents: Organizational Learning from Disaster Sven Kette and Hendrik Vollmer 12. Analyses of Natural Disasters and Their Contribution to Changes in Natural Hazard Management in Switzerland Michael Bründl 13. How Not to Learn: Resilience in the Study of Disaster Benigno A. Aguirre and Eric Best Part V: Societal Patterns of Interpretation and Practices of Learning 14. When Push Comes to Shove: The Framing of Need in Disaster Relief Efforts Tricia Wachtendorf, Samantha Penta, and Mary M. Nelan 15. Reduced Learning Processes Due to Biopolitical Patterns of Interpretation: Michel Foucault and the Contamination Disaster Matthias Hofmann 16. Science versus Metaphysics. The Importance of Everyday Life Experience for the Interpretation of Disaster Elísio Macamo and Dieter Neubert Part VI: Closing 17. Learning and Calamities—What Have We Learned?: Steps Towards an Integrative Framework Heike Egner and Marén Schorch
ZiF-Mitteilungen 1|2012
Communicating Disaster
Leitung: Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld), Heike Egner (Klagenfurt) und Volker Wulf (Siegen)
1. November 201031. Juli 2011
Learning from Calamities?
Reflexions and evaluations of the outcomes of our research year
Leitung: Heike Egner (Klagenfurt) und Marén Schorch (Bielefeld)
28.–29. Juli 2011
The last internal workshop of the research group was dedicated to looking back on nine month
of intense working together as well as to looking into the future. Thus, the workshop was produc-
tive in two ways: Firstly, in reflecting what we did throughout the research year, what happened
to our research topic and how this changed our perspective on it. And secondly in looking ahead
into the future, pondering about the next steps in refining our cooperation, our closing conference
and the forthcoming publications. Consequently, the first day of the workshop dealt with the
past. We asked three of our fellows, Dieter Neubert, Stephan Habscheid and Michael Bründl to
reflect their research phase (according to our basic, first temporal heuristic that structured the
research year), Jörg Bergmann and one of our two long-time-fellows, Wolf Dombrowsky, to give
a report about their time at the ZiF.
Looking back from the end of the year, it became clear that some basic ideas, questions
as well as paradigmatic disputes already occurred right in the beginning. One basic line can be
found in an epistemological aspect: While interdisciplinary disaster research in large seems to
be dominated by natural scientists, engineers and management experts representing mostly
positivist approaches, the sociologists that dominated the research group as well as the majority
of the other members of the group were linked by a general statement against ‘naturalism’, fol-
lowing a notion which is based on a variety of constructivist approaches. However, the question
of the relation between materiality and construction was an on-going topic for discussion over
the time; especially during the last research phase when the perspective of engineering con-
fronted the group with this question in more detail. The second basic line was concerned with
questions of definitions that pervaded the whole research year: “What is a disaster?” or “Do
we have to find one common definition as the basis of our cooperation?” In this respect, the
positivist definition with its idea of standard definitions of disaster management via the amount
of damage, number of victims etc. found on of its grounds. On the one hand, standardization
as well as clear and elementary definitions allow comparative research and are quite prominent
in insurance companies and classical disaster research. On the other hand, its emphasis on
costs of damage ignores different levels of wealth and socio-cultural differences of assessment.
Although this conception was regarded as important as a point of reference, most members
of the working group finally rejected the approach. Alternatively, they suggested to use more
general contextualized definitions such as ‘a disaster as a break down of ordinary expected
Ruth Ayaß (Klagenfurt)
Greg Bankoff (Hull)
Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld)
Michael Bründl (Davos)
Monika Büscher (Lancaster)
Andrew Collins (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
Wolf Dombrowsky (Berlin)
Carsten Felgentreff (Osnabrück)
Stephan Habscheid (Siegen)
Stefan Kaufmann (Freiburg i. Br.)
Thomas Ley (Meiningen)
Andreas Metzner-Szigeth (Münster)
Stephen Mosley (Leeds)
Dieter Neubert (Bayreuth)
Volkmar Pipek (Siegen)
Jörg Potthast (Berlin)
Volker Wulf (Siegen)
ZiF-Mitteilungen 1|2012
management’ that allows contextualized research, that refers to everyday-life understanding
of a disaster and which can be directly connected to the life world of the people affected. Of
course, the inherent problem is that the terminology may differ from local understanding and
interpretation and that comparative research is restricted. To make a long story short: We did
agree on to not agree on the level of conceptions and definitions because it did not make sense
to ignore the variety of disasters the fellows deal with and the variety of disciplinary perspectives
and paradigms standing behind. But we did come to the agreement that the research concepts
should follow the research question and that the basics as well as the consequences of specific
concepts and definitions necessarily have to be reflected.
Throughout the research year, it was striking to observe how research topics create perspec-
tives: For instance, the fellows that are prominent in conversational analysis of disaster commu-
nication such as alarm calls (e.g. Ilkka Arminen, Jörg Bergmann, Giolo Fele, Thomas Ley) are not
interested in the disaster itself (an airplane crash, fire etc.), but in ‘patterns of conversation’.
Thus, the relations to materiality are only important when they are part of the conversation.
This relation is even more direct and obvious in the research field of
CSCW (computer supported
cooperative work), for instance the use of social media and other information and communica-
tion technology, but also the influence of classical media on communicational processes in
disasters (represented in the works of—amongst others—Monika Büscher, Ruth Ayaß, Volkmar
Pipek and Gebhard Rusch). Fellows with a background from a space-related science such as
geography (like Heike Egner, Andreas Pott, Michael Bründl) are not just interested in space, but
ZiF-Mitteilungen 1|2012
in the relation between disaster (or risk) and space. Here, materiality as place and/or ecological
materiality functions as reference point for social constructions. To understand how these con-
structions ‘work’ and how they are constituted, second-order-observation seems to be a pro-
found method. Thus, second-order-observation became an important aspect of the shared
understanding of the group. Although this reference to observation theory might seem to be
alternative to some sort of ‘objective’ definitions of disasters, we did agree about some funda-
mental characteristics: Firstly, disasters are always socially defined, i.e. there is no such thing
as a ‘natural disaster’, it is rather the social perceptions, interpretations and societal communi-
cations which make a disaster to a disaster. Secondly, a disaster is an extreme event that leads
usually to the breakdown of all normally expectable options of coping and dealing.
One constant of our research approach were the temporal dimensions of disasters: On one
side the differentiation between types of disasters like rapid, real-time-disasters, slow-motion-
or fast-forward-disasters and on the other side the different stages of extreme events that are
known from the risk management circle: the phases of alarming, coping, evaluation and defining/
constructing risks on that basis. Additional to this temporal dimension, spatial dimensions of
risks and disasters play also a major role: for instance in the localisation of dangers and risks
that easily provides new social inequalities, in the distinction between safe and unsettled areas
in situ as well as within the process of the construction of new risk maps, the development of
topographies for evacuations, refugee movements, geo-semiotic structures etc.
On the level of networking, the context of the research group’s meetings and discussions
laid not only the ground for new cooperation between single fellows or groups of them from
quite heterogeneous disciplines such as sociology, history, geography, computer science and
engineering science (to name just a few of them), but also with institutions like the Federal Office
of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (
BBK, Bonn), different organisations from practical
fields of disaster management and other universities. One outcome of the research year will be
the establishment of the Master’s program ‘Safety Management and Engineering’ at the Univer-
sity of Siegen with the disciplines computer sciences, media studies, engineering sciences and
sociology involved.
The cooperation will also be continued via publications, especially in three major book
projects in progress respectively in the planning phase (all collected volumes) that we discussed
during the second day of the workshop:
Heike Egner/Marén Schorch/Martin Voss (Eds.): Learning from Calamities. Interpretative
Patterns and Practices of Communication on Disasters and Catastrophes.
• Lorenza Mondada/Jörg Bergmann/Giolo Fele (Eds.): Emergency Calls.
• Martina Merz/Jörg Bergmann (Eds.): Multiple Perspectives on Communicating Disaster.
The last core topic of the workshop was the purpose and structure of the closing conference of
our research group that will take place on January, 26-28, 2012 titled ‘Dealing with the disasters
of others’. The central intention will be the presentation of the outcomes of the research year
as well as open questions stimulating further research. Summarizing the common threads of
the past months, the conference will be divided into four sessions covering the major fields of
research and discussions within the research year: ‘Communicating disaster in space and time’,
‘Media and the micro order of disaster’, ‘Technologies and social media for dealing with disas-
ters’ and ‘Organisation and management of disaster communication’. The keynotes will be held
by Valerie November (Lausanne) and Nalaka Gunawardene (Sri Lanka).
Heike Egner, Dieter Neubert, Marén Schorch
Anfragen contact
zur ZiF-Forschungsgruppe Communicating
Disaster beantwortet die wissen schaftliche
Assistentin Marén Schorch
Tel. + 49 (0)521 106-2776
ZiF-Mitteilungen 1|2012
Tagungsbeiträge Contributions
Reports from Phase 1 (Nov.-Dec. 2010)
Dieter Neubert Notions of Disasters
Reports from Phase 2 (Jan.-Febr. 2011)
Jörg Bergmann Alarm Communication and Mobilizing Help
Reports from Phase 3 (March-May 2011)
Stephan Habscheid Focussing on Disaster: Fighting and Coping
Reports from Phase 4 (June-July 2011)
Michael Bründl Evaluation and Risk Communication
Wolf Dombrowsky Reflexion of the research year by a long-term fellow
Past Events and Future Activities
Marén Schorch Activities of the past research year and closing conference
Heike Egner Outline about ongoing publication projects
Jörg Bergmann, Volker Wulf Establishment of a Master’s program ‘Safety Management and Engineering’
at the University of Siegen
Informationen Further Information
zur Forschungsgruppe Communicating Disaster
Workshopszene im Tagungsraum
Long Table
Wolf Dombrowsky,Michael Bründl
und Greg Bankoff (v. l. n. r.)
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