USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development

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Volume 18, No. 1 (March 2000)

Special Issue


Anne Eyre, Tricia Wachtendorf, and Gary R. Webb

Guest Editors

    Editors’ Introduction:

      Gary R. Webb, Tricia Wachtendorf, and Anne Eyre, "Bringing Culture Back In: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Disaster," pp. 5-19.

        This special issue is devoted to the popular culture of disaster. In virtually every type of society, human settlement patterns produce some kind of disaster, and every culture that lives through a major disaster produces some kind of cultural representation of it. The stories of a culture’s experience with disaster are often passed on through folklore, remembered through permanent or occasional memorials, relived through dramatized portrayals, and embedded in a group’s collective conscience as permanent markers of social time. In some societies, such as the United States, disasters occupy a central place in popular culture, appearing almost nightly on pseudo-scientific television programs and generating millions of dollars for movie makers. Because disasters and representations of them pervade so much of social life, we think it is important and worthwhile to begin paying systematic attention to the cultural dimensions of disasters. This special issue of the journal is an important step in that direction. We have tried to assemble papers that stimulate thought about various aspects of the popular culture of disaster—how it should be defined, what concepts should be used to study it, and why it is important to study. In no way is this single issue meant to be a definitive statement on the topic. In fact, if it is successful, this issue will raise more questions than it answers. By devoting an entire issue of the journal to this topic, we hope that scholars will build on what is presented here and begin thinking about alternative ways to approach the subject. (Authors’ introduction)

    Articles by:

      Stephen R. Couch, "The Cultural Scene of Disasters: Conceptualizing the Field of Disasters and Popular Culture," pp. 21-37.

        This paper is a modest attempt to encourage serious social scientific consideration of disasters and popular culture. It considers three questions: (1) How should the field of disasters and popular culture be defined?; (2) Why should we study the popular culture of disasters?; and (3) What analytical framework(s) might be used? In answering the questions, I argue for an inclusive view of the field and for the inductive development of its definitions and boundaries. I offer what I think are some solid reasons to study the popular culture of disasters, contending that the field is both intellectually interesting and of practical importance. And I put forth elements of one possible framework with which we can study the popular culture of disasters, one which includes three levels of cultural analysis and several comparative dimensions. Following consideration of these questions, the paper discusses an interesting example of disaster popular culture—a compact disk of music played on board the Titanic—and suggests ways in which this example might be approached if it were to be studied in depth. (AA)

      Elaine Enarson, "‘We Will Make Meaning Out of This’: Women’s Cultural Responses to the Red River Valley Flood," pp. 39-64.

        Recent work on gender relations in disasters focuses largely on women’s material experiences and vulnerabilities. This paper draws on cultural studies theory to interrogate gender symbolically in the context of a major U.S. flood. Based on analysis of cultural artifacts and "texts" as well as interviews conducted for a larger study of women’s work in the 1997 Red River Valley flood, the author argues that women particularly employ grassroots popular culture to interpret disastrous events. A close reading of two flood quilts illustrates how interpersonal networks and traditional quilting skills helped women express gender-specific experiences and feelings, and convey an otherwise neglected ecofeminist critique of disaster vulnerability. The author concludes that women’s cultural responses to disasters afford a neglected angle of vision on human responses to catastrophe. (AA)

      C. Mo Bahk and Kurt Neuwirth, "Impact of Movie Depictions of Volcanic Disaster on Risk Perception and Judgements," pp. 65-84.

        This study examines how movie depictions of a volcanic disaster influence viewers’ perception and judgments concerning disaster-related experiences. A total of 162 college students watched one of three video clips: (1) the movie Volcano—a portrayal of a volcanic disaster taking place in the city of Los Angeles; (2) the documentary National Geographic’s Volcano; and (3) an instructional video on gardening (control). Subjects then filled out a questionnaire that measures their perception of victimization risk, victimization apprehension, problem seriousness, and risk locus of control (RLOC). As for those who watched the movie, message involvement, perceived realism, and role attractiveness were measured as mediator variables. Overall, the results reveal that subjects in the volcanic movie (drama) and documentary conditions exhibited higher levels of fear and worry about falling victim to a volcanic disaster than did subjects in the control condition. For subjects in the drama condition, perceived realism of the presentation and role attractiveness of the characters increased the level of fear about volcanic disasters and induced heightened estimates of volcanic risk victimization. Further, increased role attractiveness was associated with greater levels of external risk locus of control. (AA)

      Hanna Schmuck, "‘An Act of Allah’: Religious Explanations for Floods in Bangladesh as Survival Strategy," pp. 85-95.

        In countries of the so-called Third World, disaster prevention, preparedness, and relief do not have the expected outcome. Even if people are informed and warned about the arrival of a flood, cyclone, or earthquake, they hesitate to take precautions or leave the area. In some cases, they have to be forced to take refuge in the shelters built for this purpose. They seem to be helpless victims accepting their fate. This is especially the case in Bangladesh, a country which is frequently affected by floods, tornadoes, and cyclones. The affected people, mostly Muslim, regard these hazards as an act of Allah. Through the events He is showing His will and power against which they cannot and should not do anything. In the view of aid agencies, this perception and explanation hampers both external as well as indigenous efforts to survive disasters. However, the findings of my research on local perception and strategies to cope with floods reveal this conception to be a healthy reaction, a self-help strategy to overcome crises as quickly as possible and return to daily life. As Allah has given the floods, He will also give believers the strength to survive them. The religious explanation prevents those affected literally wasting time and energy asking why disasters happen to them and not to others. (AA)

      Russell R. Dynes, "The Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View," pp.97-115.

        Disasters are usually identified as having occurred at a particular time and place, but they also occur at a particular time in human history and within a specific social and cultural context. Consequently, it is appropriate to call the Lisbon earthquake the first modern disaster. Certainly, earlier history records many instances of geophysical events, and the differences among such events were typically explained by variations in their physical intensity. However, the Lisbon earthquake occurred at a time and a place which made it a part of the debate over modernity. Its location in Europe made it a topic in the intellectual debates of the times. These debates had greater impact on the changing cultural context than the physical intensity of the earthquake might imply. The earthquake occurred when there were many strains between tradition and new ideas about progress. It was a time when traditional ideas and institutions were being challenged, when nation states were being created, and when rivalries among states led to tensions and conflict. Further, it was a time when the bonds of traditional religious authority were being challenged by a growing enthusiasm for intellectual freedom and for reason. These major political and institutional shifts were reflected in the meanings that were assigned to the Lisbon earthquake. (Author’s introduction)

    Book reviews by:

      Barbara Vogt, on Elaine Enarson and Betty Hearn Morrow, The Gendered Terrain of Disasters: Through Women’s Eyes, pp. 117-118.

      George O. Rogers, on Boris Porfiriev and E. L. Quarantelli, Social Science Research on Mitigation and Recovery from Disaster and Large-Scale Hazards, pp. 119-120.

      Ron Brittan, on C. Emdad Haque, Hazards in a Fickle Environment: Bangladesh, pp. 121-122.

      Ben Wisner, on Wim Van Damme, Medical Assistance to Self-settled Refugees, 1990-96, pp. 123-124.

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