USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development

Contents of Recent Issues

Volume 21, No. 1. (March 2003)

Articles by:

    Richard Stuart Olson and Vincent T. Gawronski, "Disasters as Critical Junctures? Managua, Nicaragua 1972 and Mexico City 1985," pp. 3-35.

      Applying an adapted "critical juncture" framework to disasters, this paper compares two major urban earthquakes in Latin America: the December 23, 1972, event in Managua, Nicaragua, and the September 19 and 20, 1985, events in Mexico and particularly Mexico City. The purpose of using a critical juncture approach to the two disasters is to identify and assess event legacies, especially political legacies and how they contributed to regime change. This paper comes to the conclusion that while the Nicaragua disaster did indeed constitute a critical juncture for that nation, setting the political system off on an entirely new trajectory, somewhat unexpectedly the Mexico event did not. In retrospect, the Mexico earthquake of 1985 has to be seen as more of a marker event within a much longer and more complex national critical juncture that opened in 1968 and closed in 1988. Narrowing the focus to just Mexico City, however, the disaster was a critical juncture. (AA)

    Dorothea Hilhorst, "Responding to Disasters: Diversity of Bureaucrats, Technocrats and Local People," pp. 37-55.

      The relations between disaster experts, governments, and local people have often been considered problematic in disaster situations. The idea that disasters caused by natural hazards are the ultimate terrain of experts and managers has been discredited by approaches focusing on the capacities and coping practices of local people, while the role of governments in the interplay between experts and local people is often left unclear. This paper reviews some recent insights into the complexity of these relations by introducing the notion of social domains of disaster responses. Social domains are areas of social life where ideas and practices concerning risk and disaster are exchanged, shared, and more or less organized because of a certain proximity, physically or discursively, in the ways references are made to disaster and risk. The study of social domains allows one to focus on the everyday practices and movements of actors negotiating the conditions and effects of vulnerability and disaster. The paper first discusses how experts and local people are represented in different subsequent paradigms of disaster studies; elaborates on the importance of social domains for studying disaster response; after which the three domains of disaster science, governance and local people will be discussed. (AA)

    Simon A. Bennett, "Context is All: A Holistic Reformulation of the Tonkin Gulf Incident," pp. 57-90.

      Incidents and accidents are frequently ascribed to "operator" or "human error." Until recently accident investigators have focused more on the immediate or proximate causes of incidents and accidents than on such underlying or contextual factors as production imperatives, conditioning, expectation, peer pressure, ergonomics, or the quality and currency of rules, procedures, and training. Some theorists, however, have attempted to sensitize accident investigators to the potential impact on human perception and behavior of contextual factors. As a consequence of the work of Job (1996), Reason (1995, 1997), Snook (2000), and others, accident investigators now have the opportunity to apply a systems approach to accident investigation. The primary purpose of this paper is to illustrate and then test the systems or "context" approach with reference to a major incident with significant outcomes. To this end the work of Job, Reason, Snook, and others is used to frame, analyze, and draw conclusions from a major incident—the clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the early stages of the Vietnam War. The paper’s secondary purpose is to deconstruct, illuminate, and explain the incident with a view to adding to (if not correcting a part of) the historical record of the Vietnam War. The year 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident, described by Wise (1968) as "The Pearl Harbor of the Vietnam War." Following the alleged second attack on U.S. naval forces by North Vietnamese warships, President Johnson ordered a major escalation of the war against the Viet Cong. Today most analysts agree that the second attack never took place. Given the significance and outcomes of the "phantom attack" (for example, the loss of 58,000 American and over three million Vietnamese lives), it is important that we understand how and why the attack came to be imagined—for at least two reasons. First, some blamed the escalation of the Vietnam War on the "incompetence" of the sailors of the USS Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy. This misunderstanding has persisted for four decades. Secondly, consequential military errors still occur—as with the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian Airbus by an American warship in 1988 that some believe led to the Lockerbie bombing.

      Having applied the "context" approach to the Tonkin Gulf incident, it is suggested that such factors as the sailors’ knowledge of the political and diplomatic background to their situation, their duty to protect their ship, and the very recent encounter with the North Vietnamese led them to "construct" (perceive) a second incident. It is concluded that, as in the 1988 Vincennes incident, knowledges, experiences, and expectations bore down upon the sailors to create a threat that existed only in their collective consciousness. In short, the macro impacted the micro experience to the point where judgment was degraded. (AA)

Critic’s Corner contributions by:

    Henry W. Fischer, "The Sociology of Disaster: Definitions, Research Questions, & Measurements: Continuation of the Discussion in a Post-September 11 Environment," pp. 91-107.


    Philip Buckle, "Some Contemporary Issues in Disaster Management," pp. 109-122.

Feedback from the Field:

    Eric K. Noji, "Notes from the Field: Crisis in Iraq," pp. 123-125.

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