Book Review: Disasters. A Sociological Approach by Kathleen Tierney

Review by Silke Roth, 16th April 2020.

Kathleen Tierney is professor emerita in the Department of Sociology of the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB). She was Director of the Natural Hazards Center, part of the Environment and Society Program in the Institute of Behavioral Science at UCB. She conducts research on hazards, disasters, and risk, with an emphasis on the political economy of disasters. Her qualitative research expertise includes quick-response field research following disasters; in-depth interviewing; qualitative evaluation research; and focus group methods. Her book ‘Disasters. A Sociological Approach’ was published by Polity in 2019.

While I am reading Kathleen Tierney’s ‘Disasters. A Sociological Approach’ storm Ciara is bashing Great Britain while storm Sabine is crossing Germany, interrupting weekend travel plans due to cancelled flights and trains. Wildfires, followed by heavy rain are destroying Australia and the Corona Virus which originated in China is spreading through the world due to the interconnectedness that characterizes contemporary, globalised societies. Meanwhile, communities in Haiti, Indonesia, Nepal and Mozambique – to name but a few – are still dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes and floods, reconstructing their communities.

Kathleen Tierney provides a thorough assessment of disaster research from a sociological perspective. In eight chapters, she explains the sociological significance of disasters, surveys theoretical developments, discusses methodological challenges, explains disaster vulnerability and disaster resilience, and ends with an outlook of what we might expect and what consequences different types of responses might hold.

So, what is the ‘social significance of disasters’? Tierney rightly emphasises the fact that disasters perpetuate if not exacerbate social inequality. She also introduces the reader to the distinction between emergencies, disasters and catastrophes which differ in scope and impact; further key concepts include vulnerability, disaster resilience, and risk. While these distinctions are useful, Tierney puts less emphasis on the difference between hazards as physical events, which can be contrasted with disasters which are hazards that have social effects (Guggenheim 2014, p. 3). Consequently, she focuses primarily on the social origins and consequences of disasters, whereas Guggenheim (2014) suggests that sociologists are challenged to appreciate that disasters are not purely social events and are “at odds with most sociological theories and the foundational assumptions of social theory” (p. 3 f.). Rather than drawing on Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) to extend the sociological understanding of disasters to materiality, Kathleen Tierney reviews how particular disaster events (primarily) in the United States shaped the development of US American disaster research which focused for example on patterns of behaviour (pro-social, anti-social), therapeutic communities, and intergroup conflict.

One of the strongest features of the book is the chapter addressing disaster research challenges. While students of disasters employ qualitative and quantitative methods that are also used in other contexts, they face additional practical, research-related and methodological, and ethical challenges. These challenges are overlapping – communities affected by disasters might be vulnerable which poses ethical challenges, obtaining ethics clearance is often a time-consuming process and is at odds with the unpredictability of disasters. To address these practical and ethical challenges, research protocols and ethics applications need to be developed early on – perhaps even prior to a disaster happening. In addition, those conducting fieldwork need to be trained well in advance of entering the field. Furthermore, inequalities within research teams and the risks to which they are exposed need to be considered. Many of the challenges mentioned in the chapter will resonate with researchers who conduct cross-cultural research (see Tuhiwai Smith 2012) and research with disadvantaged communities. Kathleen Tierney draws on her own rich research experience in order to illustrate the difficulties students of disasters face and how they can be addressed.

Another great strength of this book is the intersectional perspective that Kathleen Tierney applies to the study of disasters. She is keen to explain to the reader that class, ethnicity, gender, age and other markers of inequality need to be taken into consideration in order to critically assess who is hardest hit by disasters and who has the resources to mitigate or avoid being hit by disasters. She is also addressing power structures at local, national and global levels that contribute to the vulnerability of the less powerful and resourceful groups to the benefit of those who own power and property. Tierney ends her book with a very political note that cautions readers to be aware of complicity in contributing to climate change and thus disasters and encourages the readership to address the root causes of disasters by assuring social justice and equality for all.

As a student of disaster relief and other humanitarian organisations, I would have been interested to see more engagement with the literature addressing the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in mitigating vulnerability and contributing to recovery.  There is certainly no lack of critical evaluations of disaster response (see for example the edited collection by Hilhorst 2013). Overall, Tierney’s book focuses primarily on government agencies and disaster affected communities and less on third sector and other non-governmental organisations. When these organisations are briefly mentioned, there is little engagement with the scholarship that addresses their increasing budgets and roles. However, Tierney rightly notes that shifting responsibility to private actor – including civil society – is an expression of neoliberalism and that the involvement of private enterprises might prevent those most on need of receiving it.

Thus, while the book has many strengths, it also has some limitations. Although disasters from around the world are cited, the book is very much focused on the United States as far as disasters, disaster response and literature addressing disasters are concerned.  While the scholarly contributions of various disciplines are reviewed (anthropology, psychology, geography, political science and urban planning), development and humanitarian studies are hardly considered. And while the discussion of theoretical approaches includes social constructivism, political economy and critical urban studies, as well as middle range theories of panic, emergence and self-protecting actions, Science and Technology studies are not included (see for example the edited collection by Tironi, Rodiguez-Giralt & Guggenheim, 2014).

Despite some omissions this is a very comprehensive book that serves as an excellent introduction, and due to its clarity will make a very good textbook for a range of courses. In Environmental and Disaster studies, it makes an important contribution by highlighting social inequality and how it informs disaster vulnerability and resilience.

Silke Roth is a sociologist at the University of Southampton and is the author of Paradoxes of Aid Work. She is particularly interested in questions of solidarity, inclusion and exclusion. This includes a critical assessment of the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on aid relationships (ICT for development/ICT4D, digital humanitarianism). Her article ‘Deconstructing the Data Life-Cycle in Digital Humanitarianism’ (with Markus Luczak-Roesch) challenges an optimistic view on digital humanitarianism and ICT for development and highlights how Big Data and ICT reproduce Global inequalities. She tweets at @SilkeRoth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.