Bringing my project into focus…

After reading Single’s “The Focus Statement,” I used the recommendations, compared them to my X,Y,Z sentence, and attempted to write my own:

My research project is about the Saltville Dam Disaster of 1924 and the impact it had on the surrounding community. More specifically, I wish to discover if any specific socioeconomic or minority group within the community was disproportionately vulnerable to this event and if so, what contributed to their vulnerability. I believe that using the issue of vulnerability as a lens in this case study will allow me to make conclusions about a broader disaster culture that exists within the United States. I plan to use company records of Mathieson Alkali Works, newspaper articles about the local, state, and national response to the disaster, and census records to glean a better understanding of the demographic composition of the community, the role of the company in the town, and the response in the wake of the disaster.

I look forward to helpful feedback in class to make this focus statement even more “focused”.

A current debate within the field that resonates with my historical research interest is one of defining “disaster”. Though having a working definition of disaster may seem rudimentary for the field of disaster studies, many scholars have taking part in the conversation of what makes a disaster “natural”, “unnatural”, or “technological”. In order to establish these definitions, scholars have asked: “Is a disaster still natural if it has been influenced by human action?” “At which point are disasters no longer natural?” and “Is there such a thing as a natural disaster anymore?” For Ted Steinberg, author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, the political or corporate elite have intentionally perceived disaster as entirely natural (despite the human manipulations that exacerbate impacts and highlight vulnerabilities) to justify not only response to disaster but also the disaster culture in the United States (a culture of human manipulation of nature and perpetuated vulnerability to disasters).[1] In other words, Steinberg believes that all disaster events in the United States are actually “unnatural” by nature—no pun intended. In “Natural Disaster and provide another definition of a disaster event, explaining “technological catastrophe” as, “events that are human made in that they are accidents, failures, or mishaps involving the technology and manipulation of the natural environment that we have created to support our living.”[2] In ways, this definition is similar to that of Steinberg, however, as the article was written before Acts of God, Steinberg appears to have preferred a different definition of human-manipulated events. “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe” also pays little mind to the subject of human-imposed or created systems of vulnerability, and does not state whether their definition applies internationally or only within certain regions. David K. Chester does not provide a definition for disaster, but rather suggests that perhaps, the “Act of God” defense is not used as a means of justifying corruption, at least not in all parts of the world. By offering up case studies in which religious explanations are used to make sense of disaster in “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” Chester suggests that such explanations cannot be seen as things of the past, but as part of certain cultures, modern-day. He states, “In many disaster prone regions, religion is an essential element of culture and must be carefully considered in the planning process, and not simply dismissed as a symptom of ignorance, superstition and backwardness.”[3]

Those these discussions by scholars from a variety of disciplined may seem to be going on in isolation—indeed, few even reference each other in their work—these different books or articles actually highlight to importance of settling on a specific definition, or definitions, of disaster. One of the most significant reasons for defining disaster is in order to determine blame. If no human, business, or tangible entity can be charged with responsibility for disaster, then the federal government steps in with relief efforts (though they may regardless). If a human or human-established entity is responsible, they may be expected to pay damages. However, in an event like Hurricane Katrina in which both human and natural actors are at work, who is to blame? Who pays?

Historically, disasters have been understood as works of the hand of God or other divine entities or as forces of Mother Nature. However, in a day and age in which it is difficult to delineate a man-made disaster from a natural one, defining and explaining disaster events becomes increasingly complicated and increasingly important. For my own work, I will have to determine which definition of disaster my case study falls under or create a working definition of my own. I will also have to decide if there is a broader disaster culture in the United States and if my own project parallels or connects to said culture in any way.

[1] Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, xiv

[2] Baum et all, “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe,” 334

[3] Chester, “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” 319.

7 thoughts on “Bringing my project into focus…”

  1. You have a good start on a historiography here! When I think of your topic I think immediately of the plant in West Virginia that polluted the water system. And the destruction caused by Sandy. I’m wondering if in accounts of these events you saw social differences in the effects and whether you think your historical research can help us better understand how social structure is illuminated by a disaster?

  2. I agree with Dr. Jones! As I was reading your post, I began to think, wow! Carmen’s already got a great start on a historiography! I’m jealous! 😉 You raise such interesting questions too. Is it “mother nature’s ” fault that humans built a city below sea level (New Orleans) and then depended on levees to keep it dry? Is it an “Act of God” when a house built on a shore ends up in the ocean? Or dams burst that man built? Interestingly enough, insurance companies will not insure against flood waters. You can only get insurance for floods through a federal government program. Vulnerability really comes into question here… Insurance companies will not put themselves in a vulnerable position as far as insuring homes in flood plains. In essence, the federal government is the only one willing, at this stage, to insure someone leaving in a flood plain. Do they then add to the vulnerability of a victim of floods? Or is it the ‘fault’ of the person who lives there? Or in the case of a company town, do they have ‘fault’ in building houses in flood plains?

  3. I guess I’m wondering what you mean by lens of “vulnerability.” Maybe I’m missing something, but I wonder if you can go a little bit broader, like your discussion of culture – perhaps throw in a social/class, even spacial? I’m just remembering what we’ve discussed in class about your FABULOUS project and thinking of more angles you could look at in the process. But, I may be totally off base, so feel free to dump that. 🙂

    1. Interesting point, Kate. Vulnerability seems like one of those words that is both central to the research yet vague enough to require a definition. Carmen, how does vulnerability serve as your “lens” — and are you using “lens” to signify a way to focus the question? Or a methodology for undertaking the research? (lens is one of those words historians love to use- Kate’s question suggests we aren’t always clear about what a lens is or what it’s supposed to be doing.)

  4. Dr. Jones and Kate,

    It is true that vulnerability can be an ambiguous term, and I suppose for my own paper, I am not sure the types of vulnerabilities I will come across yet. I have no way of knowing if the people disproportionately affected by the dam break were of a certain socioeconomic or minority group, but these are the types of findings that I hope will back up my argument. Kate, there will certainly be a social/class aspect, I just do not know yet what the class buildup/social systems and relationships were, especially those involving the Mathieson Alkali works.

    I suppose in saying I would be using vulnerability as a lens, I merely meant that I would be approaching this project searching for evident (or less evident) vulnerability. Perhaps this could be best described as a methodology, as I feel that many scholars writing on disasters have used vulnerability as their focus. Maybe lens was the wrong word, or maybe I just need to settle on a more specific definition of vulnerability myself, once I have come across some discoveries.

    Thank you all for you input, it prompts me to think more critically about my project!

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