Focusing on the Argument

My second attempt at a focus statement, this time, argument included:

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 contend that those in the path of the flood faced disproportionate vulnerability for two reasons: First, because their socioeconomic standing determined and/or limited where they could live, and second, because they did not perceive their homes to be in an area at risk of disaster. These two factors, though seemingly unrelated, actually uncover a connection to a broader disaster culture that exists within the United States in which the socioeconomically or racially marginalized face the greatest susceptibility to disaster. I plan to use company records of Mathieson Alkali Works, newspaper articles about the local, state, and national response to the disaster, maps of Saltville and the Alkali Works plant, 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.

While I intend to make this argument about the Saltville Disaster as long as I can find substantiating evidence, I do wonder if my argument follows to closely to the one being made by Ted Steinberg, and therefore will have to consider the ways in which my argument will differ from or build upon his own.

7 thoughts on “Focusing on the Argument”

  1. “and second, because they did not perceive their homes to be in an area at risk of disaster. ” I wonder how you will get at the “perceptions” of those impacted by the flood? Did reporters interview them and report comments? Did any of the survivors leave records? The first part of the sentence is quite researchable with the kinds of sources you identify, but I’m not sure the second part is.
    Your argument is implicit in this sentence: “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.” What isn’t implicit is why you want to know this, because, as you suggest in the last paragraph, your focus and questions seem to be leading toward reproducing Steinburg’s argument. I wonder if stepping back and asking what Steinberg didn’t ask about disasters would give you a different perspective.

    1. Hi Carmen,

      Do you know how the company decided who lived where? Also, I believe that flood plain maps were available at the time and would have been a part of the information an engineer would have to design a dam and a company would have in building housing. Housing in cheaper to build on flat flood plains. Could their vulnerability be connected to their dependence on the company? How much are corporations responsible in disasters?

  2. Dr. Jones,

    I suppose that I hope to find sources that will indicate what the perceptions of those living in the town were–perhaps diaries or correspondence will help with that task (if I can find any). I am actually having difficultly in coming up with an argument when I honestly have no idea what I will find one I get more immersed in primary sources. Perhaps my argument should remain vague at this point, merely stating that, “those whom were more directly affected by the disaster were disproportionately vulnerable.”

    It is when I try to claim specific reasons for this vulnerability that I make assumptions before finding sources to confirm them or wander too closely into Steinberg’s territory.

    I think I was confident that I had a decent argument UNTIL I got it down in the blog last night, at which point I noticed the similarities to Steinberg’s contention. However, I intend to go back and look at his book to determine what he points to as the “beginning” of the patterns of vulnerability perpetuated by those in power. If I recall correctly, most of the case studies used to make his claim occur later in the 20th century, and perhaps this systematic vulnerability he speaks of looked different in 1924. This is the next step I’ll take, and hopefully my findings will help me to really focus in on my own, original argument.

  3. Faith,

    I am not 100% sure of the answer to your questions, as I haven’t found anything conclusive yet. However, I just received a book on Mathieson Alkali Works through Illiad, so perhaps it will reveal something about the power the corporation had in the community. I doubt that Mathieson actually chose who lived there unless they were workers of the plant (which is very possible). I do believe you are on to something in stating that the land was cheaper in these areas, and therefore may have been the only option available to those living in the flood plain–this is the type of information I will certainly be searching for in order to make an argument about vulnerability.

    I will certainly look into flood plain maps–I have done some preliminary research online and have not come up with much, but I imagine that members of the Smyth County Historical Society or of the Olin Corp. may know where I can locate them.

  4. Hi Carmen,

    This is a nice revision of your focus statement. I am wondering, like Dr. Jones, why the people who lived in the risk zone did not perceive themselves to be at risk. Did official literature from the company that owned the dam minimize this risk? Was the dam just perceived to be indestructible? Did the residents not think about it merely because they did not have a choice and had to live there due to their economic situation?


  5. Claire,

    Those are exactly the questions I hope to uncover the answers to. Many scholars have written on perceptions of risk, so I need to do some filtering through to see what the primary theories on risk are. But for this particular disaster, I need to discover more about the economic standing of those who lived in the floodplain, perhaps by looking at the census. I also need to determine if the community relationship with the corporation was pleasant or riddled with animosity. If the community trusted the corporation, I imagine there would be less of a sense of risk.

  6. Carmen,
    After talking about the newspaper source yesterday, it seems that perhaps you want to be using these sources to look for ways that risk and vulnerability were represented in accounts of the flood. Particularly if you are interested in adding something to our understanding of “disaster culture.” You know that poor people live in vulnerable places because vulnerable places are cheaper to live in – right? But do you know how, in the 1920s, vulnerability was understood (I’m not defining any agents who did the understanding — reporters? the town officials? the state government? kind of depends on who produced your sources)? Was it understood in socioeconomic terms? Or did disaster culture ascribe such an event to “an act of god?” a government that overregulated industry, an industry underregulated by government? a social structure that left the poor living in the shadow of a dam? (Or am I now replicating Steinburg?) I think I’m suggesting you look at perceptions as well as (maybe more so than) “reality.”

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