Asking the real questions…

While mulling over class discussion and what question I was ultimately trying to answer in conducting research and producing my thesis, I returned to the extremely helpful “XYZ” sentence.

During our exercise in class I came up with:

I am writing about the Saltville Disaster of 1924,

because I want to find out how this particular disaster impacted a community,

so that I can help others understand how disasters shape human environments and additionally, why some socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to disaster than others.

***At the point of conducting this exercise, I was not entirely sure if the Saltville disaster was the one I was definitely going with. To be perfectly honest, I am still not entirely sure, as there is very little literature to be found on the topic. I am currently trying to find newspapers on this particular disaster (and a few others) to make the final decision on which disaster I will research.***

However, regardless of the disaster, parts “y” and “z” of my sentence remain the same. The reason I want to study disasters is to discover the ways in which these events transformed the communities in which they occurred. What businesses, residences, or infrastructure was damaged or destroyed? How did the community respond in the wake of the disaster?

Additionally, I want to analyze the vulnerability of the community that was affected—who was most vulnerable? Was a certain socioeconomic or racial group impacted disproportionately by the event, and if so, why? What can the vulnerability of individuals or groups of people within this event reveal about a larger trend of vulnerability to disaster in the United States?

So, after much brainstorming an a few more attempts at “XYZ” sentences, I believe my first effort at my research question consists of two components:

How did the __(name)__ disaster of _(year)_ transform the community of _(area in which disaster occurred)_? Additionally, who was most susceptible to this event and what contributed to their vulnerability? 

In the case of the Saltville Disaster of 1924, I would want to know how the breaking of the muck dam and the subsequent flood transformed the Saltville community. What buildings were destroyed? Who were the 19 people killed, and what made them especially vulnerable to this disaster?

This research question is significant for a number of reasons. First, humans all over the earth have been impacted by natural disasters throughout history. However, human manipulation on the environment creates the potential and often the systems that result in additional disasters. In the event of both natural and unnatural disasters, certain socioeconomic or racial groups have borne the brunt of the physical or financial damage. In events such as the Saltville Disaster, it is important to consider the impact of human action as well as those who paid the heaviest cost. I believe that seemingly isolated disasters such as these are actually part of a larger disaster culture that exists in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) in which human action often exacerbates or causes disasters, and in which certain groups are more susceptible than others to the destruction.

Hopefully I will finalize the specific disaster I will focus on very soon. I definitely recognize the necessity of settling on a topic early so that I am able to create a sufficient proposal by the end of the semester. That being said, I also do not want to settle on a disaster that is not “manageable”, and therefore have been moving forward with research on a number of disasters while meanwhile collecting secondary sources that could easily relate to the topic of disaster studies or be utilized in whichever disaster I choose.

10 thoughts on “Asking the real questions…”

  1. Carmen, it is clear from your sentence (and the longer discussion at the end of your post) why this project is meaningful to you and what you hope to convey to others by doing it! I have two thoughts/comments/questions – I’m not sure which. The word “transform” in your question seems not quite right. When I think transform I think Phoenix rising from the ashes. Would “change” be a better word? Or is the question how did the disaster alter the physical landscape (change), and did/how did the response to the disaster transform the community in the aftermath? In any case, you might want to think about what would qualify as “transformative” in your judgment.
    I’m also thinking that if you find some but not lots of material on the Saltville flood, maybe you want to think in terms of a comparison, though I don’t usually recommend comparisons for theses. Is there another flood disaster in another area at the same time – another type of community? Or another flood in the same area that occurred at a later date that might give you change over time? Will be interested to see how your peer group responds!

  2. Hi Carmen! I can tell you have come a long way in your thinking on your topic! I think what fascinates me about the Saltville disaster is that it was a company town, yes? Has anyone ever written about the culpability of the company? Did they build houses along the river in a flood plain? Was it their dam that broke? What was their response to the disaster? How did the town react to the company? I think my verb might be “effect” and you may be able to expand your project a bit by examining if company towns had different governmental structures, codes for construction, etc. than other municipalities. Anyway, I think it is fascinating and you are doing a great job!

    1. Interesting idea, Faith. Does suggest that knowing something about the social history of the town itself could be important as you move forward?

  3. Hi Faith,

    It sounds like you are making good progress! One thing I noticed is that you said, However, human manipulation on the environment creates the potential and often the systems that result in additional disasters.

    The flip side of this is that human manipulation creates an expectation that the natural world will be “harnessed” and communities will be protected, but this is not always the case. I know I keep coming back to New Orleans (the Katrina disaster is something I am pretty familiar with), but the Army Corps of Engineers project intended to keep the Mississippi river from flooding communities on its banks ended up creating its own tragic environmental consequences. Vulnerability, and poor folks being disproportionately affected, is a problem in either case.


  4. Can we stop being so similar please? 🙂

    I’m glad someone else is very similar to my situation on sources AND settling on their particular work. I think you are making an amazing amount of progress, though. Each time I talk to you and read your newest post, you seem to get closer and closer to your end point, which is awesome (and I’m a little jealous!). Manageable is the key though — however, I think you’re very much on the right track in how you think about forming your question and your openness to flexibility in this project all around.

  5. Dr. Jones,

    You’re definitely right, “transform” may not be the word I am looking for. Or, it may eventually be, after making some discoveries, but for the purpose of my general question, “impacted” or “effected” might be more useful.

    Also, I have continued to look for different disasters that might provide a little more in terms of resources. While I have not necessarily come across a disaster of the sort that Saltville experienced in 1924, I have come across flooding events that were devastating, though humans may not have been as much to blame. For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, areas all along the James River experienced significant flooding, and death rates rose to above one hundred. While I may not have the human manipulation element that I had with the dam disaster, I could probably still make a case for vulnerability–I will not know until I get a little more into the sources.

    Either way, I will continue to consider ways that I might spin this project that will be the most sustaining and interesting.

  6. Faith,

    If I choose to stay with the Saltville disaster, I believe a social perspective would be considerably useful! In terms of vulnerability and blame, company towns typically set the stage for any number of issues concerning disproportionate treatment/living conditions. I will have to do more research concerning the company, but if there is a connection to the dam that broke, I would absolutely incorporate discussion of the company town and how it shaped the Saltville experience.

  7. Claire,

    You’re absolutely right in saying that human manipulation is typically in an attempt to harness or control nature. In fact, this relationship is one that made me increasingly interested in doing a project that focused on the “unnaturalness” of these disasters. Many scholars have tied vulnerability back to human-imposed structures or policy, and I believe that would be one of the trends I would be considering in my own work.

    1. Just a thought, but isn’t being invulnerable to disaster also evidence of human manipulation…sometimes dams do hold. But less facetiously, class differences are certainly a human creation so those able to live on high ground have manipulated the environment in their favor??

  8. Kate,

    We always seem to be following each other step-for-step in these assignments. I am glad that, even though I have not narrowed down my disaster of choice definitively, I am able to still do research that will provide context for and supplement my overall project!

    Here’s to hoping we have breakthroughs soon!

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