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). 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.” 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.”
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.
 Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, xiv
 Baum et all, “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe,” 334
 Chester, “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” 319.