Research Methods

(I am thankful I chose to answer questions of methodology AFTER we had class discussion. I am also thankful to be in the company of a number of other cultural historians.)

I see myself primarily as a cultural historian, as I am focusing on the ways in which people perceive of and understand disasters in the United States. Moreover, in this particular project, I am making an argument regarding a larger disaster culture in the United States, and how that culture in turn shaped how individuals and communities react to and remember disaster. My research also seems to fall at an intersection with social history, because class relations certainly shape the ways in which people make sense of disaster. This class analysis will be useful in combination with a spatial perspective, as the region in which the Palmertown Tragedy occurred has a very specific class demographic in comparison to the nation as a whole.

The theory of cultural hegemony could prove considerably suited to my research because I will be analyzing news media—local, national, and international—and the ways in which news from outside the region reports on/describes Saltville and the disaster will certainly be shaped by dominant cultural ideas.

Additionally I will consider the Four Theories of Disaster, as FEMA has laid out in their Emergency Management guides, and as other historians have used in their works on disasters. These theories include: Acts of God—or Fate; Acts of Nature—Physical Events; Intersection of Society and Nature; Avoidable Human Constructions. These theories are most often cited as the causes of disaster, and one or more of these theories no doubt informs perceptions of disaster. Furthermore, these theories have not been accepted simultaneously, but rather, have been modified as greater understanding and information of disasters have evolved or been discovered over time. Discovering which of these theories were accepted at the time and by the observers or reporters of the Palmertown Tragedy is imperative to better understanding the ways in which public perceptions were formed.

This methodology shaped the questions I want to ask by providing the framework to look at culture through public perceptions to disaster events and dominant cultural ideas about causation, blame, and vulnerability.

3 thoughts on “Research Methods”

  1. Carmen,
    Cultural hegemony should help you understand the “social” component of the response to the flood. And I think it might also give you a way into evaluating FEMA’s four. I wonder if you might want to make part of the project a question about the four explanations — by not accepting that these four will necessarily be the options available in 1924. Perhaps they were, but by questioning them, you will be showing the way that cultural context shapes understanding. (I am sorry you missed Mark Smith’s talk — his point that the sensory experiences in the past were determined by the social and cultural milieu, and historians cannot impose without questioning our understanding about, for example, what was a “bad smell.” Your FEMA discussion seems to suggest the need for a similar analysis.)

  2. I think this post highlights even more the idea of analyzing those newspapers so closely. This seems super regional, so I really like where your project is intersecting, and I think this is coming together in a much more solid vision than before because of that. I’m looking forward to seeing how you continue to develop this further, but I think the areas you have highlighted are perfect for this project.

  3. Hi Carmen,

    I very much like the local/national juxtaposition you are describing in terms of cultural reactions. How are you specifically going to use the concept of cultural hegemony in this project? I can see a few ways of going with this, so I would like to know more.


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