The case for disasterology

*Potential controversy ahead*

Buzzfeed just came out with a list of 

'people who have better job titles than you'

.

 Some of these are just for kicks (and NSFW) but others, like Dr. Tom Hart, a penguinologist, are pretty awesome. I'll resist the urge to spend this post making an argument that "disaterologist" should have been included on this list and instead focus on why "disaster ology" (and subsequently disasterologist) should definitely be a thing.

When it first occurred to me to call this blog “Disasterology” I thought, ah! add neologist to my resume! I had never heard of anyone else using the term disasterology. Google's only reference to the term is as the title of a song that a band called Pierce the Veil wrote. (Because I'm old, and not up on current bands, the term disasterology, as used in the lyrics of this song, means, "the art of creating something just to destroy it". Artistic license I suppose.) 

Anyways, I was really only using the term as an easier way to express #DisasterologistProblems because #EmergencyManagementProblems was a little long. I used “disasterology” as the name of my blog and over the past year, have begun to use it more and more. An interesting thing happened, my friends, my colleagues, and my family started to refer to me as a “disasterologist”.

Really, y’all, I swear, I didn’t intend for this to happen.

But it was almost overnight and among groups of people that didn’t know each other. It totally caught on. At first I found the whole thing a little silly. A “disasterologist”? Me? It sounds so official. But then it occurred to me… I guess, by my definition, I am someone who studies disasters and therefore, I guess it’s only appropriate to be called a disasterologist.

I carry on my way still fancying myself a neologist.

Then the other day I remembered that Google actually comes back with more than one page of search results. I decided to dig past the shockingly large following of Pierce the Veil to see if any disaster folks were using the term “disasterology”.

I discovered that the term distasterology has been mentioned in passing in a small handful of articles. Notably the introduction to Wenger's (1985) paper on 

"The Role of Archives for Comparative Studies of SocialStructure and Disaster"

 says the following: 

Two things here - can you still claim to have coined a word if you're making the argument that the word in question should not, in fact, be a word? If no do I still hold some claim to “disasterology”?

And second, Wenger, in this case is arguing that "disaster research" should not be called "disasterology" because disaster research should not constitute a unique discipline. For the sake of the conversation moving forward - I, along with most others, agree that emergency or disaster management (whichever you prefer) IS it's own academic discipline.

Glad we cleared that up, moving on...  

Other than the introduction of Wenger's article disasterology is only used in passing by individuals outside the field of emergency management that seem to have found themselves thrusted into the disaster world (see for example: 

Kinston & Rosser, 1974

). 

There are two distinct arguments behind the term disasterology. The first, what Wenger alluded to, the development of a unique field of study - what we now call Emergency Management. And the second, my main reason for pushing the term "disasterology" and the focus of the rest of this blog post -- clear communication with the general public.  

Within emergency management we often talk about the divide between academics and practitioners (a discussion not unique to emergency management). My colleague Laura Gould and I are even in the works of creating a blog to address that very divide (stay tuned for more on that in the next few weeks). There is certainly a divide, and it definitely needs to be addressed.

But I find that the divide between those in practice & academia, and the general public is just as big a problem.

Sure, practice and the discipline should (in a utopia) be presenting a united front. But

as we’re beginning to see

throughout other disciplines, academics are reaching outside, and even leaving the Ivory Tower and finding other ways to publish and communicate with those outside their discipline. The average person is not an expert in disasters. Not everyone can be a disasterologist (although that would be really awesome!). I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of those that are experts, and that study disasters to communicate clearly and regularly with the general population. 

I created this blog because I strongly feel that the general public doesn't have an opportunity to learn about disasters in a non-24hour-news-cycle-sensationalized-feeding-frenzy. There just isn't a platform for it. And I think that there should be. Everything that is done in emergency management impacts the general public. Our policies, our research, our practice directly impact local communities, businesses, organizations, and individuals and households. Even the most theoretical of research impacts the general population.

There are four phases of emergency management - mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The general public probably doesn't care too much that there are four phases or that they can be depicted in a handy little graphic. They don't care about the academic definitions and they don't care that sandbagging is considered response not preparedness. But, this handy little theoretical picture impacts how practitioners look at emergency management and it impacts what the "doers" of emergency management tell people to do to deal with disasters. 

Have you ever seen someone who is an expert in disasters interviewed on CNN? Likely you haven't. (interviewing a "homeland security" guy during a tornado - nope, no, and definitely not CNN) 

The last blog post I wrote about the journal article that made its way into the mainstream media is a perfect example of why I do this blog. This blog always gets put to the bottom of my list. Working on articles, taking classes, working, internships, etc. all get put ahead. It's true for me and I'm sure it's true for anyone else in the field who has the same idea that I do. But that kind of thinking needs to stop. Communicating the field to the public needs to happen. 

When the person sitting next to me on a plane asks me what I do and I have to explain it to him it indicates to me that what our field is needs to be marketed. What's rule #1 of marketing? Having a recognizable brand [I actually have no idea if that's rule number one of marketing but it seems like it should be]. 

What I do, and even what emergency management is and does is SO much more than fire, police, EMS. That's like 1% of the whole shebang (granted, an important 1%). I'm not opposed to the term. I think it makes sense that the profession and the discipline have the same name but there needs to be a marketable, recognizable brand to put out to the public. 

There is an immense amount of frustration from everyone - academics, practitioners, business owners, government officials, and the general public about everything related to disasters - the flood insurance program, city wide infrastructure, evacuations, and recovery, oh recovery. 

The reason I became involved in this field was because for four years I worked with nonprofits and homeowners all over New Orleans, through Katrina recovery, and in post-BP community activism and saw that frustration. I went to grad school because, like everyone else, I was upset by what I saw. I started grad school knowing 

what

 happened in post- Katrina New Orleans, I left my master's program knowing 

why

it happened. Knowing why disasters and catastrophes happen doesn't make me feel better by what I see - in fact it frustrates me more than when I didn't know all of the 

why's

. But it does give me a little glimmer of hope. If we know the 

why

we can change the 

what. 

Now I know the 

why

 I just need to figure out how I can best use that knowledge to change the 

what. 

It seems to me there are three ways that someone who identifies as a disasterologist might use the 

why

 to impact the 

what

1. Further Research

2. Practice

 (in all senses of the word - emergency managers, fire, police, nonprofits, organizations, business owners that are active in disasters) 

3. General Public

There is definitely a stigma that you have to choose one of these things (although, I'm not sure of anyone choosing "general public"). I whole heartedly disagree. In fact I know it's possible to do all three because I've been doing it for the past year. I've been researching and working for Extension Disaster Education Network, I've been working with a nonprofit developing crisis response programs, and I've been writing this blog and writing for eXtension.org  - communicating to the public. I'm not sure if doing all three is something that I'll find to be sustainable but I’m sure going to try.