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I have been feeling in a philosophical mood this week, so please forgive me if today’s post is not your particular cup of disaster tea.
Interestingly, those who have said this just happen to be Sociologists. Mere coincidence? Or is it possible that disasters are socially constructed events, and that reality is socially constructed…..by Sociologists?
Of course, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek when I say this. Well, mostly. Disciplinary perspectives are like lenses through which the world can be viewed. Even when the view provided is very useful, it can be easy to mistake that lens as the only useful lens, and that view as the only useful view possible. This is particularly true when looking at complex, multidisciplinary phenomena like disasters. So I do actually get an uneasy feeling when a statement comes from any single discipline that might appear at first blush to not only be making a claim to being the most appropriate discipline for the study of disasters, but to also be making epistemological and metaphysical claims regarding the nature of knowledge and reality. What makes me uneasy is the feeling that a “one lens” view is being offered for phenomena, and a world, that cannot be wholly captured through any single lens, or it can only be captured if you are sure you are using the correct lens. And when the word “reality” enters the picture, there is one very important lens that cannot be ignored.
Immanuel Kant is probably the Greatest Philosopher Most People Have Never Read. Even one of his most important works, the Critique of Pure Reason, has probably not been read by the majority of philosophy students (and yes I have to raise my hand here). But my tongue is not in cheek when I say that within Philosophy, particularly the Philosophy of Knowledge (Epistemology), it is common to speak of two time periods: the time before Kant and the time after Kant. Any attempts to make claims about what one can or cannot know about the world, or about “reality” must confront Kant. This is because of the Critique. Although it is really more correct to say it is because of a book called the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic. You see, Kant’s Critique is, even by the standards of philosophy, one of the densest and most difficult books in philosophy to read. Even philosophers of his own time had difficulty with the 500+ page tome. So Kant wrote Prolegomena more or less as a summary of what he had written in the Critique. And what he wrote usually doesn’t make people feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Kant came to the conclusion that there is an external world (i.e. the noumenal world; the world of “things in themselves”; the world that can be known without the senses). This world comes to us through our senses and our mind, where it is perceived as the phenomenal world. But our mind is innately designed (one may also say hard-wired) to organize what is sensed according to certain conceptual filters, or what Kant called the Categories of the Mind: Quality, Quantity, Relation, and Modality. We cannot remove these filters. They come with our brain. We can only see the world as filtered through these categories. Thus, even though there is a “real” world external to us, knowledge of it is impossible. I can imagine what it would be like to see the world as my cat Andromeda, but I cannot know what it is like. More importantly: even if by magic I could spend five minutes as Andromeda, the moment I became human again I would still not know, and I probably would not even remember what happened; or what I had experienced would now be incomprehensible and inexpressible as knowledge. You can know the “reality” experienced by a cat only as long as you have a cat’s brain, or only to the extent that a cat’s brain processes the world the same as our own. This is similar to a neuropsychological explanation I read years ago of why we cannot remember our lives prior to the age when we first learned language (first year or two). Once language is acquired, the brain forever changes how memories are encoded and retrieved. Even though the pre-language memories may still be there, our brains no longer have the key to unlock them.
I was reminded of these issues the other night as I was wrote my last post. While writing, I was watching/listening/recording episodes of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design on Discovery Science. Hawking makes a very basic, and I think, very valid claim: everything within the universe, from black holes to the firing of neurons within our brains, operates within the rules of physics for this universe. Physics is the foundation science of everything, and everything in the universe: chemistry…biology….astronomy….neurology…psychology…sociology…. could be reduced to the principles and equations of Physics. It may be the one disciplinary lens that could be used to accurately describe everything. Of course, although it is logically possible, it is practically impossible, or not very useful to do so. The same holds true when looking at the usefulness of seeing the world solely through the lenses of other disciplines. The lenses of chemistry and biology, for example, are very useful for a wide variety of phenomena, issues, and problems, even if we were capable of seeing everything through the lens of physics. Psychology has been greatly informed by the application of the lenses of chemistry and biology, but those lenses are not particularly useful for seeing all of Psychology, even though it is logically possible to do so. A psychologist can accept the idea of ultimate biological reductionism to all human behavior without having to accept that all problems are best explained and should be treated by pharmacological, medical, or biological means. And this brings me to the relationship between Psychology and Sociology.
Although it may appear I possibly have some deep-seated resentment of Sociology, I actually do not. The fields of Psychology and Sociology are closely related, often looking at the same phenomena but different magnifications: Psychology tends to look at the individual and/or family level, whereas Sociology tends to look at the community-level and higher. Social Psychologists (Social Psychology is one of my favorite areas of psychology…I highly recommend Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal to anyone interested in the subject) study how individual and group processes interact, which to me forms the bridge between psychology and sociology. What then becomes interesting to me is the question of to what extent sociological phenomena are necessarily unique to social organization, and to what extent they may be extensions of processes and tendencies present at the individual level.
Just like other disciplines that are reducible to a more basic discipline, it seems reasonable to suggest that many sociological phenomenon are reducible to psychological explanations. Again this does not mean that it is practical or desirable to do so. Sociology’s lens offers a useful perspective. But the idea of this “psychological reduction” should give sociologists pause before advancing explanations for complex phenomena without considering other disciplinary lenses. The close relationship between Psychology and Sociology is probably not accidental, and it is quite possible that some/many sociological dynamics are not unique but have their origins in individual and small group psychological dynamics. Perhaps the relationship is similar to a fractal. A fractal is a structure that is constructed from smaller but identical versions of the whole. The part “recreates” the whole. Snowflakes are fractals. It is conceivable the phenomena that psychologists study in the individual and in small groups might be reproduced in larger and larger scales of social organization. This would make those social phenomena not uniquely social.
This possibility first came to me last year while reading Hoffman’s account of her and other survivors’ experiences of the 1991 Oakland Firestorm (The Angry Earth, pp 134-155). I was struck by her description of the social estrangement process. What struck me was the fact that I have heard others discuss similar experiences, and I have observed the same in my own life. But it has not been within the context of disasters, but in terms of individuals going through grief reactions; or individuals who have experienced psychologically traumatic events. Those who were not impacted by the event often appear to have some internal limit as to how long they will give an individual to get back to “normal.” When the time frame is not met, tensions rise and all manner of personal and social relationships begin to fray. This suggests to me that the root of the social estrangement is not the disaster per se, or in the social structures, but instead in the dynamics between unaffected individuals and the individual who has experienced a psychologically traumatic event.
Which brings me back to defining disasters uniquely, and entirely, as a socially-constructed phenomenon. I am not convinced. And the link to Terry Cannon’s 2008 paper at the beginning of this blog indicates, even those that support the general concept have expressed second thoughts about the wholesale attribution of disasters to social forces. This is not to say that social factors play little or no part in disasters, but rather that socially-constructed aspects are but one piece of the puzzle.
My own working belief is that disasters are not a class of events uniquely social in origin, but rather they are a class of events that can affect an individual, a family, a neighborhood….all the way up to the entire planet. Their possibility originates in some part due to the fragility and uncertainty inherent in our very existence at all, as well as the cognitive-emotional-social processes and tendencies of human beings. The events have both subjective and objective aspects, making definitional borders fuzzy rather than clear. Any attempt to establish a definition based on strict characteristics of size, scope, and type will prove inadequate, but it is still true that at different sizes and scopes the terminology may change. When these events befall individuals or small groups, we may call them tragedies. When events impact communities, cities, and regions, such events may be called disasters (perhaps even the term “shared tragedy” is appropriate). When these events impact states and even whole nations or multiple nations, they may be called catastrophes. As the impacts of the event begin to border on the global, we may begin using the term cataclysm. All of these type of events may belong to the same family of events (it was the philosopher Wittgenstein who suggested in Philosophical Investigations that many words are impossible to define or classify using strict criteria, but that there are instead “family resemblances” among words, concepts, and ideas). This also means that it is not true that all of these events must share the exact same patterns and/or processes. This would be like saying that only people who look exactly the same are related to one another. As a result, defining a concept is less absolute and much more like the way a physician or a psychiatrist/psychologist uses diagnostic criteria to identify illness.
What might some of these resemblances be among the events? Here is what I have as a starting point:
1. They are negative events far outside of the usual/customary/expected life experiences of those affected; or an event whose adverse effects far exceed anything that was anticipated.
2. Even though the occurrence of the events may be described very well using probability, their predictability is very low. This can give the events the seemingly contradictory characteristics of being both certain yet unexpected.
3. The events have the potential to impact ordinary functioning in ways that are adverse to the point of crippling, the duration of which may be long-lasting.
4. The exact effects of the event and the ability to recover from it, as well as the duration of recovery, will depend upon the nature of the event as well as factors that influence individual and/or societal vulnerability and resilience.
5. The events have the potential to bring about profound fundamental changes, whether positive or negative, to how the individual and/or society sees and relates to the world.
When I look at these characteristics, they would seem to apply in some form or fashion to events that can range from a family’s house burning down; to parents whose child is murdered; to a town that is destroyed by a tornado; to a world that is struck by a highly virulent pandemic. There appears to be a family of events here, although if you try to define them on any single dimension, such as size, scale, scope, and cause, there is high variability.
Finally, I am even less convinced about reality as a social construction. Hawking advances a concept of reality he calls model-dependent reality. Reality is what the best-fitting models say it is. And the best-fitting model is whichever one best accounts for our experiences/observations. If there is more than one model, and each model fits equally well, then any of the models can be used. The model of reality can be the individual’s model of their world and it can be science’s model of the universe. You might ask if quarks are “real” things? To Hawking the question is rather absurd. They are real so long as the best-fitting model of the world we have includes quarks. Should we find someday our experience is explained better by another model that does not include quarks, then quarks are no longer part of reality. For Hawking, every human being creates models of reality and tests the model against his/her experience constantly, modifying it as necessary (in psychology/psychiatry, the absence of such “reality testing” is usually found in individuals with psychotic disorders). The societies we create may influence those models, and the models in turn shape societies, but the models themselves do not originate from society. For me there is something intuitively appealing about Hawking’s view. It is not relativistic, for it does not say one reality is as good as another. Some models do fit better than others. It also is consistent with Kant’s conception of what can be known of the world. It also suggests that abstractions and conceptualizations are not progressive approximations towards a final reality- they are reality itself.
Some disciplinary models of reality may only appear to be best-fitting so long as one looks through the lens of that discipline, ignoring all other lenses. If different disciplines have different models of varying quality, then the best-fitting model is actually the one that can account for all of the best-fitting parts of the different models. In a multidisciplinary field like Disaster Studies and Sciences, this integration and synthesis may be the toughest tasks of all.
As a side note, I also found it interesting, and rather refreshing, that Hawking, who perhaps comes closest to symbolizing the pure pursuit of scientific knowledge, reaches a conclusion about the meaning of life that is deeply humanistic, compassionate, and ultimately as existential as philosophers like Satre and Camus.
I really don’t know what I did before there was an internet.
I have vague memories of my undergraduate years, where I recall spending hours looking up journal articles in the library; dropping hundreds of dollars into copy machines, one dime at a time; using a mainframe for statistical analyses and “chat”; and burning the midnight oil typing papers on a typewriter (at least it had a correcting ribbon…and “cut and paste” was literally cutting and pasting). Seems like a distant age now. Now from the comfort of my computer chair, with a fresh cup of coffee alongside, I now gather more information in an hour than I could in an entire night at the library.
What makes the internet so great is that it is perfectly suited for my style of stream-of-consciousness research. I start by looking up a topic, or reading the news, and while I am reading that, a related topic comes to mind, so I simply open another window and before you know it, I am off on an information safari. Always seem to learn something new.
It was during such a recent safari that I stumbled upon Dunbar’s number, which has been around for awhile (19 years, more or less), but seems to be getting more attention recently. What is Dunbar’s number? 150, more or less. Aren’t you glad you asked?
As explained by our trusty friend Wikipedia, Robin Dunbar is a British evolutionary anthropologist who suggested that there is a cognitive limit (based in the structure of your brain) to how many close, stable relationships humans can keep track of at one time. Based on studies of social grooming practices in various primates, he predicted that humans can have around 150 close relationships before the demands upon the human brain become too great for sufficient attention to be given to everyone. Beyond that limit, someone gets the short-end of the attention stick, and group cohesion suffers.
Although the number has been estimated to possibly go as high as about 290 or so, many think that 150 may actually be the upper practical limit. It is also important to note that there is only one number to encompass all of your relationships: family, friends, colleagues, students, etc: You don”t get 150 cognitive spots for your family; 150 cognitive spots for friends; 150 spots for colleagues/employees, 150 for Facebook, and so on. 150 for everyone. That’s it.
Applied to disasters and emergency management, this number might be something to keep in mind. Whether it is a professional network, a response network, a recovery network, or any networked group of individuals or entities, Dunbar’s number suggests that impressively large networks will not work as well as smaller networks (composed of 50 to 80 individuals/entities) because smaller networks allow everyone in the network to keep track of what everyone else is doing, allowing the network to function as a single, integrated entity. Larger networks, because their size exceeds the realistic limits of time and attention, fragment and become a source of dissatisfaction. The 150 also suggests that when attempting to organize community-level initiatives to build capacity and resilience, perhaps they should be built upon a similar understanding that a block-by-block, or street-by-street approach may be more successful than trying to organize neighborhood- or community-wide programs.
And those of you with 500 Facebook friends…you aren’t fooling me.
Interesting readings on the subject:
Patrick Meier posted thoughtful remarks today on his blog, iRevolution, that tie together concepts of disaster resiliency, social capital, complexity science, social media research, and the analysis of big data. Here is just one interesting passage in an article filled with timely, well-articulated ideas:
” In other words, ‘Resilience is the capacity of the affected community to self-organize, learn from and vigorously recover from adverse situations stronger than it was before’ (8). This link between resilience and capacity for self-organization is very important, which explains why a recent and major evaluation of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake disaster response promotes the ‘attainment of self-sufficiency, rather than the ongoing dependency on standard humanitarian assistance.’ Indeed, ‘focus groups indicated that solutions to help people help themselves were desired.’ The fact of the matter is that disaster response professionals cannot be every where at the same time. But the crowdis always there. Moreover, the vast majority of survivals following major disasters cannot be attributed to external aid. One study estimated that at most 10% of external aid contributes to saving lives. Why? Because the real first responders are the disaster-affected communities themselves, the local population.”
You can read the entire article here.
As readers of this blog may have noticed, I have only very recently discovered complexity science and self-organized criticality (SOC). How funny it is how I now find it popping up everywhere, in the same way that when you buy a particular car, suddenly you start noticing all of the other people on the road in the same car….