Interdisciplinary work is always a somewhat risky, unstable enterprise. It brings together people that, in principle, should have something to tell each other on a topic that is constructed as a bridge, as a promise of new insights and ideas. Whether those people will find ways to speak with each other, to broach the common topic in ways that make sense to both sides, and whether they will find worth in each other’s perspectives can neither be predicted nor channelled. It is an experiment, and this is what makes interdisciplinary work exciting and challenging at once.
The Inauguration Conference of this academic year’s research group “Communicating Disaster” took serious this challenge and was conceptualised in order to provide for open, little-directed exposal and exchange between researchers of diverging disciplines as well as practitioners. The connections to be drawn were twofold: on the one hand, the disciplinary differences were hoped to yield fruitful insights; and on the other, the two main concepts of the research group themselves are not yet, in the broad academic approaches, linked, but are treated from within entirely separate research traditions. The participants to the conference proved to enjoy and tackle the challenge with eagerness and enthusiasm, resulting in a particularly good atmosphere that was observable in lively discussions in informal contexts as much as in the plenary and workshop settings.
Heike Egner (Klagenfurt), one of the three convenors of the research group, opened the conference with a lecture in which she discussed the theoretical and heuristic concept underlying the initiative. The group’s focus lies on the communicative processes which occur between the different actors involved in disaster situations (e.g. victims, aid agencies, press, and politicians) and which characterise, frame and accompany the different stages of disasters. These processes are translated into a heuristic scheme, structuring the research year by phases that focus, consecutively, on the communication processes used in settings of alarm and mobilisation, those of coping and mitigation, as well as evaluation and risk discourses. This model was repeatedly drawn on in later debates, and while it was critically discussed in part, it was generally considered a useful point of reference for argumentation.
The topical organisation of the conference was broadly threefold. The first day addressed disciplinarily diverse forms of empirical and practical approaches to disaster and communication, while the second day focused on specific implications of the overall topic for different fields of research in specialised workshops, and the final day adopted a more abstract and theorising perspective.
The empirical perspective and its implications for practical application was impressively represented by Tricia Wachtendorf (Disaster Research Center, Delaware), who used ethnographic and interview data of spontaneous coast guard evacuation measures via the Hudson River on September 11, 2011 in New York to develop a concept of dynamising and flexibilising institutionalised strategies of coping with disasters. Volker Wulf (Siegen), another convenor of the research group, talked about research conducted in cooperation with fire fighters, which lead to the development and implementation of new technology to aid orientation and navigation during fire-fighting operations. Claus Leggewie (Essen) discussed, from a more global perspective, the political implications of the academic discussions on climate change. Klaus Thoma (Freiburg) offered a detailed insight into German politics of funding in the domain of security research.
The second day was framed by keynote lectures by two authorities in disaster research: Greg Bankoff (Hull) showed, by means of a number of historical documents that today’s disaster research is wrongly focussed on the culture of industrial countries as well as on contemporary traditions, thereby fatally ignoring valuable insights and strategies. Wolf Dombrowsky (Berlin) meticulously traced the historical development of disaster sociology as a discipline in its own right in order to conclude that it had become a discipline without a cause, and strongly pleaded for a re-focussing.
The workshops on the second day allowed for a more intensive engagement with core questions of disaster research as posed by different disciplines, while they were pronouncedly not confined to disciplinary boundaries. The workshop “Microdisasters”, organised by Christian Meyer and Hendrik Vollmer (both Bielefeld) pursued the questions in what ways disruption of social order in micro contexts is already disastrous and what can be learned from such an outlook. Gebhard Rusch (Siegen) headed the workshop on “Disaster and the Media”, which discussed the role of new social media as well as of entertainment media for the understanding and dealing of societies with disastrous events. The workshop on “Disaster Management”, organised by Helmut Hauptmeier (Siegen), brought together natural and communication scientists who debated the particular exigencies of communication in disaster-related operations. The strongest technical orientation was manifest in the workshop “Futures”, organised by Volkmar Pipek (Siegen), which focussed on technological innovations designed to support the management of impending or concrete disaster situations.
All workshops engendered interesting cross-disciplinary discussions, while the participants agreed that many topics had only been touched upon and invited further and more intensive debate. By scheduling workshops on new social and conventional media, design and technology, as well as micro-sociological and practical perspectives on communication in disaster situations for the remainder of the research year, the research group has acted on this want and has provided the opportunity for deeper and more focussed discussions of these issues.
The final day adopted the future-oriented perspective of the fourth workshop, while taking up a more abstract and theoretical stance. Alois Hahn (Trier) and Bernd Giesen (Konstanz) discussed, in two closely corresponding contributions, the impossibility of prognosis along with the ineffectiveness of scientific warning. The conclusion that scientific prognoses were to be understood as constructions just like other forms of forecasts however was strongly contested with a view to the necessity of trying to foresee disastrous outcomes in order to be able to introduce prevention and mitigation measures. The heated debate pointed to a central issue which will continue to engage the research group and which will be taken up in more depth during the concluding conference in January 2012: the question in what ways researchers and practitioners may work together without reducing one side to mere informers or contractors of the other.
Finally, based on a large number of ethnographic examples and visual documents, Harvey Molotch’s (New York) talk on the role of security artefacts in public spaces and their appropriation by users concluded the conference in a critical and thought-provoking, while nonetheless very entertaining manner.
As the first large-scale event at ZiF since the beginning of the construction measures in summer 2010, this conference was an inspiring start into the resumption of ZiF’s everyday life. While the scaffolding was still there and some things had not yet quite found back to their original places (so that two central concepts of the conference, i.e. disrupted social order and resilience could be performatively observed on-site), it was clear that the ZiF staff much enjoyed returning to their routines, offering perfect conditions for an interesting and inspiring conference that has opened up fields and issues for the research group to look into in more depth in the forthcoming months.
More information on the schedule of the conference and video files of selected talks as well as on the research group and upcoming events can be found below.
Participants Ilkka Arminen (Helsinki), Christiane Bähr (Hildesheim), Greg Bankoff (Hull), Marie Bartels (Berlin), Juliane Bräuer (Leipzig), Fabian Brückner (Hildesheim), Michael Bründl (Davos), Monika Büscher (Lancaster), Dominik Collet (Göttingen), Wolf R. Dombrowsky (Berlin), Nils Ellebrecht (Freiburg i.Br.), Giolo Fele (Trient), Carsten Felgentreff (Osnabrück), Frank Fiedrich (Wuppertal), Reinold Friedrich (Bonn), Johanna Gesing (Bielefeld), Bernhard Giesen (Konstanz), Michael Guggenheim (London), Stephan Habmeier (Siegen), Ursula Hennigfeld (Freiburg i.Br.), Sabine Hess (Bielefeld), Sarah Hitzler (Bielefeld), Gabriele Hufschmidt (Bonn), Boris Holzer (Bielefeld), Jürgen Jensen (Siegen), Stefan Kaufmann (Freiburg i.Br.), Andrea Kavanaugh (Blacksburg, VA), Bernd Kräftner (Wien), Judith Kröll (Wien), Christoph Küffer (Zürich), Klaus-Dieter Kuhnert (Siegen), Peter Ladkin (Bielefeld), Antonia Langhof (Bielefeld), Claus Leggewie (Essen), Thomas Ley (Meiningen), Daniel F. Lorenz (Kiel), Gloria Mark (Irvine, CA), Martina Merz (Luzern), Andreas Metzner-Szigeth (Münster), Christian Meyer (Bielefeld), Harvey Molotch (New York, NY), Stefan Morley (Lübeck), Stephen Mosley (Leeds), Hideyuki Nakanishi (Osaka), Dieter Neubert (Bayreuth), Frank Oberzaucher (Bielefeld), Peter Parkinson (Bielefeld), Jan-Hendrik Passoth (Bielefeld), Berthold Penkert (Münster), Volkmar Pipek (Siegen), Andreas Pott (Osnabrück), Jörg Potthast (Berlin), Valentin Rauer (Frankfurt am Main), Geoffrey Raymond (Santa Barbara, CA), Norbert Reez (Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler), Karin Reichel (Düsseldorf), Gebhard Rusch (Siegen), Marén Schorch (Bielefeld), Ulrike E. Schröder (Bielefeld), Celal Sengör (Istanbul), Simone Steffens (Bielefeld), Stefan Strohschneider (Jena), Klaus Thoma (Freiburg i.Br.), Julia Tischler (Bielefeld), Thorsten Ulbrich (Bozen), Kai Unzicker (Bielefeld), Hendrik Vollmer (Bielefeld), Martin Voss (Kiel), Tricia Wachtendorf (Newark, DE), Alexa Weik von Mossner (Fribourg), Helena Zemp (Zürich)
Introductory Talk: Communicating Disaster - Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to the Disruption of Order
Heike Egner (Klagenfurt), Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld)
Recording of the speech:
Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)
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Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)
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For further questions, please contact the research group assistants:
Sarah Hitzler / Marén Schorch
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