Volume 18 Issue 3, 2003

Structural and personal social processes in disaster

George Silberbauer

Peer-reviewed Article

Archived Article


The way in which we perceive and interpret our experience of the world around us is a cultural product. It is systematic, but selective, including some events and phenomena, and excluding others as irrelevant or false. It is, thus, an incomplete, somewhat inaccurate reflexion of reality. Nevertheless, it is adequate for most of our ‘normal’ needs; it enables us to make enough sense of what happens for us to be able to live as reasonably competent members of the groups and society to which we belong. This culturally-specific account of reality is a sort of combination of tribal myth and open conspiracy. Our beliefs, attitudes and expectations are guided by it, but we also participate in its formulation, maintenance and amendment. For these processes we are dependent on frequent social interaction with others to learn, and affirm and/or correct our personal versions of Received Wisdom about how to account for, and interpret our experience of reality, i.e. to provide us with sufficient information about the current construct of reality. As well as the physical damage a disaster does, it also causes critical disruption of the victims’ customary relationships and patterns of social interaction. Not only is this emotionally distressing but it also contradicts their expectations of normality, thereby invalidating much of their Received Wisdom, leaving them in a state of painful uncertainty. Furthermore, a disaster impedes the normal the flow of information as well as that which the unexpected, novel and unprepared-for post-disaster circumstances require. Victims are thus precipitated into a crippling information-deficit that increasingly inflicts psychologically damaging diminution of sense of identity, highly stressful uncertainty about future action and prospects, and difficulty in reaching decisions because of the imponderability of key factors. Consequently the processes of recovery and rehabilitation are greatly hindered. Post-disaster information-deficit can be ameliorated by appropriate preparation. Relevant prior experience, whether personal or vicarious, is of the highest value and can be imparted through appropriate training and public education (To illustrate: the Victorian Country Fire Authority’s programmes of Bushfire Blitz and Community Fireguard have proven value in post-disaster recovery as well as in preventing, or mitigating bushfire damage.) In the absence of adequate preparation, victims will be principally, perhaps wholly reliant for information on those who render them assistance. In either case a copious flow of relevant, timely and understandable information is an essential element of assistance and its provision should form part of any disaster preparation. As the harm done by information-deficit progresses in a quasi-exponential manner, early and effective mitigation of post disaster information-deficit is an urgent priority.