Sub-Project Area B: Disasters


Project Area B examines the phenomenon of disasters as a threat to order. It operates from the premise that disasters are events whose meaning and significance are defined within complex communication processes and thereby imbued with specific perceptions and knowledge inherent to the society in which they take place. In doing so, it ties in with the assumptions about the evidence and location of phenomena that threaten social order as they have been defined within the framework of the CRC 923. The individual sub-projects examine the question of whether the respective disasters are experienced by those affected as self-evident, existential threats whose origin is located outside the boundaries of social order. Thus, in this project area the guiding premises established within the CRC 923 serve as a heuristic instrument for analysing socio-cultural internalization and externalization processes.

The “moment” of a disaster serves as the starting point for the individual case studies. These "moments" are hybrid extreme events located at the intersection of human civilization and the environment, and they are associated with severe destruction that temporarily interrupts daily routines. As such, they are laden with strong emotions as well as an intense need for explanation and action. Whether and to what extent the respective constellations of social order in the affected society are threatened by such irruptions depends on the scope and structure of their economic, technical, and cultural coping capacities. Specific traditions associated with disasters that are often tied to local conditions can play a significant role. These traditions have emerged from repeated experience in dealing with similar events and they deeply affect how new disaster incidents are dealt with.

The analytical focus of all the projects is on the broadly defined post-disaster situation. The studies inquire the kinds of threat discourses that emerge and the functions that these discourses serve while also taking into consideration the actions taken to deal with the situation. Moreover, they outline different dimensions of the effects of the disaster in each specific case and trace the dynamics of the exchange between local and trans-regional coping processes. In doing so, Project Area B ties into the field of contextually grounded research on disasters which has recently developed clearly defined contours. Within the Humanities, disasters first emerged as a research topic in Sociology, but this topic has also gained a strong foothold in History and Cultural Studies over the last few years. Disasters are no longer seen as isolated, unique instances, but rather they are understood as processes and phenomena which are embedded within the development of societies. In the Natural Sciences, disasters are mostly treated as measurable geophysical events, and even in the Humanities and Social Sciences, they tend to be classified in terms of facts and figures related to victims, material damage, or structural regularities. In contrast to this kind of scholarship, the interdisciplinary approach of the CRC 923 puts the focus on specific social experiences. Project Area B deals with disasters as events whose constitution is dependent on short-term perceptions as well as long-term reception processes – as events whose origin and dimensions cannot be statically determined because they are subject to dynamic, continually shifting interpretations.

In scholarship on disasters, the anthropogenic dimension of such extreme natural occurrences is mostly defined in terms of vulnerability and resilience. The focus is on the ability of the respective society to deal with the situation and the resulting susceptibility to disaster-related economic, technical, infrastructural, or cultural damages. In terms of the contexts of the studies and the respective research perspectives, however, these concepts are dealt with and used very differently. Project Area B aims to develop an approach that makes it possible to understand disasters embedded in their respective socio-cultural environments and to investigate the manifold links between the historical and the sudden as well as the ordinary and the extraordinary, and, of course, between order and disorder.

Project Area B encompasses five sub-projects that deal with natural disasters from different disciplinary perspectives and span across a broad geographic area and time period. They range from the 5th century B.C. to the present day and cover disaster areas in Europe and around the world. The individual projects are as follows:

B01: Earthquakes as Threats to Social Order. Threat Discourses in Literature – Threat Discourses as Literature (5th / 6th Century B.C.).

B02: Famine as a Threat to Religious and Social Order: Threat Discourse and Coping in Christian Societies (1570-1980).

B03: Avalanches as Threats to Social Order: Disaster Traditions in the Central Alps (19th and 20th Century).

B04: Sand and Dust Storms as Threats to Social Order in Industrial Societies: The Soviet Union/Russia, China and Australia since the 1940s.

B05: AIDS as a Threat to the Professional Code for Physicians and the Political Order: Physicians and AIDS in the FRG and the GDR (1981-1989).

From the key aspects outlined above, Project Area B has developed a set of foundational questions to assure the coherence within the project area that weaves together the broad range of topics, geographical areas, and time periods covered in the individual sub-projects. In addition to examining the structures constitutive of order as they are confronted by an existential threat, the aim is to investigate the ways societies deal with such disruptions and to highlight thereby the specifics of the threat discourses and coping strategies that come into play. To do so, special attention is given to the following: