The Myth of Disaster Myths
- Benigno E. AguirreBenigno E. AguirreDisaster Research Center, University of Delaware
The term “disaster myth” was initially used as a rhetorical device to help establish the study and management of disasters on firmer ground in the often unwelcoming political context of the Cold War. In the aftermath of World War II, social science research and theorizing eventually supplanted a civil defense perspective of disaster management. Some of the “myths” (or inaccuracies) social scientists refuted centered on assumptions that disasters brought about an increase in crime, panic, psychological dependence and shock, looting, and price gouging. This new perspective adopted a pro-social view to explain the perceived lessening of crime in the immediate post-impact periods of disasters, for credible scholarship indicated that most persons who experienced disaster firsthand as victims became involved in helpful, accommodating behavior. As time went on, ever more topics were dismissed as “myths,” and the word became a term of opprobrium. The present-day use of myth to mean untruth occurs in many of the fields that are interested in the study of disasters, such as public policy, meteorology, economics, sociology, and public health. Nevertheless, this use reveals a profound lack of appreciation of the classical view of myths as the foundational basis of societies, where they provide justifications for rites and customs. The cumulative consequence of the term’s rise may be the narrowing of substantive matters that researchers consider worth pursuing, for one hitherto unforeseen effect of this rise is that the ever increasing number of disaster myths is very likely to discourage the research needed to establish the generalizability and validity of many of these and other knowledge claims. The popularity of the term myth influences research in disaster science even as it facilitates the lack of robust, reproducible empirical knowledge from studies in different developing societies and cultures. The result is that there are not enough cross-cultural tests of the empirical propositions in disaster studies, tests which could show that some of the myth claims lack validity. Moreover, in the absence of any cross-cultural empirical basis to sustain them, the unsubstantiated myth claims fall into stereotyping and perpetuate a self-serving ideology of professional expertise that interprets the viewpoints of others as misunderstandings, or “myths.” The widespread use of the word myth in disaster research shows dubious epistemological reasoning, for it ignores the technical aspects of myths as hypotheses, and the effects of time, counterfactuals, lack of content validity, and insularity, as well as the unmet need for replication.
Myths and disasters point to liminal states, to the experience of going through change and passing thresholds, in which both structure and identity are re-imagined. Admitting insufficiently examined myths into this research area is of great consequence because it could assist in the development of an interdisciplinary dialogue and more theoretically discerning approaches. Myths, a central topic for studies in anthropology, are valuable on their own terms, for their research—not as untruths but as essential parts of the world of symbols, beliefs, and ideologies—can guide theorizing and help in obtaining more incisive research findings in disaster studies.