The XYCs of Disasters

As those who follow my work might know, my academic research outside of the Federation of American Scientists examines conceptual issues in security studies. I am specifically interested in how social groups like states come to socially construct terms like “natural disaster” as security issues. In fact, my doctoral research attempts to illustrate the process by which these institutional facts are constructed in the specific contexts of Post-Cold War Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, such theoretical exercises can appear boring to those in the policymaker community who are far more interested in these terms’ application in practice. That said, I would argue that if we don’t understand the process by which security issues are socially constructed, then we can’t hope to understand how and why these terms carry so much weight in the policymaking process. So, on that note, I wanted to take a brief moment to pose the question, “What is a disaster?”

In my forthcoming journal article entitled “Disasters as Institutional Facts,” I seek to lay out a John R. Searle inspired theoretical approach for understanding how the term “disaster” is socially constructed across varying contexts. I will attempt to summarize its key points here as my response to the question. To understand “What is a disaster?,” I argue that we must first understand what counts as a disaster. In the international community, there remains no collective agreement between states on what the X or the C are in [X counts as a “Disaster” in Context C]. In the words of the International Law Commission, disasters are not “a term of art and, as such, lack() one single accepted definition.” In the absence of a collectively agreed upon international definition, we must instead look to the domestic legislation of the individual member states for their own definitions. This means exploring the procedures by which disasters come to be validly declared in each country. Typically, this entails looking at bureaucratic and/or political processes in the absence of written laws or policies that explicitly define what constitutes a disaster.

However, I argue in my piece that merely understanding the X in the [X counts as a Disaster] for a specific country is not enough. A complete picture of disasters requires also understanding which actors (S) are provided which powers (A) in the event of their occurrence. Theoretically, we find this expressed as the S, A, and C in Searle’s function: “We accept (S has the power (S does A)) in [Context C],” where C is the specific country of interest. Identifying the full set of S-A relationships is not an easy task for complex social issues like disasters. Typically, there are multiple levels of S, as one level of S usually possess the power to delegate powers to another level of S (ex. head of state delegating administrative powers to cabinet officials). To understand the concept of “disaster” within a specific context (say Japan), we must therefore account not only for the X but also the full set of deontic powers, including: 1) Actor-Powers (S-A); 2) Power Delegation Practices (S-A-S). This may require some level of abstraction as it may be difficult to account for all the actors involved in the response, especially in an event like the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake or the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.

Some might counter that this account is a bit complicated. I mean, isn’t it clear to everyone that the Great East Japan Earthquake was a disaster? And, isn’t it clear that the Japanese Prime Minister possessed a commonsense set of powers to respond to the disaster? From that perspective, one might argue that 3/11 serves as a paradigm case. And, there would probably be few who would disagree. But, as many theorists have pointed out, an appeal to a paradigm case is not an explanatory move but merely a descriptive one. And, it is quite clear that the powers that Japanese Prime Minister possessed in responding to 3/11 differed from the powers that many other heads of state would have possessed in the same disaster (i.e. context specific). For those reasons, we in the policy community need to have a theoretical foundation upon which to account for the “why in the what.” Herein, I have attempted to provide a basic explanation of that “why in the what” as derived from institutional fact theory. While that theory has its share of critics, I believe that it nevertheless provides a compelling theoretical basis for understanding how social issues such as “natural disasters” are socially constructed into policy issues. If you agree, then the conceptual ABCs of Searle’s X, Y, C, S, and A are quite central to understanding “What is a disaster?”

Michael Edward Walsh is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. He currently serves as a Visiting Researcher at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, an international PhD affiliate of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, and an Academic Guest of Universität der Bundeswehr München. This post is derived from his doctoral research as presented in his forthcoming journal article entitled, “Disasters as Institutional Facts.” Original post here.

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