Disaster Subcultures: The cultural residues of community disasters

Wenger, Dennis E. and Jack M. Weller. 1979. “Disaster Subcultures: The cultural residues of community disasters.” Preliminary Paper #9, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.


Quite interesting as a relatively early article discussing a number of key points in disaster studies that later writers will return to.

  • disaster subculture
  • latent and manifest subcultural patterns
  • identification of a (sub)culture with turbulent conditions, e.g. flood town
  • “official” vs “grassroots” disaster response
  • “instrumental” and “expressive” responses to disaster
  • disaster subcultures can both help and hinder meeting unexpected disasters
  • especially in terms of a lack of definition of “crisis”

That is, previous community disaster activity provides some residue of learning which is applied to subsequent situations. When these residues are preserved, we can speak of a community possessing a “disaster subculture.” Preservation, therefore, is the essence of a disaster subculture. On the one hand, the residues of learning are applied to aid in the community's survival. On the other hand, the subculture itself is preserved through time by the transmission of its elements to new community members. The true indication of the existence of a disaster subculture, therefore, is the perpetuation of successful patterns of adaptation to the disaster context through socialization. These subcultures appear to develop in many communities that experience repetitive impact from specific disaster agents. (1)

In general, Moore has offered that 8 disaster subculture serves as a blueprint for residents' behavior before, during, and after the impact of a disaster agent. It includes such cultural elements as norms, values, beliefs, knowledge, technology, and legends that take specific disaster subcultural forms. (1)

At times the subcultural elements become part of the essence of the community and its residents’ way of life. In effect a defining characteristic of the community is that it is a “flood town.” Newcomers and visitors to the community soon will be informed that “we get floods… they’re pretty tough, but we’re use to them! I guess it’s what we are noted for!” This level of saliency can be observed in certain communities in the United States, such as Marietta, Ohio. (3)

Other elements, however, are of an expressive nature. These traits often include norms, values, beliefs, legends, and myths about disaster and the nature of the relationship between the focal agent and the community. These elements define how the agent is to be perceived. Such definitions may vary from those labelled as “disasters” to those perceived as “nuisances,” to those that provide the community with a time for “carnival.” (4)

Beliefs about the cause of the agent may be present and can vary from seeing it as a wrathful act from God or a nuisance from late, spring thaws. They often include beliefs about the severity of the agent, the nature of its impact, the invulnerability of certain areas, and the impregnancy and resourcefulness of the community. Myths and legends develop and chronicle past disaster experience. Community identity and solidarity are often maintained throughout the disaster period by these expressive elements. The exact nature of the elements obviously varies greatly. In general,however,they give the disaster social meaning for the community.” (4–5)

Attitudinally, the floods are viewed as nuisances at worst, and as carnivals at best, as “everyone pitches in to fight the flood.” An attitude of defiance or contempt can be noted. Some individuals attempt to “defy” the river by failing to evacuate.” (6)

In considering factors that facilitate the development of a disaster subculture within a community, three factors appear to be of crucial importance. First, the community must have experienced repetitive disaster impacts. In addition, the possibility of future impacts from the same agent must be viewed as a recurrent threat to the community. The residue of learning that represent the elements of the disaster subculture are based upon past experience. … If future impacts are not viewed as probable or possible, the subculture is not likely to develop. (9)

In the absence of a disaster subculture, disaster preparedness was not seen as a legitimate obligation for all disaster-relevant organizations. These findings suggest that once widespread organizational commitment to disaster preparedness is legitimated by the development of a disaster subculture, organizational change in preparation for future disaster response is facilitated. (16)

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