SEMINAR 3 Tuesday 6 October 2020

Normalizing Disaster (knowledge and power)

Program, abstracts and bios

Europe: 9.30-10.30 (CET) 8.30-9.30 (WET); Australia: 18.30-19.30 (AET)

Amanda Howard and Margot Rawsthorne, Community-led disaster planning: reshaping norms

Richard Mohr, When Normality Fails: Discursive Reactions to Disaster


Community-led disaster planning: reshaping norms
Amanda Howard and Margot Rawsthorne
The magnitude of climate change disasters is reshaping norms of power and knowledge in planning for these disasters. The traditional position of emergency services as saviours is now recognised by the leaders as unsustainable, despite continued media construction of emergency services as heroic. A new norm is emerging where communities are now asked to fend for themselves, told not to wait for the knock on the door or the boat to rescue them. This new norm sits very uncomfortably with the highly hierarchical and combat orientation of services on the ground. Communities are made responsible whilst told to follow orders whilst local knowledge is ignored.

This paper draws on extensive action research in diverse communities including small rural, peri-urban and coastal locations. It seeks to map how communities navigate this new norm and how others respond to, contradict and support this process. 

When Normality Fails: Discursive Reactions to Disaster
Richard Mohr
Shocks from extraordinary events ­– epidemics, natural disasters, massive technological mishaps – are a challenge to the day to day normality of social life. While the ‘pathological’ is the antonym to ‘normal’ in the organism, the ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’ may be the equivalent antonym when applied to society. Immediate and spontaneous reactions to disaster include emotional and political components: anxiety, grief, anger, blame. These call for explanations and strategies, which are often seen as the responsibility of experts and political leaders, but are also open to media and local interventions. Each of these reactions and responses is played out in public discourse which, as a guide to action, becomes a crucial part of the response itself.

One goal of responses to catastrophic disruptions is a return to normality. However, this may become problematic when faced with the enormity of the disruption, or its incompatibility with other values, such as threat to life. Policies, strategies or decisions on how to act, taken by governments, individuals or communities, are based on situated and useable knowledges (Harraway 1987, Ravetz 1988). These are often in conflict, and never moreso than when applied to those uncanny events that unsettle the body politic.

The paper analyses various knowledge sets, focussing on the moment of rupture, when normality fails in the face of disaster. At that moment the old normal of scientific reports and modelling, local knowledge and warnings become the new reality of death and destruction. From then on the stakes are high in the competition between experts, locals and conspiracy theorists. The inquiry draws on discursive material from two recent disasters, the Australian East Coast bush fires of spring and summer 2019-20, and the covid-19 pandemic. The aim is to inquire how these knowledges enter into and influence public discourse about responses and normality.


Associate Professor Amanda Howard, University of Sydney. Amanda is recognised both within social work and more widely as a leading authority in scholarship, research and teaching in social work. Her research is recognised at a national and international level in the areas of community development, disasters, disability inclusion and leadership.
Associate Professor Margot Rawsthorne, University of Sydney Margot’s research focuses on the experience of inequality, particularly shaped by gender, location and sexuality. Margot's current research projects focus on community change through community development initiatives and disasters. She has published extensively on the experiences of lesbian parents and third sector issues.

Over the past 3 years Margot and Amanda have worked on a number of action research projects exploring shared responsibility in disaster preparedness, with a particular focus on the participation of community members.

Dr Richard Mohr is an urban and legal sociologist who has worked as a community health coordinator, planning and evaluation consultant and academic. Work on the social relations of knowledge led to interdisciplinary research and teaching in schools of Architecture, Law, and Sociology at Sydney University, UNSW, McGill University and the University of Wollongong. He continues as a director of SRPP Pty Ltd, with Dr Margot Rawsthorne as principal.