Olshansky, On Planning Following Catastrophic Disaster: Research Challenges

(Guest post by Rob Olshansky, professor and interim head of the urban & regional planning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

I have been studying post-disaster planning for several years, with a particular interest in catastrophic disasters. Fortunately for society, these don’t occur very often. But this infrequency poses a challenge to the researcher. Data points are few, so when a disaster strikes, we need to study it. But because of the infrequent and unique characteristics of each event, it is difficult to develop generalizable knowledge. This is case study research, as described by Yin. But the cases are stretched out over painfully long time periods, and thus the context of each case significantly differs from the others.

A planning researcher in the wake of disaster has an additional challenge: the interplay of knowledge and action. Because each event is so rare, and the knowledge base so thin, it is incumbent upon us to bring our meager knowledge to bear upon each disaster. If the purpose of such research is to improve the planning process for the next disaster, then, when the next disaster strikes, it would be irresponsible for the planning researcher not to help. The result is a mutated version of the reflective practitioner: a researcher who meddles with his/her subjects, applying incomplete expertise while at the same time desperately trying to gain more knowledge.

To be more specific, let me briefly describe my experience in researching post-Katrina New Orleans. In the spirit of the above discussion, I decided early on to take advantage of whatever opportunities existed to bring lessons from past disasters to New Orleans while simultaneously observing the planning processes as they unfold. After a few months of this, I began to create my own opportunities. I chose a week to visit, and identified several people to interview. Then I visited again. And I have continued to do so for over a year. I had no initial research plan, because the situation was so murky. If I had waited to develop a focused research plan, the moment would have been lost. Imagine trying to photograph chaos: you just snap pictures and hope to make sense of it all later.

This dynamic environment continues to be the biggest challenge. It’s a high speed version of normal planning, proceeding at the planners’ equivalent of faster than light: the process is faster than the speed of the flow of the most basic information upon which planning normally depends. None of the participants quite knows what anyone else is doing, nor how their own activity fits into the big picture (because there is, as yet, no big picture). Even today, 16 months after the storm, although it appears to many that planning is proceeding painfully slowly, it is in fact still happening at warp speed compared to the scale of the problem, and there are days that still feel like the fog of war.

My undergraduate degree is in geology. Field geologists occupy a special place among scientists in that they do not conduct experiments. Instead, like historians, they interpret the past. There is no way to verify the truth of their interpretations of geologic history, except to the extent that they fit all the available evidence. In doing field work, we learned the art of “multiple working hypotheses.” This is a technical way of saying that we think and observe at the same time, continually trying out theories and explanations until one seems to fit best.

I think “multiple working hypotheses” describes how I have gone about exploring post-Katrina planning in New Orleans. Only in this case, I am in the middle of the tectonic chaos, as the environment is shifting while I try to find anchor points from which to stabilize my observations. Initially I had self doubt when I found myself asking, “What, in fact, am I investigating? What is the question I am pursuing? What do I intend to do with this?” These are the fundamental questions for a researcher, and to ask them was to question the validity of my enterprise. On the one hand, I accepted the fact that the only way to study this chaos was to view it in real time, and that I would have to sort it out later. On the other hand, I needed to be as systematic as I could be. So, in the spirit of multiple working hypotheses, I realized that I needed to have explicit answers to each of my self-doubt questions, but that the answers could change (or even multiply) over time.

This situation begs for metaphors. My favorites are variations of Lew Hopkins’ metaphor of the planner as canoeist: using knowledge of the dynamic external environment in order to steer the boat through time. Obviously, the river in this case consists of dangerous rapids through which the planners are steering, in danger of crashing upon the rocks at any moment. I am tumbling along in the rapids, trying to observe the decisions made by the oarsperson. Except that there is more than one boat, which further complicates the act of observation and interpretation of meaning. And sometimes I latch onto one and help to steer, because I have seen rapids before, though not these particular ones.

Which brings me to the final point: the mixture of research and practice. I had a long conversation with our University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) staff about this. It seems to me that there are (at least) two ethical issues: ethics of research involving human subjects (the risk of abusing people for research purposes), and professional ethics (the risk of negatively affecting professional relationships and careers). Typically, different sets of rules apply to each. To what degree does this sort of interactive research require IRB approval? If so, what about civic engagement efforts in general? What about a reflective practitioner who later writes a “tell all” book? What about the normal exchanges of information that take place between professionals and faculty at conferences or over email? Planning researchers rarely operate as detached scientists, simply recording observations.

Because the aim of planning research is to improve planning practice, at some point, if successful, it should affect the subjects of the research. So we all need to worry about whether we as researchers are abusing our practitioner subjects. In the current instance, I have satisfied myself (and the IRB) with the common sense ideas of informing my contacts of my research, promising that I won’t report any sensitive information without their consent, and promising that I won’t quote them without their consent. Any reporting must meet the following test: could I continue to interact with that person in the future? Although this seems like the best approach, it is still imperfect. For one, it leaves the decision up to me. Second, and most importantly, it biases the reporting of the research. I may have academic freedom, but I have compromised it by tying my own hands with the inability to reveal failures or missteps, if they would damage someone’s reputation. I asked the IRB staff how they deal with journalists, who work with (and abuse) human subjects all the time. The answer is that journalists can do as they please. I guess it helps to have the constitution behind you. When I discussed my ethical dilemmas with a journalism friend of mine, he blithely responded that he has no such problems. He “burns sources” all the time, unless he wants to use the source in the future.

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007
randall Crane
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