By Jenny Lunn
Natural disasters are never far from the news. Over the last 24 hours, we have heard of a tsunami affecting South Pacific islands and an earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia. We usually watch disasters unfold on our TV screens; we sometimes give some money. Mostly we feel completely helpless about a situation far away. Some people are able to respond by travelling to the disaster area to offer their professional skills as doctors, nurses, fire fighters or engineers. But what professional skills can academics bring to such situations?
Catherine Brun’s paper in the Geographical Journal looks at researchers who conducted participatory action research in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami wrought devastation on the fringes of the Indian Ocean. Post-disaster research is essential for understanding how people react to disasters and cope in the aftermath. Such insights are vital for forecasting, planning and mitigating against future disasters. However, the key question is how the research can balance being practical and helpful whilst gathering useful data.
Though referring to research in the aftermath of a disaster, the issues raised by Brun are applicable to social scientists engaged in all kinds of research, as they consider the ethics and responsibility of engagement.