Experts urge the inclusion of social science insights into disaster planning

Published 16 December 2005

In Japan they wear face masks; in the U.S. they do not — this and other insights from cultural studies should be incorporated into disaster planning, experts argue

In different cultures people behave differently. This truism highlights the fact that we should pay more attention to how cultural differences affect the way people behave during crises. Representative Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee) believes that DHS’ planning for an influenza pandemic lacks enough funding for — or use of — social science research. Studying how people behave in different situations and using that information to modify preparedness and emergency planning is crucial, Gordon said, because vaccines and other biological solutions alone will not save us. “Experts agree that should a highly lethal form of human influenza… present itself in the next several years, vaccines and antivirals will fall short,” Gordon wrote DHS secretary Michael Chertoff. “Social distancing, effective communication, and other public health measures will be our only realistic line of defense. This is the realm of social scientists.” For example, complying with quarantines, isolation orders, or forced “snow days” — when health authorities ask people to stay home from work — is largely a result of circumstances in one’s life, said Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity. Similarly, complying with instructions to wear masks when there is a suspicion of infection is largely determined by social norms (in Japan they do it; in the United States less so).

-read more in Zack Phillips’s CQ report (sub. req.)