I was a psychology major in college, but I also took lots of sociology classes. Now, I know that it's been 15 years since I graduated and that the world of education is much different now than it was then. But watching the coverage of the lawlessness and looting and all that in New Orleans I'm reminded of one particularly strange thing that was drilled into us in one of my sociology classes. It seems unbelievable now that this was taught as a scientifically-verified-by-sociological-studies fact. What is this crazy notion that I'm talking about?
That looting after disasters is an exaggerated myth perpetuated by the media. Yes, this was in a textbook and everything. In fact I think I'll go see if I still have that old book.
Not that it really matters, but I'm continuing this several hours later. I looked for my old text books, but apparently they were tossed or sold or something in one of our moves. So I did a little internet research and found that alas, they are still teaching this crap. Here's a link to a course description which mentions the various 'myths' of disasters. The text book for the course is Response to Disaster; Fact versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation, The Sociology of Disaster, Henry W. Fischer, III, University Press of America, 2nd Edition, 1998, ISBN 0-7618-1182-6. In case you don't want to look at that class description here's a quote:
Students will perform a short analysis of the media to determine if one or more of the common disaster myths (panic flight, looting, price gouging, contagion, martial law, physiological dependency, disaster shock, evacuation behavior, shelter use, and/or death, injury, damage) are contained in the story. The analysis should contain: a brief summary of the disaster, a list of any disaster myths found, your opinion on whether you feel the reported myths were factual or exaggerated, and the link to where you found the story posted on the Internet.
Well, we didn't have no stinkin' internet when I was in college so we had to look stuff up in books at the library. Archaic, eh? Anyway, I find it funny that sociologists are still perpetuating the myth that looting is a myth when we have clear evidence that looting is a fact. Yes, I'm not so far removed from academia and intellectualism that I don't realize that part of the purpose of these sociology classes and studies is to examine the media's treatment of disasters and their aftermath. I do believe we should question the motives and veracity of news reports. I don't believe everything I hear on the news, but I do believe what I see with my own eyes. And what I've been seeing is totally contrary to any suggestion that looting is exaggerated by the media.
Here are the course goals listed on that course site:
Course goals: After successfully completing this course, students should be able to:
1. Differentiate between the cultures of research and practice.
2. Identify social factors that are causing disasters to increase in number and severity.
3. Describe how empirical field research has undermined commonly held beliefs (myths) about disaster behavior.
4. Describe disaster warnings as a social process.
5. Discuss social factors that may constrain people who evacuate unnecessarily after a warning is issued.
6. Discuss social factors that constrain initial responses.
7. Explain the reasons why there is a relative lack of panic among disaster victims. 8. Identify social factors that cause differential death rates.
9. Describe myths about public responses to disaster.
10. Describe disaster impacts on community functions.
11. Identify social factors that intensify disaster victim stress effects.
12. Discuss techniques for planning media relationships.
13. Explain why emergency managers need to understand public apathy toward disaster preparedness and other aspects of hazard preparedness.
14. Discuss disaster research as an applied social science.
It's #3 that I'm talking about. I vividly recall in my sociology classes being taught that the majority of looters were really just people going through their own property and salvaging what they could and that the media only portrayed that as looting. Back then CNN was still in its infancy and FoxNews didn't even exist so news coverage wasn't what it is today. I wonder if the academics will ever get their heads out of their asses and actually see what's going on around them. And I wonder if they will have to start rewriting their text books to reflect reality instead of fantasy. Empirical field research my ass.