Writing Disaster: Autobiography as a Methodology in Disasters Research

August 2003 (VOL. 21, NO. 2)

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Research in social science has increasingly moved towards emphasis on egalitarian relationships in the research process; attempting to explore and break down the traditional divide between “researcher” and “researched”. With this more reciprocal relationship comes acknowledgement of positionality, intersubjectivity and the need for the “researched” to gain a substantial voice in the research process. In this paper, autobiography is explored as a possible method through which those affected by disasters might be empowered within a research process that is traditionally replete with power imbalances. Such personal accounts of disaster, which draw upon the experiences of the author as the defining characteristic, are not recent developments in disasters research; this paper explores the roles of personal accounts through the letters of Pliny the Younger, as well as the key role of autobiographical data in Islamic environmental histories. The Mass-Observation Archive, held at the University of Sussex in the UK, is used as an example of the scope and limitations of this research method in contemporary disasters research. It is concluded that, in some contexts, autobiographical research has significant potential in enabling those exposed to disaster to have a greater input into the ways their perceptions are recorded, thereby allowing them to have ownership of the research process per se, as well as the practical response to it, for example culturally sensitive mitigation strategies.