By Dr Rob Gordon MAPS
Consultant psychologist, Victorian State Emergency Recovery Plan

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Disasters have a community wide significance. In addition to personal danger and fear, they destroy and disrupt the arrangements of everyday life. A social process of impact and recovery from disasters has been documented for almost a century, emphasising the importance of working with the social dimension (Prince, 1920; Ursano, et al., 2007). Disasters demonstrate by their disruption how normal life is underpinned by people being immersed in a social system, a cultural environment and a community. The assumptions and transactions underpinning provision of services - especially health and welfare - are also disrupted. Relying on normal processes to provide recovery assistance therefore does not work as expected, and rushing large quantities of personnel and assistance to the scene without careful assessment and coordination adds to the disruption.

In every disaster, much needed energy and resources are taken up by managing the urgent demands of well meaning helpers motivated by their idea of needs within the frame of normal life. This article outlines the importance of understanding the social processes and dynamics that transpire within a community when a disaster strikes, and the central role of the affected individuals' community in recovering from it.

The pre-disaster community

Pre-disaster community is founded on the confidence that people do not have to face dire threats to life and wellbeing; they pursue their lives knowing specialist agencies manage dangers. Ordinary people have a ‘folk psychology' body of knowledge and attitudes that enables them to understand themselves and predict others' behaviour. However, since most people do not experience disaster in their lives, folk psychology is constructed from commonsense experience, the media, culture and family history, and lacks adequate knowledge of trauma.

The normal social system includes multiple dimensions of social life, each providing a structure of relationships and affiliations so that where individuals are far apart on some dimensions (e.g., political, cultural or occupational) they can be close on others (e.g., recreational interests, geographic location, religious affiliation) and provide each a unique niche. This network of relationships and affiliations is the framework for identity expressed as a communication system. Communication in all its forms is the material expression of relationships, social structure and community fabric. People carry on their lives within this system until the disaster.

Community at impact of the disaster

The defining moment of disaster is threat erupting into community members' lives. Communication is simplified and intensified, seeking information or advice, giving instruction and coordinating survival. People face the disaster without being able to call on specialist agencies or others. They are highly aroused individuals attempting to survive. The pre-existing fabric of social life is momentarily irrelevant and replaced by a temporary chaos of personal survival. Most people retain human values but without regard to identity or social affiliations, helping whomever they can regardless of previous relationship. As the threat increases, communication falls away completely in the face of the effort to survive. Even when people are together, many descriptions are of complete silence as the plane goes down or the fire front passes over the building.

Loss of communicative availability reflects temporary loss of the complex fabric of the social system that it materialises, and this is the starting point for the social dynamic of disaster recovery. The loss of social fabric constitutes damage to community, which is not automatically reversed as the threat passes. The suspension of communication under threat and high arousal means disruption of the social bonds defining the stability of the social system. The disaster impact thus produces a moment of social ‘debonding'  (Gordon, 2007). Individuals are momentarily cast free of social fabric. Although debonding is total or ubiquitous, the existing social fabric is drastically disrupted and attenuated, with important, potentially damaging consequences for the individuals involved.

Community rebound

As survivors emerge, still highly aroused, some may be disoriented and bewildered, but most become urgently active in search, rescue and response. Leaders arise, and people organise themselves into a highly motivated, collective agent of mutual aid. The pre-existing, multidimensional social structure does not re-emerge. A new, highly motivated temporary system is formed by everyone adopting new, improvised roles. There is little hierarchy or organisation since tasks are concrete and immediate. Boundaries and differences are ignored and the previous multi-dimensional character is irrelevant. This emergent social system can be called a ‘fusion' (Gordon, 2004a) since the previously differentiated community now operates as a homogeneous unit with a single task; social distances and differences are set aside by the urgent, indiscriminate communication.

Initially, the fusion liberates energy, altruism, volunteerism, a sense of togetherness and community spirit. Social roles and communication systems are redefined for the situation. Complexity and differentiation are replaced by a one-dimensional focus on the emergency, releasing unanimity and energy. However, an undifferentiated social system is as much a threat to identity as is being debonded. The fusion consists of multiple, unorganised, energetic, affect-laden communication channels and is subject to collective processes familiar from crowd psychology: emotional contagion, rumours, myths, influence, intimidation, stereotypic thinking, simplistic judgement, loss of personal and interpersonal boundaries, and social comparison.

Recovery in undifferentiated communities

As time passes, the recovery environment tends to identify more severely affected people as benchmarks against which other losses are judged and disenfranchises those with less obvious impacts. Tensions begin to develop because people increasingly feel the need for recognition of their unique problems, but feel unable to communicate them. As recovery proceeds, the complexity of the situation develops. Issues affect people differently and divide the group's unity. The uninsured become envious of those who are, the insured become angry when the uninsured receive appeal funds. Blame and judgements follow myths and simplistic accounts of the warning, impact, response activities and assistance measures. These issues emerge without warning, often activated by communications from outside the affected community, and bring into focus differential patterns of impact and loss. The fused community cannot process information involved in understanding these issues and reacts emotionally, generating additional arousal. The differences between groups and interests emerge with emotional valency and function like ‘cleavage planes' in a crystal, where a weakness in molecular bonds allows even a diamond to be cut.

Cleavage planes defined by emerging differences sever communication bonds and fracture the fusion, disrupting planning, decision-making and bonding, and politicising what should be a psychosocial recovery process. Cleavage planes arbitrarily cut the fabric of social support systems. Where one friend is insured and another not, the tension of their differences is likely to overload their goodwill, especially if subject to the resonance of others in the community. Cleavages form along any collective difference brought into salience and invested with emotional meaning. They are products of how differences are communicated in the fusion rather than the issues themselves, since under normal conditions community members successfully live with multiple inequalities.

Emergence of a new social infrastructure

Social conflict has a boundary-forming function in insufficiently differentiated communities (Coser, 1956) and this is its social function in post-disaster communities. It is driven by the need to create boundaries and differentiations within the fused community to preserve identity. This forms the basis of a social technique to assist more constructive differentiation. Early development of a transitional, ‘facilitating social infrastructure'  (Gordon, 2004b) becomes the core of a social process designed to foster constructive differentiation for recovery, and in due course to re-establish a normal, multi-dimensional social system and ease the fusion into a recognition of complexity and differences that will allow mutual tolerance. Early establishment of a recovery social infrastructure subverts the function of cleavage planes by validating different needs, forming support groups around varied issues and creating a communication system to identify needs, engage issues, process information, manage emotions and negotiate roles. As cleavages emerge, they can be identified and communication strategies formed to defuse them and promote understanding. They include information in newsletters, community or street meetings, outreach visits, working groups or planning committees.

Unless assistance measures, recovery resources and agencies are integrated into the emerging social infrastructure, their effect will further stress and potentially damage social infrastructure and stimulate cleavage panes. Lack of coordination between need and the capacity for assistance to be used, results in help being inconsistently applied, poorly understood and overloading already burdened systems to create additional problems for the community - for example, unwanted material aid, over-enthusiastic helpers offering assistance driven by their need to help rather than the community's requirements, and imposition of centrally determined strategies and plans that do not build on survivors' own resources.


Communities need to be helped to manage their recovery and advocate for their needs. Community recovery provides structures for community representatives to join State, local and non-government agencies and providers to identify and plan recovery, anticipate and intercept cleavages and facilitate constructive differentiation. In Victoria, these strategies have been central to emergency recovery planning and delivery for almost two decades (Department of Human Services, 2005). They are central tenets for national recovery policy in Australia (Emergency Management Australia, 2004).

Working steadily through community-based structures and understanding the social dynamic of recovery is the only way to ensure that even the most well intentioned assistance does not further damage the affected community and lead to the ‘second disaster' which is the recovery. The first task for recovery is to re-establish social infrastructure within which assistance can be provided. Every intervention in disaster has to simultaneously build social fabric and deliver assistance to it.

The author can be contacted at


Department of Human Services, Emergency Management Branch. (2005). A psychosocial model for post emergency individual and community support. Melbourne: DHS.

Emergency Management Australia. (2004). Recovery. Australian Emergency Management Manuals Series No 10. Canberra, Emergency Management Australia.

Gordon, R. (2004a). The Social Dimension of Emergency Recovery. Appendix C in Emergency Management Australia, Recovery, Australian Emergency Management Manuals Series No 10
(pp. 111-143). Canberra: Emergency Management Australia.

Gordon, R. (2004b). The social system as site of disaster impact and resource for recovery. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 19(4), 16-22.

Gordon, R. (2007). Thirty Years of Trauma Work: Clarifying and Broadening the Consequences of Trauma. Psychotherapy in Australia, 13(3), 12-19.

Prince, S.H. (1920). Catastrophe and Social Change. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ursano, R.J., Fullarton, C.S., Weisarth, L., & Raphael, B. (2007). Textbook of Disaster Psychiatry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.