KWI – Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Intitut Essen, KWI)

Project Memories of Disasters

Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Harald Welzer
Research coordinator: Dr. Dietmar Rost

Funded by: Stiftung Mercator

Duration: 31.10.2013

Climate change is linked to an increase in extreme weather events. Hence, in recent years the question as to how societies deal with natural disasters has gained significance. Not only do societal reactions to existing natural hazards come into focus, rather the complex interlacing of natural hazards, social vulnerability, and anthropogenic factors of natural hazards form the core of the problem. Vulnerability to natural hazards is thus defined by the different social forms that knowledge and action may acquire. As a consequence, vulnerability can be modified by mitigative and adaptive measures such as influencing, preparing for and coping with extreme natural events. An important factor in adaptation and mitigation is the memory of disasters and the experiences that are related to it. Those memories of disasters are the focal point of the research project.

One research interest of “Memories of Disasters” concerns the influence of previous experiences on later experiences and action. In other words, the memories of disasters may set in motion a learning process. Importantly however, disastrous events can also be forgotten. Accordingly, we explore the conditions for the memory of disasters, that is, we inquire after the emotional impact of events and after the personal and social, communicative and cultural forms of such memory. Interviewing disaster victims furthermore allows for glimpses on the processes of remembering and forgetting. In this way, we take into focus forms of memory, that are in the process of being established and their possible consequences, on the one hand, and passing or failing forms of memory, on the other hand.

Memories of disasters may thus merge with and shape the interpretational frames of reference of a sequence of disasters, or of entirely unrelated disasters. In this context, our project analyses further aspects of current disaster interpretations, in particular, we examine the relevance interviewees give to anthropogenic climate change as the cause for natural disasters.

Research in the “Memories of Disasters” project is carried out in close co-operation with its sister-group “Shifting Baselines.” Both are oriented on the overarching core questions of the research program Climate & Culture. The latter focuses on the frames of reference that shape the perception and interpretation of climatic and environmental phenomena, the changing of those frames of reference as well as their impact on adaptive and mitigative behavior that seems to be called for in the context of climate change.

The two project groups’ research design and choice of methodology was also informed by their close co-operation. Both groups chose a comparative approach, each uniting four case studies from different countries in different continents. The research design is largely qualitative, working with biographical interviews that focus on the environmental aspect. The interviews are supplemented by a questionnaire – the newly designed enviro-biographical interview (EBI). This extensive corpus of data is evaluated for the most part by qualitative content analysis.

The four PhD candidates of the “Memories of Disasters” project group use the interview material they generated in their respective country of study (Chile, Germany, Ghana and the U.S.A.) as the basis for their dissertation. The interview material is evaluated on the group level as well as between the two project groups. At the same time, the data is reconnected to the overarching research questions of the Climate & Culture research program.

The case studies of the four “Memories of Disasters” researchers focus on forms of experience and action in the context of the following disasters, all characterized by a major flood event:

  • The flooding of Chaitén, Chile, caused by a volcanic eruption (Gitte Cullmann, Sociology)

  • The Odra 1997 and Elbe 2002 floods in Germany (Maike Böcker, Sociology)

  • Seasonal flooding in the metropolitan area of Accra, Ghana (Ingo Haltermann, Geography)

  • Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans 2005 (Eleonora Rohland, History)



Rost, Dietmar (2014): Wandel (v)erkennen. Shifting Baselines und die Wahrnehmung umweltrelevanter Veränderungen aus wissenssoziologischer Sicht. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. (Mit einem Vorwort von Harald Welzer)


Böcker, Maike; Haltermann, Ingo (2012): Wie Menschen in Deutschland und Ghana mit Naturkatastrophen umgehen. In: Welt-Sichten 12(2012)/01(2013): 46-47.

Cullmann, Gitte: Neue Wege für Chile - Modernisierung in Zeiten des Klimawandels. In: Berliner Debatte Initial - Sozial- und geisteswissenschaftliches Journal, Heft 01, 2010, S. 47-51.

Cullmann, Gitte: Nuevos caminos para Chile: la modernización en tiempos del cambio climático. In: Desafíos para el Desarrollo Sustentable de América Latina en Contexto de Cambio Climático, Heinrich Böll Stiftung América Latina y USACH. 12/2010, S. 63-71.

Haltermann, Ingo (2011): Vom Alltagsrisiko zur Katastrophe. Die Veränderung von Naturrisiken und deren Wahrnehmung am Beispiel Accra/Ghana. In: SWS-Rundschau (51/3, 2011), S. 349-366.

Haltermann, Ingo (2012): Ich habe meinen Anwalt bei mir... Der Zugang zum Feld im Kontext interkultureller Forschung. In: Bettmann, R.; Roslon M. (Hrsg.) (2012): Going the Distance. Berichte aus dem Dickicht der interkulturellen qualitativen Sozialforschung, S. 149-168. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaft.

Haltermann, Ingo (2012): The perception of natural hazards in the context of human (in-) security. In: Luig, U. (Ed.) (2012): Negotiating Disasters: Politics, Representation, Meanings, S. 59-78. Frankfurt am: Peter Lang.

Rohland, Eleonora (2014, im Erscheinen): Hurricanes in New Orleans: Disaster Migration and Adaptation, 1718-1794. In: Bernd Sommer (ed.): Climate Change in North America (Series Climate and Culture), Leiden: Brill.

Rohland, Eleonora (2014, im Erscheinen): Hurricanes on the Gulf Coast: Environmental Knowledge and Science in Louisiana, the Caribbean, and the U.S., 1722 to 1900. In: Rood, Daniel, Manning, Patrick (ed.): Linnaean Worlds: Global Scientific Practice, 1750-1850, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rohland, Eleonora; Mauelshagen Franz; Haltermann, Ingo; Cullmann, Gitte; Böcker, Maike (2014, im Erscheinen): Why people don’t leave: The Enviro-Biographical Interview: Attachment to Place in the Aftermath of Disaster. In: Sloan, Stephen, Cave, Mark: Oral History and Crisis, New York: Oxford University Press.

Dissertations (to be completed or completed):

Böcker, Maike: Aus Katastrophen lernen? Wahrnehmungen, Deutungen und Konsequenzen von Umweltveränderungen am Beispiel des Oderhochwassers 1997.

Cullmann, Gitte: Zerrissen durch die Katastrophe - Zur Bedeutung von veränderten Lebensbedingungen für die kollektive und personelle Bewältigung von Katastrophen.

Haltermann, Ingo: Und manchmal sterben Leute - Katastrophenerfahrungen und ihre Bedeutung für das Überleben in urbanen Hochrisikoraumen.

Rohland, Eleonora: Hurricanes in New Orleans, 1718-1965. A History of Adaptation.