Process, practice and priorities - key lessons learnt undertaking sensitive social reconnaissance research as part of an (UNESCO-IOC) International Tsunami Survey Team

Shona L. van Zijll de Jong*, Dale Dominey-Howes, Carolina E. Roman, Emma Calgaro, Anna Gero, Siri Veland, Deanne K. Bird, Tolu Muliaina, Dawn Tuiloma-Sua, Taulagi Latu Afioga

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


The 29 September 2009 South Pacific tsunami has had a lasting impact upon local coastal villages and global collaborative research efforts. Locally, the impact of the tsunami is one of the most severe disasters Samoa has experienced in the last several decades. Within one week of the event, 143 people died. Approximately 6000 traumatized men, women and children - terrified of the sea - refused to return to live or work in their rural, coastal villages, which in turn has had broad consequences for humanitarian emergency relief distribution networks and early recovery planning efforts.Researchers came from all over the world to participate in the UNESCO International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) Samoa International Tsunami Survey Team (ITST). Focusing on the need for interdisciplinary research, for the first time, a social impact assessment team (SIT) was expressly invited to participate. Within days of the tsunami, a group of Australian, New Zealand, American, Fijian, and Japanese disaster researchers began to discuss how they might develop a social science reconnaissance research plan using innovative approaches and best practice.This paper presents an overview of challenges faced by the social impact assessment team with a focus on lessons to be learnt from this experience. We discuss the need to clarify project boundaries, develop a core research agenda and project milestones, and develop day-to-day fieldwork work plans and at the same time be sensitive to the emotional needs of the interviewees as well as the researchers. We also make several practical suggestions for future social reconnaissance research with a set of recommendations to support disaster researchers as they plan their own research projects.The inclusion of a social impacts assessment group within a UNESCO-IOC ITST was a valuable response to the increasing need for responsible social research in sensitive topics of post-disaster analysis. Social scientists are aware that disaster social science research should not be a risk to the public, and that misconduct in such work should be avoided as far as possible. We believe that the inclusion of social science experts will revolutionise conceptual, methodological and empirical approaches in future ITSTs. Social scientists will provide unprecedented volumes of high quality information on post-disaster movements, communication and response activities by individuals, communities, private and public sectors - because social scientists are concerned about the integrity of the research process and results. Building upon our experiences, future ITSTs may tap into the potential that social science has to transform ITST's capacity to gather information about disaster preparedness, what tsunami survivors saw, heard and experienced, and to reconstruct the socio-economic and political dynamics of affected communities.This paper contributes to the limited literature that outlines how to develop responsible plans and processes for post-tsunami disaster work; and, it furthers a line of inquiry applicable to a wide variety of hazards, such as flooding, cyclones, earthquakes, bushfires, pandemics and terrorism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-192
Number of pages19
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011


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