O'Brien G., O'Keefe P., Gadema Z., Swords J.. 2010. Approaching disaster management through social learning. Disaster Prevention and Management. 19(4)


To examine the role of social learning within disaster pre-planning as a means to enable a more holistic approach to disaster management

Geographic Focus: 


Key Findings: 

The article contends that current approaches to pre-disaster planning are inadequate for responding to ‘wicked problems’ where there is profound uncertainty at many scales. Formalisation of disaster preparedness processes tends to narrow institutional focus, where complex challenges such as disaster management require a broader perspective. In this regard, social learning processes have a role to play in improving the conceptualisation of disaster management, offering a more holistic perspective. The authors argue for a paradigm shift from the conventional disaster management cycle, which emphasises single loop learning, institutional resilience and improvement within restricted parameters. Instead a process that is rich in local knowledge and experience is suggested, with response agencies continuing to operate in conventional roles. The key shift is created in a “transition and learning zone” which has the potential to broaden the range of events for which resilience is generated.


This article demonstrates clearly the theoretical link between loop learning processes and the conceptual model of nested adaptive cycles across scales (panarchy), although the authors do not refer to this directly other than through the term resilience. In this case, the need for a capacity response to produced unknowns requires the existence of nested adaptive cycles that can challenge existing learning frameworks in a manner that reveals this capacity. This article offers local knowledge and experience, along with effective communication and dissemination, as such a cycle. At the same time, conventional practices act as another adaptive cycle operating at a different level which provides an essential function (e.g. emergency response) and helps to stabilise the broader system. Multiple adaptive cycles then create areas of transition and learning that potentially contribute toward an expanded coping capacity. In the disaster management context, crisis may then function as points of opportunity where a window of learning is offered.