Let's talk about R&I

Israel Rodríguez: "We help people react in times of disaster"

19/12/2017
Rubén Permuy
UOC R&I talk with a researcher of the Care and Preparedness in the Network Society (CareNet) group

Tell us about your professional and academic career.

I’m a psychologist, specialized in social psychology, although with my doctoral degree, and in the course of my career, I’ve been delving ever deeper into an interdisciplinary field known as the social studies of technology and science. Here in Spain, it’s not so well known, but it’s a recognized discipline in Europe and North America and is present in departments, doctoral programmes and different research areas. A large part of my academic career has been devoted to exploring this field, particularly the study of technoscientific activism with respect to problems that involve science and technology in our society, which are increasingly present in many aspects of our life in society. In other words, how public debate is taking place in these areas where people, not always with scientific or technical knowledge, seek information and try to involve themselves in those debates that affect their daily lives. My work has been, above all, to understand these forms of citizen participation in environments highly dominated by technical and scientific debate, environmental controversies, issues related with care policies, where there is also debate about the role of technology in the care of the elderly or, for example, the field of disasters, where engineers, scientists and technical specialists have a very important role to play in defining what’s happened in a disaster or emergency situation. But sometimes this sidelines the role that citizens have in producing knowledge, in giving meaning to what’s happened. I’m interested in the processes through which citizens become engaged with these debates.

What is your research group’s field of expertise?

CareNet is a research group that brings together and articulates different researchers who are interested in a general, shared question related with the importance of care in society. Our interest is a theoretical, methodological and practical exploration of the central function of care in our society. We’re interested in how we create mutual support and care networks and mechanisms targeting vulnerable population groups, but also more generally as a society. It’s a group that brings together specialists from different areas, from disability studies, feminist theory, social psychology, sociology... In itself, it is a space for multidisciplinary exploration of these issues, where basically we’re concerned with the role played by technology in transforming care in our society. We look at how the role played by technology in providing new spaces or new forms of care transforms the experience of self-reliance and independence as well as the difficulties related to the perception that technology is a solution for the problems we face socially in a context of a growing need for care, ageing population, shortage of financial resources, the lack of public policies in this direction and the problems created by this context. We’re also interested in the citizenry aspect, people who organize themselves and generate alternative solutions to those that are envisaged in public policy. For example, Daniel López has led a project to develop the first elderly co-housing map in Spain. This is a very interesting phenomenon. Groups organize themselves to undertake a community ageing project that is different from what is usually offered, either a retirement home or ageing at home with the family. We are interested in this citizen empowerment in thinking about and designing new solutions. We’re also interested in the disabled population. We’re aware that the benefits provided by governments do not cover the measures that they believe to be necessary to lead an independent lifestyle, or the measures provided are excessively standardized and do not allow a sufficient degree of personalization. So how they organize themselves and share knowledge and also design their own assistance devices is interesting. We’re also interested in understanding those communities that work with care as a driving force for innovation, knowledge production, redesigning public policies and how we can redefine care from this. Lastly, we’re interested in exploring care in areas such as emergencies and disasters, where a series of support and response networks are also put in motion as a society.

Does your activity need interdisciplinary professionals?

This is absolutely essential because of the many types of expertise that we need to bring into play, because we’re also interested in gaining a comprehensive vision of care. In fact, one of the problems of the study of care is that it’s often segmented into many different areas, the engineers who design the technologies, the health professionals who implement the care, and the more social part. This makes it a difficult field to study because it’s a highly transversal phenomenon that needs a more integrated approach. We’re also interested in it because, methodologically, it allows us to approach the phenomenon from a much broader angle. Although we prioritize a qualitative approach, it’s not the only one we want to propose and, furthermore, I believe that CareNet has a considerable interest in having different areas of expertise that enable the knowledge we produce to reach different audiences. Within the group, there are people who are very involved in their professional practice with collectives. We put a lot of care into this social outreach with the people who are involved in these issues. We also look for co-research options that enable us to establish more horizontal links with these collectives and contribute collectively to research output. Regarding the audiences, it also enables us, on a scientific level, to talk with those who are scientists, taking into account the areas of expertise mobilized by the group.

Does your research have a direct impact on public policies?

Not always, because it’s a complex process convincing people that research capacity can bring about changes at a high level. Sometimes, some of the projects do have this direct ambition. For example, a project we have about disasters, children and participation, where the goal is to influence people with political decision-making power to create a more participative civil defence framework. Here, there is a clear intention to create awareness among these stakeholders and, somehow, convey to them evidence from research that enables a different policy to be implemented. This is a European project that has this intention, and is much more focused in this direction. Sometimes, it is difficult to create this context in which governments can listen easily or quickly; you need to take a long-term approach and be persevering. This is one dimension of the change that we are interested in, but there’s another that doesn’t necessarily have to go through the institutional or public part, and which is related with this more participative work with collectives involved in these issues and which has more to do with people’s and society’s capacity for innovation. The capacity to generate solutions, innovation, knowledge from values. Viewed from this angle, we also consider that research is transformative, because we create these spaces through these projects or we join existing dynamics to contribute to them.

What does the CUIDAR project consist of?

Its main goal is to gather the needs, perceptions and ideas of children and young people who have experienced disaster situations, or who live in a risk situation, and pass them on to professionals and policymakers. The idea is to foster a disaster response civil defence framework that includes them and is more permeable to this population group. Its starting point is a prior analysis undertaken in 2015 in which the United Nations, within the framework of international agreements, traced out the path for the next 15 years on a worldwide level about how governments should reduce the risk of disasters. It’s positioned very clearly on the need to advance toward a more participative civil defence framework, which includes especially those population groups that it is felt are in a situation of particular vulnerability or a disaster situation. One of the groups that is explicitly mentioned is children and young people. For many reasons, they are one of the population groups that are most impacted in a disaster situation. One of these reasons – and this had already been identified in the prior research – is related with the difficulty this group has in getting its voice heard and its needs heeded. We don’t take them into account enough, neither in the signage nor in the protocols nor in the emergency plans, which are not designed for children and young people. The project aspires to reverse this situation and create a context in which not only children’s and young people’s right to participate in the issues that affect them, such as disasters, is respected, but also their knowledge, ideas and proposals are used as input to enrich the current civil defence framework.

How do you manage the sensitive data of these vulnerable groups?

Our work with population groups in a situation of vulnerability is aimed above all at strengthening and protecting their rights. In fact, if they’re in a situation of vulnerability, it’s often because their rights are being violated and it’s this that makes them population groups in a situation of vulnerability. Research is aligned with fostering rights, not with restricting or diminishing them. The ethical dimension is a concern to strengthen these rights, but it’s true that in certain projects, with difficult or challenging situations or particularly controversial issues, we’ve found ourselves in this situation. In the case of CUIDAR, where precisely you have disasters, children and a participative framework, it’s a perfect storm from the ethical debate viewpoint. Here we’ve had to tread very carefully in finding a solution in which children’s rights to their image, to their ideas, are protected, for instance, creating a context that protects these rights but at the same time creating a comfortable space for participation in which people do not become traumatized. For example, we’ve been working in Lorca with children who experienced the 2011 earthquake. You have to create a situation where personal memory is not the purpose of the research in the sense that you are not studying psychological problems, or what might have happened personally to a person with respect to that issue. Instead, you are seeking shared knowledge produced by certain experiences, but which must be worked on to try and generate proposals, solutions and ideas. You have to take steps to make sure that the situation that you’re creating does not harm the children, who may or may not want to explain certain situations. You must always make sure that that awareness is there.

Do new unpredictable disasters condition your research?

Sometimes they do and it’s important to do it, although, for example, in the case of studies of emergencies and disasters, what you’re studying particularly is how you prepare for them. In other words, accepting that society experiences upheavals and things happen, a lot of the work that can be done on a societal level is to prepare yourself for these situations. For those who work in civil defence, for example, they will try to ready themselves or mitigate the effects if something happens. They’ll try to reduce the chances of destruction of a certain situation, or make sure they can respond rapidly, which is also an indispensable part, as is the ability to recover from a certain situation. In the case of the disasters project, we have worked with different scenarios, some of which had happened and others from a viewpoint of risk. That gives you specific information about different experiences that a society has at different times about this issue. And all the information is enriching as a work methodology. I believe that it’s interesting to combine different aspects of disasters and take into account this longitudinal dimension of what an event like this means.

Have you analysed the protocols currently used in disasters?

Yes, it’s not our main focus, but we’re very interested in how society responds to a disaster. Certain professionals are involved, such as psychologists or social workers, who are also some of the people who are involved in the initial stages. We look at how we organize the response and what consequences it has. So, over the years, we have learned what things are good to do and what works best. For example, we know that it is very important to not limit the action to acting very generously, very quickly when something happens, to when media attention is strongest. We mustn’t forget that a recovery process is lengthy, complex and difficult. It’s important to endow society with mechanisms that allow this tension to be maintained for much longer and also to be diversified. Because what we’ve often seen is that the reaction targets those we consider to be most severely affected. And the people we consider most severely affected are often decided on the basis of medical criteria, which decide who is injured, or, for example, by  the insurance companies, as in the case of flooding, who have a key role in saying who the affected parties are. But the idea of affected person, of the impact that it has on a community, is much more difficult to evaluate. Little work has been done on this and it’s crucial in people who may be in a situation of greater vulnerability. Not catering for these situations, not creating mechanisms that go beyond identifying them, not working with these people, creating spaces for mutual support and participation, where their voice can be heard, generates more vulnerability to possible subsequent situations.

Do citizens have the possibility of evaluating these support actions in the case of disasters?

Very little. Civil Defence are increasing the number of feedback channels with citizens that enables them to know what works and what doesn’t. For example, we’ve seen a very different reaction by the emergency teams in the Barcelona terrorist attack last summer and how citizens indicate whether or not they think the care has been effective. Work still needs to be done to connect citizens and the response services. The idea that self-organized citizens also have an important contribution to make is also lacking. When situations happen, the planned professionals and response systems arrive, but there’s also the response of the people who are there on the spot and this can also be an interesting source of learning, knowledge and practices that could be brought in. Not much is being done to support this work and it’s one of the challenges facing the Civil Defence services, because if they are more open and attentive to what is taking place at a societal level, it can help them do their work better.

Can you recommend us an introductory book to your field?

I wanted to recommend a classic by Kai T. Erikson, A New Species of Trouble. It was written in the mid-90s, and marks a new approach to the field of disasters from the field of social sciences in two directions. It highlights everything that the social sciences can contribute to a field that has normally been identified with professionals with an engineering background, such as seismologists or those who work on other more technical aspects. It discusses what a disaster is, how it overwhelms a community and, in many cases, traumatizes it, and, therefore, the social sciences have a lot of work to do here. The book is also interesting because, apart from showcasing severe earthquakes, tsunamis or disasters like that, where it seems that the society that suffers them is largely helpless, because they are circumstances that overwhelm the community’s possibilities, the author is particularly interested in these new types of problem associated with disasters that are closely related with our daily lives, in the fields of science and technology, for example, chemical hazards, nuclear hazards, toxic spills, and how this type of disaster generates effects in the communities that suffer them.