Jeannette Sutton


Sociologists working in the field of hazards and disasters have recently begun to critically analyze the social construction of risks, directing their attention towards elites, systems of power, and institutions with vested interests. This brings social theory into dialogue with the processes used to formulate and legitimate objectified risks, raising questions about stakeholders, political opportunities, and the decisions that drive disaster policies and programs. The purpose of this dissertation is to extend this discussion about the social construction of risk, to provide theoretical contributions, and to offer suggestions to policy makers who are preparing for future disaster responses.

Set in the context of the World Trade Center disaster, I make use of qualitative interviews, ethnographic observation and secondary documents, to show how spiritual care has been legitimated as a valid service to victims of disaster. I trace the socio-history of the development of the Spiritual Care Aviation Incident Response (SAIR) team, describe constructions of victims and victimizers as putative peopletypes, explore the various discourses that support social problems work, and describe the creation of a therapeutic community in disaster.

Over the course of this discussion, I apply perspectives and concepts derived from theories on the social construction of social problems and risk to the provision of spiritual care services at the World Trade Center response. Through this analysis I show that two discourses have shaped disaster spiritual care - one emphasizing a risk perspective and the other emphasizing human nature and existential problems of meaning-making. I also show that in disaster response, spiritual care has become therapeutic religion; i.e., a technology of risk management that aids the state agenda of public governance. I contribute to theory and research on social construction of social problems (including risk, people-types, and discourse-in-action), provide conclusions for service delivery in disaster, and offer recommendations for future research.

Ph.D. in Sociology
University of Colorado Boulder

Committee Members

Dennis Mileti (Chair)
Kathleen Tierney
AnnJanette Rosga
Joyce Nielsen