Using lifeworld analysis to understand people’s experience of disasters

Using lifeworld analysis to understand people’s experience of disasters

Embracing innovative methodologies in a series of case studies for European project that aims to increase communities’ resilience to natural disasters.

Embracing innovative methodologies

At the Tavistock Institute, we are always looking for innovative methodologies to help us better understand the world around us – this has recently included the use of the concept of ‘lifeworld’. This methodology is used to describe and understand why individuals experience the world in particular ways (Patton, 1990) and focuses on various aspects of life and lived experience, such as family life, culture, social interactions and the ‘shared meanings and understandings that enable us to perform actions that we know others will comprehend’ (Habermas, 1984).

An analysis framework is generally used to capture such lived experience; the elements that structure this framework can vary but typically incorporate the following:

  • Lifeworld – What are the defining features and characteristics of the lifeworld and how is the lifeworld experienced through everyday life?
  • Temporality: How do individuals perceive and experience time?
  • Spatiality: How do individuals perceive and experience their environment?
  • Embodiment: How does an individual’s feelings about their own body and self influence their experiences? How do people acquire ‘embodied skills’ by dealing with things and situations?
  • Intersubjectivity: How does an individual make sense of their world and how is this communicated and understood collectively through social interaction?

We have employed this method in a series of case studies for RESILOC, an EU project that aims to increase communities’ resilience to natural disasters through improving disaster preparedness processes. The case studies – which compared examples of disasters from four different countries – were developed to help the project team make sense of citizens’ perceptions of the risk of natural disasters and to understand how risk perception and resilience work in practice. Crucially, the case studies aimed to highlight and bring to life the voice and lived experience of citizens, which can often be missing from conversations around risk management. The case studies, therefore, aimed to capture how citizens perceived and experienced risk in their everyday lives by focusing on a particular disaster, in order to situate the concept of the Lifeworld in a real-life event.

For the Tavistock Institute’s contribution to this task, Dr Joe Cullen devised a case study based on the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, one of the UK’s worst modern disasters, in which 72 people lost their lives. This innovative methodology ensured that the case study captured a range of factors that led to the disaster including structural inequalities experienced by Grenfell Tower residents, the way in which agents in positions of authority responded to residents and residents’ perceptions of risk and safety procedures. Interpreting the disaster in this way creates a rich and nuanced insight that helps us to understand how an event like this could happen.

Recently, both Joe and Dr Thomas Spielhofer presented this approach at the ‘riskncrisis’ Survey of Surveyors webinar, describing the methodology and findings as well as advising around how Lifeworld principles can be operationalised in surveys around risk perception. We hope that by communicating the benefits of this method we can encourage others to adopt methodologies around risk that encapsulate the lived experiences of the communities they research and more fully understand the worlds they inhabit.

See further details about the project here

For more details about this methodology, please contact: Dr Thomas Spielhofer or Dr Joe Cullen 

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