Australia Awards in Indonesia

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19 Mar 2016

“Riding the Waves” - Dealing with Disasters: A Study of Lived Experiences of the 2003 Canberra Bushfire and the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh

Theresia Citraningtyas, April 2012
The Australian National University

The aim of this thesis is to explore how adults affected by the 2003 Canberra bushfires and adults affected by the 2004 tsunami in Aceh perceived and made meaning of their live experiences of dealing with the respective disasters, 5 to 6 years following the acute disaster impact. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 25 and 29 participants in Canberra and Aceh respectively. The transcripts were analysed using an iterative process of constant comparison that built upon grounded theory method to identify core concepts across the two settings and developed an overarching framework. The research emphasises a dynamic interplay between people’s circumstances and how their responses, which is presented using the metaphor of “riding the waves”. Reflecting upon central elements expressed by participants, the “waves” pertained to the ebb and flow of threat and support, challenges and opportunities. The framework depicts external aspects as simultaneously demanding and moving a person to do things they may never otherwise see themselves doing.

The study identified the following core concepts across the two disasters under the overarching metaphor of “riding the waves”: the experience of being propelled (or struck) by extraordinary circumstances, which may result in extraordinary responses, referred to as “rising with the waves”; the experience of “just keep going” and “go with the flow” in order to “stay afloat” in such circumstances; the experience of “going into the depths” due to the gravity of the situation, where people feel the loss and letting reality “sink in” as well as try to uplift themselves by finding aspects of life that give them comfort and finding or creating a deeper sense of meaning. In addition, all of these were experienced in relation to, and together with, other people, through complex and dynamic interactions and connectedness.

This thesis contributes by identifying core concepts and conceptualising a cohesive overarching framework that connects two very different socio-cultural and disaster contexts. The use of embodied metaphor allows a common language to convey experiences in a way that transcends linguistic and cultural conceptualisations and creates a mutual understanding based on our shared human nature. This research extends current conceptualisations of what happens to people affected by disasters. Some conceptual metaphors that have been used to describe people’s experiences include “trauma”, “resilience”, and “growth”. The concept of “riding the waves” spans from people’s reactions during the acute incoming threat through to subsequent years. The image of the “waves” portrayed the size and the dynamic unpredictability of the external circumstances of disaster, while at the same time placed agency in people who navigate their circumstances. Without denying the adverse impacts of disasters, this research study highlights people’s potential agency and capacity to respond in the face of uncontrollable forces.

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