A disaster is an event generating exceptional social and structural disruption characterized by four main elements. First, humans play a significant role in effects of disaster impact. Whether technological (e.g., a nuclear reactor leak) or natural (e.g., a hurricane), humans modify their environment in a manner that may facilitate or hinder the impact of a disaster. Second, disasters have a “before,” “during,” and “after,” as opposed to existing as a singular event or moment in time. Although many commonly think of a disaster as lasting for a specified time, there is a lead time before impact, the impact, and the aftermath. Third, disasters are exceptional in their altering of previous routines of action, interaction, and ritual. By focusing on disasters as exceptions, researchers can assess social change before, during, and after disaster. Finally, disasters are socially and structurally disruptive; they significantly disrupt routine patterns of action as well as the social structures and built environment. In fact, some previous patterns of action and physical structures either change significantly or may no longer return or exist. For this reason, some scholars, such as
Robert Merton and Gary Kreps, have argued that disasters may be social catalysts for change that offer researchers a unique opportunity to understand social action and social structures under extreme pressure over a relatively short duration.
Distinctions of Disaster
A disaster is different from a hazard in that a hazard such as a flood, hurricane, tornado, fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption, or tsunami may occur but have little impact on the social or structural environment. In contrast, a disaster necessitates exceptional social and structural disruption. Thus, if a tornado strikes a pristine forest without social disruption, it is a hazard, but if the same tornado were to later strike a community and generate exceptional social and structural disruption, it is a disaster.
Disaster is uniquely located in the context of social and structural disruption. For example, a complex emergency such as a large traffic accident or a plane crash may result in exceptions to routines, but not to the extent that it constitutes a significant disruption to communities and social structures. Thus authorities and emergency professionals can respond to complex emergencies without adversely impacting most members of a community and social institutions.
On the other hand, a disaster is not sufficiently as large as a catastrophe. In contrast to a disaster, a catastrophe impacts most or all of the community. Local officials are unable to undertake their usual work roles; help from nearby communities cannot be provided due to the scale of impact; most, if not all, of the community’s routines are disrupted; the community undergoes a period of prolonged inoperability, and the role of the political institution emerges as increasingly significant in dealing with the catastrophe. Thus disaster may be understood not merely as an exceptional social and structural disruption but as fitting along a continuum ranging in severity from emergencies, to complex emergencies, to disaster, to catastrophe.
History of Disaster
Disaster evolved from two Latin words (dis and astro), which together roughly mean “formed on a star.” In the 16th century, disaster made reference to unfavorable negative effects, usually of a personal nature, resulting from a star or planet. However, following the 1775 Lisbon earthquake, the outlook that disaster was an uncontrollable force that humans were powerless against began to change, as the disaster evoked a coordinated state response and a comprehensive plan for reconstruction. Thus some professionals and elites of Western Europe began to view disasters as something humans and societies could attempt to prevent or mitigate through a secular and protoscientific framework.
Despite the acknowledgment of a secular and protoscientific approach, the first known social scientific research on disasters did not occur until 1909 when Eduard Stierlin studied the psychological consequences to survivors of a mining disaster and the 1908 Messina earthquake. Although some disaster research continued through the first half of the 20th century, not until after World War II did a more systematic study of disaster take place. This research began with military-sponsored strategic bombing studies of civilian communities and their responses and continued with the establishment of the first social science disaster institution, the Disaster Research Center, in 1963.
As a research interest within the social sciences, the study of disaster has, until recently, always been at the periphery. This was largely due to the conceptualization of disaster as exceptional and divergent from normative behavior, and thus an area not of considerable interest to most social scientists. However, even in research traditions such as social problems where normative deviance is of considerable interest, disaster had trouble gaining widespread acceptance. For example, Robert Merton and Robert Nisbet’s highly influential Contemporary Social Problems of 1961 originally featured a well-written and substantive chapter dedicated to the social problem of disasters. In preparation for the second edition, a survey of its readers found the chapter to be the most difficult to teach to students and the least familiar to those in the subfield of social problems. Consequently, disaster was dropped from subsequent editions and, until recently, rarely studied as a social problem. Recent occasions such as the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina have again provided the opportunity to a larger audience for disaster research within the social sciences. The renewed interest in disaster is indicative of both the changing interests of social scientists and the changing nature of disaster. Because current research emphasizes exceptional social and structural disruption, the potential for additional study of occasions such as terrorist attacks, biological accidents, economic destabilization, or pandemic disease offers an expansion of disaster as well as greater opportunity for social science collaboration.
- Dynes, Russell. 2000. “The Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disaster 18:97-115.
- Kreps, Gary. 1992. The Contributions of Sociology to Disaster Research. Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.
- Perry, Ronald. 2006. “What Is a Disaster?” Pp. 1-15 in Handbook of Disaster Research, edited by H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, and R. Dynes. New York: Springer.
- Perry, Ronald and Enrico Quarantelli. 2005. What Is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Xlibris.
- Qurantelli, Enrico. 1998. What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question. New York: Routledge.
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