Defining Dimensions of Disasters

Disaster (noun):

  1. Obsolete: an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star
  2. a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction; broadly: a sudden or great misfortune or failure <the party was a disaster>

Thank you, Merriam-Webster! I think that beautifully sums up what I would imagine most people associate with the term disaster. When I think about the word ‘disaster’, I must admit I immediately imagine movie images of tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. To be completely honest, I actually imagine the live simulations of cows flying across a set and cars exploding into balls of fire in the Twister attraction at Universal Studios Amusement Park (see previous photo post). When you consider disasters, do you include blackouts, terrorist attacks, or heat waves in as examples of a disaster? Do we consider more the people affected or the disaster event?

For years, disasters have served as the primary focus of research and interest for many sociologists. The understanding of the term has changed since the inception of disaster studies as a subdivision of sociology. In “What is a Disaster?”, Ronald W. Perry went to great lengths to establish the evolution of the term disaster in an academic context. The classical period of disasters generally described disasters “as a failure of the social system to deliver reasonable conditions of life.” (Perry, 5) When relying on this understanding of disaster, the emphasis of the study is often placed on the social disruption caused by the disaster over the disaster itself. Social disruption leads to emergent norms or “norms that might be rendered ineffective by disasters, thereby requiring different norms until the environment [begins] to stabilize again.” (Perry, 6) We can think of this level of analysis in stages: (a) the persistent instability (b) adaptation to the changes or emerging norms (c) return to stable behavior. (Perry, 6) Immediately after a disaster strikes, the resulting human dynamic drastically changes. Often times these events draw communities together to rebuild: people come together to uplift and support others in their shared experience. While at the same time, negative norms may emerge when people seek to take advantage of the sudden instability for their own gain, such as looting.

Contrary to the classical period of disasters, the hazards-disaster tradition places the “real emphasis on the processes associated with the target agent.” (Perry, 9). The focus here, is less about the social disruption, rather the actual cause of the disaster and the state of the society leading to the disaster are most important. In fact, with this period researchers begin to consider “human ‘vulnerability (and resiliency) to environmental threats and extreme events.’” (Perry, 9) In considering the agent and the population, the same event (such as an ice storm) that affects Atlanta (a vulnerable population) would be categorized as a disaster in this context but not as a disaster if it affects Alaska (a less vulnerable population to that specific natural occurrence). I believe considering the source of the disaster is a necessary inclusion of any definition, for that addition will create a distinction between numerous origins of societal disruption. Do we categorize disasters as natural and man-made? Uncontrollable? Sudden onset? The article mentions the dimensions of time and space in disasters. Would we consider race riots, school shootings, or terrorist attacks as disasters? To appropriately situate our future findings in the field of disaster research, I believe we must construct a conceptual understanding of disaster to better prepare a platform for connections with related work.

“From the Margins to the Mainstream? Disaster Research at the Crossroads?” added new insights to the definitions of disasters. In tracing the history of the discipline the author claims “its strong applied focus has been a barrier to theoretical innovation.” I found this claim rather intriguing, because often work in academia seems to have the opposing problem. Research tends to result in few practical implications for intervention. Tierney claims “both public perceptions and scholarly frames have shifted in ways that now see so-called natural disasters as human-induced.” (i.e. the failure of levees in Hurricane Katrina, etc) Do you agree that disasters are human-induced? To what extent should the government and/or victims of a disaster take responsibility for their role in the disaster? Here, we can return back to the original argument’s inclusion of vulnerability in their hazards-disaster tradition. What part of the population do we consider to be vulnerable during a disaster? Do we focus solely on physical damage or loss of life? (Tierney, 508)

Tierney introduced an important part of disasters that was underemphasized in the first article: inequality. If we choose to rely on sociological frameworks, I believe a level of analysis of societal inequalities is a crucial component to understanding disasters. According to Tierney, “a growing number of sociologists attest to the fact that social divisions and patterns of unequal treatment persist alongside altruism and heroism when disasters strike and that in some cases disasters have even been accompanied by violent conflict.” From the first article, we gleaned an understanding of emergent norms, I think we should push this idea of norms to identify variations within the population of emergent norms. Not everyone experiences disasters in the same way, Tierney includes examples of gender and race as categorizations of differential experience.

Understanding disasters in a sociological context pushes us to broaden our conceptualization of the term. We must not only consider the event but, more importantly for our purposes, the change in human behavior and systems as a result of the disaster.


Fischer, Henry W. 2008. “What is a Disaster?” Pp. 1-18 in Response to Disaster: Fact versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation. New York: University Press of America.

Tierney, Kathleen J. 2007. “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Disaster Research at the Crossroads.” Annual Review of Sociology 33:503-25.


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monica byrne

novelist . playwright . traveler . futurist . feminist


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