Unpacking Definitions

I am always intrigued by how much information exists on topics that I assume I already understand.  While I do not claim to know every detail of a given field, I often would like to think that I have, at the very least, a basic foundation.  Prior to reading any articles about the sociology of disasters, I was pretty sure that my own definition of a disaster was substantial.  Every time I thought about the word disaster, I would think about natural disasters and how they negatively affect people and their environments.  However, I did not consider how disaster embodies occurrences that can range from a computer crash to a destructive hurricane.  After reading “What is Disaster?” Response to Disaster, and “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Disaster Research at the Crossroads,” I became aware of the many gaps in my knowledge about disasters and learned the importance of considering how disasters impact social structure.

In “What is Disaster,” Ronald W. Perry discusses the evolution in defining disasters.  This process of defining disasters proved that my own definition was far too simple.  Though he concedes, “…there is no basis in logic and little hope in practice that a single definition can be devised that meets and is universally accepted and useful” (Perry 3), he explains the limitations of several definitions.  Perry argues that sociologists should separate the conditions, characteristics, and consequences before creating a definition for a disaster (Perry 4).  I believe that if I had used this technique to come up with a definition for disaster, my definition would have been more complete.  However, I am still uncertain as to whether or not I would have included enough of the social component that Perry highlights throughout his article.  He demonstrates that Charles Fritz, “a pioneer of disaster research” (Fischer 2), understood a disaster “as an event impacting an entire society or some subdivision and including the notion of real impact with threat of impact” (Perry 6) and how sociologist successors expanded on this idea of disasters as a social phenomenon especially through vulnerability.

When determining what constitutes a disaster in his book Response to Disaster, Henry W. Fischer also refers to Charles Fritz’s definition of disasters.   Fischer explains how Fritz’s definition indicates how “normal daily routines must be severely disrupted for a large segment of the community before an incident can be considered a disaster” (Fischer 3).  Even though Fritz’s definition resonated with me, Fischer’s further proposal of a disaster scale helped me to better understand the range of situations that qualify as disasters.  By using a disaster scale, Fischer encourages researchers to evaluate the extent to which a disaster disrupts everyday social activities through scale, scope, time, and recovery.  According to Fischer, a disaster scale would be divided into ten categories and would be “based upon the degree of disruption and adjustment a community(s)/society experiences” (Fischer 7).  While I understood Fischer’s disaster scale to complement Fritz’s definition, I felt as if Fischer’s explanations lacked descriptions about social inequality.

Kathleen J. Tierney’s “From the Margins to the Mainstream? Disaster Research at the Crossroads” explores how disasters interact with gender, class, and race.  Tierney elaborates on pioneering researchers’ perspectives about continuity.  Though she explains the principle of continuity to imply that “groups, organizations, and institutions behave in ways that are consistent with predisaster patterns” (Tierney 510), she stresses that “the structure of the social order should be revealed more clearly during breaching events like disasters” (Tierney 510).  For example, because Sri Lankan women remained in their homes on the morning of the tsunami to complete their domestic chores, they were “less likely than men to see the precursors of the tsunami” (Tierney 514).  As a result, Tierney argues that the tsunami mortality was partially linked to “gender-based social control practice” (Tierney 514).   I accepted Tierney’s explanation and realized that this example confirmed how already existing social order become even more apparent after a disaster has occurred.

Through these readings, I have learned how essential it is to unpack definitions.  By considering other arguments, I have not only identified the flaws within my own definition of disaster, but I have also found examples that confirm why my definition is limited and how I can change it. 



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.

Perry, Ronald W. “What is a Disaster?” Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research: Handbook of Disaster Research. Boston, MA: Springer, 2006. Print.

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



  1. Great overview, how do you think this definition or this extended approach to examining the term influences how you will approach your analysis of Sandy and Long Beach?

  2. I think that emphasizing the vulnerability component will help me to identify social inequalities. I already have a feeling that I will be most interested in studying gender dynamics, but I am still open to exploring race and class as well.

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monica byrne

novelist . playwright . traveler . futurist . feminist


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