What is a Disaster?

This week we read Ronald Perry and Kateleen Tierney’s pieces on disasters.   Both pieces strove to define the term disaster, as a consensus on a coherent definition is vital to any field of study.

Perry’s piece presented the definitions of a variety of thinkers including Carr, Wallace, Killan, Moore, Fritz, Sjorberg, Turner, and Barton.  While there was variation in the definitions, the majority of the proposed definitions had some common elements.  For example, the definitions consistently focused on the effects of an event on society, not on the event itself.  The definition that I would like to present is E.L. Quarantellis.  Quarantellis defines that disasters:

  • 1) are sudden-onset occasions
  • 2)seriously disrupt the routines of collective units
  • 3)cause the adoption of unplanned courses of action to adjust to the disruption
  • 4) have unexpected life histories designatied in the social space and time
  • 5) pose danger to valued social objects

(Perry,10).  In my opinion Quarantellis’ definition is both the most encapsulating and precise. I classify it as encapsulating because, unlike the other offered definitions, Quarantellis clearly outlines several criteria of  a disaster rather than focusing on one facet. Quarantellis is also the only presented thinker to provide a sort of check-list for disaster criteria.  This precision facilitates classification of an event as a disaster and avoids potential for misrepresentation of events, a failing of the more ambiguous sentence definitions provided by the other thinkers.

The second piece by Tierney relies less on specific examples of disaster definition and more on presentation of broad categorization of the types of  definitions.  The two categories Tierney most focuses on are constructavist definitions and social production definitions. Constructavist definitions rely on the idea that causes of disasters are socially constructed (Tierney, 507). For example, Katrina can be classified as a socially created disaster because the damage could have been prevented had there not been neglect of levees, destruction of wetlands, and destruction of barrier islands (507).  The second category of definitions, social production, relies on the central tenet that “an event is not a disaster unless human beings and social systems are affected in negative ways” (509).  I have critiques on aspects of both of these definitions.

I believe the constructavist definition is too limiting.  While I agree that in most circumstances disasters could be mitigated with proper preparation, the definition ignores those disasters where preparation is either not possible or feasible. For example, in cities where earthquakes are common buildings are created to withstand the shock.  While the construction protects the city from an earthquake of standard magnitude, it is impossible to create buildings that can positively withstand an abnormal higher magnitude quake.  Additionally, even if the buildings themselves could somehow be entirely impervious to quakes, damage would still ensue if the quake did damage to the earth below the building or, perhaps, created a fissure.  The constructavist definition also ignores the vital handling of recovery after a destructive event.  For example, the long standing affect of Katrina on New Orleans could have been mitigated had the government responded in a more efficient manner immediately after the event.

The second categorization, social production of disaster, is a much broader definition that brings me to an interesting line of thought.  This categorization classifies an event as a disaster only if human beings and social systems are negatively impacted (509).  My response to this is a question that I cannot necessarily definitively answer: if an event occurs in nature that devastates an uninhabited area, even to the point where the natural functioning of the area will be fundamentally changed, is this not a disaster?  According to this categorization, it is not. But I have a hard time agreeing with this.   Perhaps its because I am a nature-lover, but I believe that this categorization falls short by not including such events as a disaster.  My line of thought is as follows: society has a necessary reliance on nature.  To provide just a few examples, nature provides us with nutrition, acts as a barrier in many circumstances (think sand dunes protecting a house from changing tides), and can be used for development of necessary products.  Because of this fundamental reliance, when an event occurs that offsets something in nature, it will likely have repercussions on society, even though those repercussions may not necessarily be evident until far after the event occurs or may be so minor initially that notice may not be taken of its effects until in conjunction with some other event.  Perhaps there are circumstances in which a negative event on nature will never have any effects on human society, but I believe that if one were to follow the trickling impacts of every such event it will eventually impact society.  Under this logic, all negative events that effect nature should also be classified as a disaster, even if one cannot necessarily discern the impact of the event on human society.


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.


One comment

  1. Great overview, keep this in your mind as we dive in and examine this particular disaster.

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monica byrne

writer . playwright . artist . activist . traveler


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