Sociology of Disaster Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Historical Overview of the Sociology of Disaster

A. Military Influences on Disaster Research

B. Intellectual Influences on Disaster Research

C. Myths and Realities of Disaster Response

III. Current Trends in the Sociology of Disaster

A. Social Vulnerability to Disasters

B. Organizations, Risk, and Disasters

C. Research on Technological Disasters

D. Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Disasters

IV. Final Comments and Prospects in the 21st Century

I. Introduction

Disasters are dramatic events. They result in widespread physical damage, social disruption, and loss of life. While human societies have always encountered them, disasters seem to be increasing in frequency, financial costs, and complexity. With a growing number of people living in hazardous places and continuing advances in technology, social vulnerability to extreme events is increasing. Recent earthquakes in India, Japan, Turkey, and Iran have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The tsunami that devastated parts of Asia in 2004 took the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people. Hurricane Katrina, which during August 2005 struck the Gulf Coast region of the United States, left in its wake a substantial death toll, massive damage, and an enormous number of people stranded without basic life necessities. Technological disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Union Carbide chemical release in Bhopal, and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, have taken numerous lives and caused immeasurable harm to communities, including chronic health problems for those affected, severe economic disruption, potentially irreversible damage to the environment, and declining public trust in governmental and corporate institutions. In the United States, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York revealed the destructive potential of terrorism.

As these examples suggest, disasters are social events. They result from human settlement patterns, political processes, and technological failures. Their impacts are not randomly distributed but instead patterned along race, class, and gender lines. Natural disasters, then, will continue to occur as long as people live along coast lines, earthquake faults, and in other hazardous places. Technological disasters will likely increase as our reliance on high-risk energy production, weapons systems, and other complex processes increases. And political violence will continue to occur as inequality in the world system worsens, as power becomes increasingly concentrated, and as governments are perceived to represent the interests not of the general public but of a privileged few.

Given the social nature of disasters, various disciplines have developed subfields devoted to the study of extreme events. Geographers, for example, have examined the vulnerability of people living in hazardous places (Cutter 2001); anthropologists have studied the impacts of disasters on cultural life (Oliver-Smith 1996); political scientists have assessed the administrative challenges brought on by disasters (Sylves and Waugh 1996); and economists have attempted to estimate the financial impacts of largescale crises (Dacy and Kunreuther 1969). However, because disasters are logical byproducts of human societies, the discipline of sociology has played a prominent role in studying them, providing essential conceptual and methodological tools for understanding their causes and consequences (Quarantelli 1994).

Since its inception in the nineteenth century, sociology has been concerned with the impacts of dramatic events on societies. The discipline emerged in an effort to make sense of the political, economic, and intellectual revolutions of the late eighteenth century (Turner, Beeghley, and Powers 1995). Key sociological thinkers, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, sought to understand the changing nature of social order brought on by industrial capitalism (Giddens 1971). In a more contemporary context C. Wright Mills (1959) argued that sociologists should focus on public issues—namely, those problems confronted by society that transcend individuals and require collective solutions. And at the microlevel of analysis, sociologists have been interested in the effects of disruptions or breaches on social order (Garfinkel 1967; Goffman 1974).

In light of this long-standing concern with dramatic and disruptive events, it would only seem logical that sociologists would study disasters. In fact, the sociology of disaster is firmly established in the discipline, with a strong theoretical foundation and an ever-expanding empirical base. This research paper, then, has three primary objectives. First, it will provide a historical overview of the field’s emergence, focusing primarily on the sources of funding for the earliest sociological studies of disasters and summarizing the major findings of those studies. Second, it will discuss current research trends in the sociology of disaster that will shape the future development of the field. Finally, it will discuss the implications of sociological research for dealing with disasters of the twenty-first century.

II. Historical Overview of the Sociology of Disaster

The sociology of disaster is a relatively young field. Some isolated studies were done prior to the 1950s, but systematic research did not begin until after World War II. Having learned that bombings failed to demoralize German and Japanese populations, the United States military sought to understand how its own civilian population would respond to an enemy attack (Fritz 1961). Because natural and technological disasters were thought to share common characteristics with unexpected attacks, the military began funding studies of these peacetime events in the early 1950s. Among those receiving funding during the early years were social scientists at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, the University of Maryland, and the University of Oklahoma. Later, a social science research group on disasters was formed at the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1963 the Disaster Research Center (DRC) was founded by sociologists at the Ohio State University (Quarantelli 1987). Although it was moved to the University of Delaware in 1985, the DRC continues to operate, and other prominent centers in which sociologists play leadership roles have been established at Texas A&M University and the University of Colorado. Researchers at these centers have published important works in recent years, including comprehensive studies of disaster preparedness and response (Tierney, Lindell, and Perry 2001), hazard mitigation (Mileti 1999), risk communication (Lindell and Perry 2004), and the national homeland security alert system (Aguirre 2004).

Over the past 50 years, sociologists have learned a great deal about disasters, and findings from their studies have been summarized at various times (Quarantelli and Dynes 1977; Kreps 1984; Drabek 1986; Tierney et al. 2001). Therefore, this research paper will present a more selective account of the field’s history, highlighting three important themes. First, it will assess the influence of military funding on disaster research. Second, it will explore the key intellectual influences on the field during its formative stages. Finally, it will briefly summarize the major findings of disaster research and attempt to explain the persistence of disaster myths among policymakers, emergency management officials, and the public at large.

A. Military Influences on Disaster Research

For decades, some sociologists have raised serious concerns about military funding of research. C. Wright Mills (1956), for example, argued that the military is a core member of a group of institutional elites that have usurped power and subverted the democratic process. He cautioned that sociologists would become beholden to those who funded their research, including the military, and that the discipline would lose its ability to reform society. According to Mills (1959),

Sociology has lost its reforming push; its tendencies toward fragmentary problems and scattered causation have been conservatively turned to the use of corporation, army, and state. As such bureaucracies have become more dominant in the economic, the political, the military orders, the meaning of “practical” has shifted: that which is thought to serve the purposes, of these great institutions is held to be “practical.” (P. 92)

Irving Louis Horowitz (1977) raised similar concerns:

Many other distinguished Americans are disturbed by the growing number of alliances between the military and the university. The Department of Defense (DoD) is the most sought after and frequently found sponsor of social-science research. And the DoD is sought and found by the social scientists, not, as is often imagined, the other way around. . . . As bees flock to honey, men flock to money. (Pp. 258–259)

Martin Nicolaus (1971) hammered the point home, suggesting that “with a few exceptions, chiefly among the prewar eminences, today’s prominent sociologists are the direct financial creatures, functionally the house-servants, of the civil, military, and economic sovereignty” (p. 51).

With money for early disaster studies coming primarily from the military, it is important and worthwhile to assess the impacts of that funding on the research that was done and on the subsequent development of the field. While it would be naive to suggest that the funding source exerted no influence over the research, it would also be inaccurate to suggest that researchers became servants of the military. A more reasonable conclusion to draw would be that the military funding influenced to some extent what was studied but not what was found.

Disaster researchers in the United States have tended to study events with certain characteristics, at least in part because of the military’s concern with finding a proxy for a wartime scenario. As Barton (1969) described, disasters vary in terms of their speed of onset and their scope, magnitude, and duration of impact. Researchers in the United States have focused primarily on relatively rapid onset events with severe but geographically concentrated damage and disruption. Thus, far more research has been conducted on tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes than on droughts, famines, and epidemics. Disasters also involve phases, typically identified as preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation (Drabek 1986). Preparedness refers to protective measures taken prior to a disaster by individuals, households, organizations, and communities. Response refers to the immediate postimpact period in which search and rescue and early restoration activities are undertaken. Recovery refers to the longer-term process of restoring normalcy to an affected region, and mitigation refers to community-level measures taken to prevent or lessen the impacts of future events. Researchers in the United States have conducted vast amounts of research on the preparedness and response phases, at least in part because of the military’s assumption that social order would have to be imposed in the first few hours and days after impact.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that military funding of early disaster research exerted some influence over what was studied, but it would be inappropriate to assume that the findings of the research were influenced by the military. According to Dynes (1993), the military operates under a command and control ideology, assuming that disaster victims will be helpless, antisocial behavior will prevail, and order will need to be quickly restored. Yet in a classic article reporting the results of some of the earliest disaster studies, Fritz (1961) argued that human societies are remarkably resilient when faced with disasters, not because of a strong military but because of the altruism of average people and the strength of civil society. Thus, the findings of disaster research challenged and even undermined the military’s model of crisis behavior rather than affirming or validating it.

B. Intellectual Influences on Disaster Research

In addition to having applied concerns stemming from the military’s financial backing of their work, early disaster researchers also had important intellectual concerns. They studied natural disasters and technological crises because they believed these events provided real-world laboratories for understanding basic social processes (Fritz 1961). These sociologists grappled with the discipline’s core concept—namely, social structure. They were particularly interested in describing and explaining the maintenance, transformation, and emergence of social structure under stress (Kreps 1985, 1989). Accordingly, they merged functionalism and symbolic interactionism to capture the dual realities of social stability and change in the context of disaster.

During the 1950s, when disaster research emerged, functionalism dominated sociology in the United States (Turner 1986). That approach views society as a system consisting of various parts, all of which must work in concert to ensure the successful performance and survival of the larger system. Disruptions to one part of the system, according to this model, have ripple effects throughout the system. From this perspective, disasters represent a type of disruption that has potentially debilitating effects on the social system. Reflecting this view, Fritz (1961) offered the following definition of a disaster, which guided the early studies and continues to exert influence over the field today:

An event, concentrated in time and space, in which a society, or a relatively self-sufficient subdivision of a society, undergoes severe danger and incurs such losses to its members and physical appurtenances that the social structure is disrupted and the fulfillment of all or some of the essential functions of the society is prevented. (P. 655)

Clearly, on the basis of this definition, functionalism profoundly shaped the development of disaster research. If society is normally relatively stable and predictable, then disasters provide an opportunity to see how it responds when something unpredictable occurs. Conventional wisdom might predict that social order breaks down in response to such events, but sociological research suggests otherwise. Instead of falling apart, the social structure typically becomes flexible and adaptive under stress.

To explain the unplanned, spontaneous, and emergent responses to disasters they observed, early disaster researchers drew on the principles of symbolic interactionism (Nigg 1994). Functionalism provided them a model of society under normal conditions and a way for thinking about disasters as systemic disruptions, but it was symbolic interactionism that provided them the perspective they needed to understand the complex reality of disaster response. With its emphasis on symbols, meaning, and the definition of the situation, symbolic interactionism provides a more fluid and flexible view of society. In responding to disasters, human beings must define the situation as problematic, figure out who will do what in the response effort, and in many cases bypass established procedures for getting things done.

Because of the emergent nature of human response to disaster and the need for people to sometimes set aside or alter established patterns of behavior and interaction, the field of disaster research is closely linked to the study of collective behavior (Dynes and Quarantelli 1968; Wenger 1987). According to Turner and Killian (1987), both of whom have been involved in disaster research, collective behavior refers to “forms of social behavior in which usual conventions cease to guide social action and people collectively transcend, bypass, or subvert established institutional patterns and structures” (p. 3). On the basis of that definition, most human responses to disasters involve substantial amounts of collective behavior, which is why textbooks on collective behavior typically devote one or more chapters to disasters (Miller 2000).

This discussion clearly demonstrates that disaster research is not strictly an applied field, and that it does not exist on the fringes of sociology. It is an important area of inquiry that sheds light on core concepts of the discipline, including the complementary nature of social structure and human agency. Because of the flexibility of structures and the creativity of individuals, communities are remarkably resilient when disasters strike.

C. Myths and Realities of Disaster Response

In covering major disasters, the mass media regularly depict images of widespread panic, rampant crime, and social disorder. Law enforcement and emergency management officials make plans for dealing with all the looting they assume will occur and for housing all the evacuees they assume will seek shelter in public facilities. Mental health professionals stand ready to deliver services to all the victims and responders they believe will experience serious cases of posttraumatic stress disorder. These concerns, which may appear to be obvious and common sense, stem from erroneous assumptions about human response to disaster. Indeed, these assumptions are part of a pervasive “disaster mythology,” in which disasters are thought to bring out the worst in people (Quarantelli 1960; Fischer 1998).

In reality, research conducted by social scientists over the past several decades shows that after disasters crime rates actually go down, panic is rare or nonexistent, most victims either stay put or seek shelter with friends or family members, and disasters produce some positive mental health effects. At the individual level of analysis, panic and role abandonment—that is, emergency workers leaving their post—rarely occur (Quarantelli 1954, 2002; Johnson 1987). People with disaster-related occupational roles may experience role conflict, but Dynes’s (1987) extensive review of the literature suggests that they almost never abandon their posts during the emergency response. Rather, workers embrace their occupational roles and improvise when necessary to meet the demands of the situation (Johnston and Johnson 1988; Kreps and Bosworth 1993). Even in extreme situations, individual behavior is regulated by existing or emergent norms and social relationships.

At the organizational level of analysis, research shows that the rigid and inflexible view of bureaucracy held by Weber (1946) fails to capture the innovation that typically occurs during disasters. In responding to disasters, organizations become flexible and adaptive, changing their tasks and structures as needed. Dynes (1970) observes that various organizations, not just those with disaster responsibilities, become involved in responding to large-scale crises. He developed a typology depicting four types of responding organizations: established, expanding, extending, and emergent. Police and fire departments, which routinely deal with emergencies and are expected to be involved in disasters, are established organizations. Organizations such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army are expanding because they deal with routine emergencies but their size increases dramatically during a disaster. Extending organizations maintain their existing structure but take on new tasks in a disaster. For example, a construction crew might engage in debris removal or other cleanup efforts. Finally, some organizations are formed only after a disaster has occurred, such as an informal search and rescue crew.

At the broader community level of analysis, empirical research suggests that communities experience an increase in prosocial behavior. This notable increase in altruism and helping behavior has led some scholars to refer to the postdisaster environment as a “therapeutic community” (Fritz 1961). Indeed, the outpouring of support in response to large-scale disasters is often so great that the convergence of volunteers and supplies creates management difficulties. Thus, rather than producing chaos and social disorganization, disasters inspire creativity on the part of individuals, flexibility on the part of organizations, and solidarity on the part of communities.

Despite these findings, disaster myths persist in the minds of many in the general public, the media, and even the emergency management profession. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the media reported rampant looting, violence, and lawlessness, but as time passed it became clear that those early reports were greatly exaggerated (Fischer 2005). After five decades of research drawing the same conclusion—namely, disasters do not cause massive social breakdown—how have these myths survived? There are at least three viable reasons for the persistence of disaster myths. First, Fischer (1998) suggests that the mass media plays an important role in the perpetuation of disaster myths, focusing largely on isolated incidents of antisocial behavior and ignoring more prevalent patterns of prosocial behavior in the response period. Second, Quarantelli (2002) argues that disaster myths may serve a social function in the same sense that Durkheim ([1895] 1982) suggested crime is functional for society. According to Durkheim, crime promotes rather than undermines social solidarity. Through the punishment of criminals, moral boundaries are established that strengthen in-group solidarity by labeling some people as outsiders. Quarantelli reasons that the myth of panic and social breakdown in disaster may serve a similar function, reminding people that rules and norms of civility are necessary elements of society. Finally, Tierney (2003) makes a convincing case that disaster myths have survived because certain institutional interests benefit from them. Specifically, she argues that the military defense establishment, law enforcement agencies, and the growing information technology industry all stand to profit from the widely held beliefs that civil society is vulnerable, that individuals faced with crisis are irrational and need to be controlled, and that the most effective way to respond to a disaster is by establishing a strong hierarchy of command and control.

It is clear from this discussion that the realities and myths of human response to disaster are very different. On the one hand, the myths suggest that society breaks down and chaos prevails in the wake of disaster. On the other hand, research has shown for decades that disaster behavior is overwhelmingly prosocial, social solidarity is enhanced during the emergency response period, and societies are resilient.

Unfortunately, the persistence of the disaster myths is not a trivial or an inconsequential matter. As an example, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the United States government created the Department of Homeland Security. Numerous federal organizations were folded into the new agency, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for responding to major natural disasters across the nation. Critics feared that the move would undermine FEMA’s autonomy and weaken its ability to respond to disasters in a timely and effective manner. Those fears proved valid in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast. Residents in New Orleans were stranded on rooftops for days before the federal response reached adequate levels.

Sociologists have suggested for decades that effective disaster responses require flexibility, creativity, and decentralization. Yet the trend in the United States today is to engage in unrealistic planning, assume the need for command and control, centralize authority, and militarize emergency management. Given these policy trends and the problems they have created, disaster researchers have begun to pursue several new lines of inquiry that promise to sharpen our understanding of extreme events and, hopefully, improve our ability to respond effectively to them. The next section of this paper discusses those new lines of research.

III. Current Trends in the Sociology of Disaster

In recent years, the sociology of disaster has undergone dramatic change. From the 1950s to the 1980s, researchers in the field did important work that has made lasting conceptual and applied contributions. They showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, social responses to disasters are organized, not chaotic. They documented that panic, looting, and other types of antisocial behavior rarely occur. And they demonstrated that successful responses to disasters are decentralized, localized, and flexible.

However, in the 1980s some researchers in the field began to point out limitations of the research that had been done up to that point. Early research, for example, tended to focus on the positive aspects of disasters, whereas studies today are more likely to highlight the heightened vulnerability of certain populations and the unequal distribution of impacts along race, class, and gender lines. Organizations have historically been studied because of their roles in responding to disasters; however, recent studies look at the role organizations play in creating disasters in the first place. The early work on disasters focused largely on natural disasters, and when technological disasters were studied they were assumed to be very similar to the other types of events. Contrary to this view, several researchers today argue that natural and technological disasters produce drastically different results because the latter are perceived to result from human agency. Much of the early work on disasters had a strong structural bias, examining the ways in which roles, statuses, and organizations changed under stress. But in recent years attention has increasingly been called to the cultural dimensions of disasters.

As discussed previously, early disaster research was guided primarily by a blend of functionalism and symbolic interactionism. That perspective, in combination with the applied concerns stemming from military funding, led researchers to study certain types of events and to focus on a limited range of issues. Specifically, they studied rapid onset events and focused on the maintenance and transformation of social structure in response to those events. Noticeably absent from the field for several decades, therefore, was a critical or conflict perspective (Bolin 1998).

A major change in the field of disaster research in recent years has been the introduction and expanded use of conflict and political economic approaches to studying extreme events (Tierney 1989; Stallings 2002). These approaches have strongly influenced the direction of disaster research, calling attention to various social patterns and processes that have largely been overlooked in the past. This section of the paper will describe four important trends in recent disaster research: (1) social vulnerability analysis, (2) organizational research, (3) studies of technological disasters, and (4) research on the cultural dimensions of disasters.

A. Social Vulnerability to Disasters

Disasters are not random and indiscriminate in their effects. Rather, some people are more vulnerable to them than others. Sociologists have historically examined the relationship between social stratification and people’s susceptibility to crime victimization, poverty, and other social problems. Recent studies suggest that disasters, too, are social phenomena that discriminate. Those with wealth, power, and privilege are far less vulnerable to them and much more capable of rebounding than those with less social capital.

Several studies, for example, show that women are particularly vulnerable to disasters because of their disadvantaged positions in economic structures and their political marginalization (Enarson and Morrow 1998). Similarly, recent research has documented the particularly harsh impacts of disasters on people who live in poverty (Fothergill and Peek 2004). Recent research has also shown that racial minorities, particularly African Americans, are more likely to be faced with technological hazards, and they are more likely to have difficulties recovering from disasters (Bullard 1994; Fothergill, Maestas, and Darlington 1999).

Published case studies of recent major disasters in the United States—including the 1994 Northridge earthquake (Bolin 1998), Hurricane Andrew of 1992 (Peacok, Morrow, and Gladwin 1997), and the 1995 heat wave in Chicago (Klinenberg 2002)—convincingly demonstrate that some groups are hit harder than others when disasters strike. Preliminary observations of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, reveal this same pattern of discrimination. Those who were unable to evacuate the city, and thus most severely affected, were the poor, African Americans, and those without personal transportation.

Given the unequal and socially patterned distribution of disaster impacts, future research on vulnerability needs to pursue two related objectives. First, there is still a need for quick response research to improve the capacities of responding agencies to meet the needs of special populations in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic events. Second, research is needed to develop realistic approaches to making local communities sustainable and resilient— that is, more attention needs to be paid to mitigation to prevent disasters from occurring in the first place (Mileti 1999). In pursuing these objectives researchers will need to focus on the role of organizations, in both the public and private sectors, not only in responding to disasters but also in creating them.

B. Organizations, Risk, and Disasters

Earlier studies of disasters focused on organizations, but they took a relatively narrow view of them—namely, as responding units. Recent studies on organizations, therefore, represent a dramatic departure from the earlier view. They recognize that organizations play a substantial role in producing disasters or exacerbating their effects. Researchers advocating a more critical stance argue that in modern society large-scale organizations define acceptable risk, shape public perceptions of those risks, and make key decisions on how those risks will be allocated and managed (Clarke 1989; Clarke and Short 1993; Tierney 1999).

Weber (1946) observed long ago the pervasive and powerful nature of bureaucracies. He also cautioned that despite their benefits bureaucracies are impersonal, dehumanizing, and difficult to change. In the tradition of Weber, many researchers today have adopted a critical stance toward organizations. Ritzer (2000), for example, argues that the “McDonaldization” of society has resulted in homogenization, mediocrity, and extensive reliance on technology. Perrow (1984) asserts that “normal accidents” have become inevitable—that is, as the complexity of our technical systems has increased, their potential for failure has also increased. Vaughan (1999) calls attention to the “dark side of organizations” that makes mistake, misconduct, and disaster inevitable. Freudenburg (1993) argues that organizations betray public trust when they fail to responsibly define and manage risk, and Clarke (1999) suggests that organizations produce “fantasy documents” to give the public the sometimes misleading impression that things are under control.

Recent events in the United States plainly reveal the role of organizations in contributing to or exacerbating disasters. For example, according to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (2004), the events of September 11, 2001, resulted at least in part from organizational failure. Specifically, national intelligence agencies failed to communicate effectively and share information related to terrorism. Similarly, much of the suffering that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans resulted from a delayed and uncoordinated governmental response (Waugh 2005). Clearly, the causes and consequences of disasters cannot be understood apart from large-scale organizations. While these organizations often make natural disasters worse by not preparing for them or being too slow to respond, they play a particularly salient role in the production of technological crises.

C. Research on Technological Disasters

For many years, sociologists have regarded natural and technological disasters as similar events, relying on a distinction between consensus and dissensus events (Quarantelli and Dynes 1977). On the one hand, natural and technological disasters are considered consensus events because there is general agreement that the impacts are undesirable and a response is necessary. On the other hand, wars, riots, and terrorism are considered dissensus events because they seek to create conflict and disunity. Some researchers, however, have challenged this distinction and suggest instead that natural and technological disasters are different types of events that produce significantly different impacts (Erikson 1994).

In his study of a dam break in West Virginia, for example, Erikson (1976) argues that the disaster had devastating, negative impacts on the community. Other researchers suggest that long-standing environmental contamination and other “chronic technical disasters” create stress, conflict, and inequality for local communities (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985). And several researchers argue that technological disasters have “corrosive” rather than “therapeutic” effects on communities that experience them (Cuthbertson and Nigg 1987; Freudenburg 1997; Picou, Marshall, and Gill 2004). Still other research suggests that conflict is sometimes absent in technological disasters (Aronoff and Gunter 1992) and present in natural disasters (Stallings 1988).

The debate over the relative effects of natural and technological disasters on communities is an important one in the field of disaster research. It clearly highlights the need for more empirical studies, but it also raises important conceptual concerns about the nature of society. While Durkheim ([1893] 1984) emphasized the need for consensus in society, Marx regarded society as the result of class struggle (Marx and Engels [1848] 1978). Mediating these views, Simmel ([1908] 1955) argued that conflict and consensus are copresent in every social group and interaction. It seems likely that disasters, whether natural or technological, involve varying degrees of both consensus and conflict. Rather than approaching these as dichotomous tendencies, perhaps instead researchers should envision a continuum along which any disaster could be placed. At one extreme, some disasters clearly generate consensus; at the other extreme, some disasters clearly result in conflict; and in between the extremes are all of those disasters that result in both consensus and conflict.

D. Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Disasters

As stated at the beginning of this research paper, disasters are dramatic social events. In thinking about them, sociologists have looked at the relationship between disasters and social structure. Early disaster researchers were interested in studying the response of social structure to extreme events. For example, they examined the ways in which organizations adapt and individuals improvise to meet heightened emergency demands. More recently, scholars have pointed out the ways in which social structure contributes to disasters. For example, they have studied the impact of social stratification on people’s vulnerability to disasters. In the former case, social structure is treated as a dependent variable, and in the latter case it is treated as an independent variable. Both of these approaches, however, ignore an important element of social life: culture.

In response to the structural bias of the field, some researchers have recently called for more work to be done on the cultural dimensions of disasters (Webb, Wachtendorf, and Eyre 2000). They argue that a more complete understanding of disasters requires both structural and cultural approaches. Just as scholars in other related fields in sociology are turning to culture, disaster researchers have begun to take a similar turn. They have examined the use of humor as a coping strategy among emergency workers (Moran 1990), the varieties of graffiti that often appear in disaster-stricken communities (Hagen et al. 1999), women’s quilting groups after disasters (Enarson 2000), and the perpetuation of disaster myths in movies (Mitchell et al. 2000). They have also pointed out how cultural and religious beliefs sometimes impede communities from taking proactive steps to prevent future disasters (Schmuck 2000). And they have studied the effects of disasters on collective memory and policy (Bos, Ullberg, and Hart 2005).

Disasters clearly have an important cultural component. At the most general level, they become markers of social time. People who survive them will often recall events by drawing a line between life before the disaster and life after it. Politicians will often comment on how disasters profoundly change things. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, for example, President Bush and members of his administration claimed that the disaster had changed everything. Thus, the United States adopted an unprecedented preemptive stance to justify invading Iraq in 2003. While it is important to understand the structural bases of disasters and to learn lessons on how to better prevent or respond to future events, it is equally important to study their cultural dimensions.

IV. Final Comments and Prospects in the 21st Century

This research paper reviewed the history of disaster research in sociology and discussed some important current trends in the area. In terms of the field’s history, it was shown that early researchers had both applied and intellectual concerns. Because they were funded primarily by the military, early studies focused on certain types of events—namely, rapid onset events with substantial but geographically limited damage—that resembled possible war scenarios. And because of that funding a major focus of the early studies was on how to better prepare for and respond to disasters. In terms of intellectual concerns, it was shown that the pioneers in the field were interested in studying basic social processes—namely, the maintenance and transformation of social structure under stress. Given the copresence of existing and new structures in every disaster response, early researchers merged functionalism and symbolic interactionism to explain what they observed.

In terms of current trends, it was shown that disaster researchers are increasingly turning to conflict and political economy perspectives in their work. For example, they have begun to study the relationship between social stratification— including race, class, gender, and age—and people’s vulnerability to extreme events. Scholars have also called attention to the ways in which complex organizations produce or exacerbate crises. Some researchers have challenged the long-standing assumption that natural and technological disasters produce similar impacts, suggesting instead that, unlike natural disasters, technological events create conflict and stress for local communities. And researchers in the area have begun to examine not just the structural but also the cultural dimensions of disasters.

Throughout the discussion of the field’s history and its current trends, the centrality of disaster research to the discipline of sociology was emphasized. While scholars in the area have approached their work with an applied orientation, they have also grappled with fundamental sociological concepts. For example, researchers have documented the ways in which social roles are both played and made in response to disasters, various organizational adaptations to stress, and the complementary nature of social structure and human agency.

While a great deal has been learned over the past five decades about the social aspects of disasters, there is still much work to be done. Crises are becoming increasingly complex, more damaging, and international in scope. As a result, some nations in the world and certain groups within those nations are more likely than others to experience devastating events. Given that much of what is known about disasters is based on experiences in the United States, research on this topic must adopt a cross-cultural perspective. And as new threats, such as global terrorism, become perceived as problematic, disaster researchers need to reflect on the boundaries of their field. Some researchers, for example, have argued that the social response to the attacks on the World Trade Center resembled what is typically seen in natural disasters (Webb 2002), but others have suggested that the longer-term impacts may be quite different (Marshall, Picou, and Gill 2003). While wars and terrorism have not historically been examined by disaster researchers, the field seems to be embracing a more inclusive view.

Certainly, all the social sciences are relevant to the study of disasters, but sociology is particularly well suited because disasters are collective events. Indeed, sociological research on disasters has produced a number of important insights that can better equip societies for coping with catastrophic events in the future. For example, sociologists have advocated an “all-hazards” approach to disaster planning. From this perspective, public officials should not overemphasize one threat, such as terrorism, at the expense of planning for other events, such as hurricanes. Research suggests that effective responses to disasters require flexibility and decentralization, not rigidity and centralization of authority. In responding to disasters public officials need to recognize that some groups—including women, minorities, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities—are more severely affected than others and have a more difficult time recovering. Finally, as we enter the twenty-first century, the most important lesson to be learned from sociological research over the past several decades is that hazard mitigation and disaster prevention must be prioritized at the international, national, and local levels.

Read more:


  1. Aguirre, Benigno E. 2004. “Homeland Security Warnings: Lessons Learned and Unlearned.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 22:103–15.
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