USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development

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Volume 13, No. 3 (November 1995)

Special Issue


E. L. Quarantelli

Guest Editor

    Editor’s Introduction:

      E. L. Quarantelli, "What Is A Disaster?" pp. 221-229.

        We discuss earlier observations and meetings which led us to propose that a special issue of the journal be published on theoretical aspects of disasters, especially on how the term "disaster" ought to be conceptualize. Our basic position is the field cannot develop well as a research enterprise unless there is a greater clarity and more consensus about the central concept in the field. We particularly note that there are both old and new classification problems that need to be addressed in asking: What is a disaster? (AA)

    Articles by:

      Claude Gilbert, "Studying Disaster: A Review of the Main Conceptual Tools," pp. 231-240.

        The numerous theoretical approaches to disasters can be classified into three main paradigms. We present their content, chronological developments, and cleavages. The first is disaster as a duplication of war (catastrophe can be imputed to an external agent; human communities are entities that react globally against an aggression). The second is disaster as an expression of social vulnerabilities (disaster is the result of underlying community logic, of an inward and social process). The third is disaster as an entrance into a state of uncertainty (disaster is tightly tied into the impossibility of defining real or supposed dangers, especially after the upsetting of the mental frameworks we use to know and understand reality). (AA)

      Wolf R. Dombrowsky, "Again and Again: Is a Disaster What We Call a 'Disaster'?" pp. 241-254.

        Following Carr who defined disaster as the collapse of cultural protections, this paper develops a sociological approach to processes commonly called "disaster." Epistemologically, the definitions used in science and practice are classified and redefined as "programmatic declarations". Definers declare what they perceive as a problem and how they intend to solve it. Given the fact that neither "problem and perception" nor "solution and exigency" necessarily match, the probability of mismatches increases when inconsistent conceptions restructure the view one has of reality. Still, the transformation of nature into culture is interpreted within "pre-modern" expression and false causal attractions: "Des Astro," "evil star," "bad luck," and "blind faith." In contrast, this paper suggests a conception that defines disaster as an empirical falsification of human action, as proof of the incorrectness of human insight into both nature and culture. (AA)

      Gary A. Kreps, "Disaster as Systemic Event and Social Catalyst: A Clarification of Subject Matter," pp. 255-284.

        For over three decades disasters have been interpreted as systemic events and social catalysts. This means that certain kinds of actual or potential historical circumstances fit neatly within the boundaries of disaster research, while others do not. Such exclusiveness is probably a good thing because the boundaries of disaster research include a wide range of environmental, technical, and sociopolitical events. The events themselves involve social definitions of physical harm and disruption of routine activities in societies or their larger subsystems. The first section of the paper provides a formal conception of disasters that builds on ideas expressed by Fritz, Dubin, and Barton. The second section illustrates this conception with life history studies of the Mexico City earthquake (1985) and Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident (1986). The third section shows how these two events can readily be compared using the conceptual tools provided earlier. The paper closes with a brief for how sociological knowledge should advance within the exclusive but broad boundaries of disaster research. (AA)

      Boris N. Porfiriev, "Disaster and Disaster Areas: Methodological Issues of Definition and Delineation," pp. 285-304.

        We present an extensive discussion of the linguistic, conceptual, and practical issues in discussing the category of disaster. It is argued that there are two principle orientations or approaches to research, namely an applied/pragmatic one and a theoretical/conceptual one. These are based on ontological and epistemological grounds, respectively, which serve as the main factors determining the existing differences and variations in the studying and understanding of disasters. The other reason for the variation is the logical and terminological inaccuracy of individual researchers in reasoning on disaster matters. The categories of "ecological disaster" and of "ecological disaster zones" have been selected as critical cases illustrating that issue in the theoretical approach. Also presented is the concept of disaster area as a management objective, and the classification of territories based on the depth of the destructive impact on sociopolitical systems, and on the types and groups in such territories. Also briefly discussed within the framework of the pragmatic approach are the principal measures and elements of an organizational system model for mitigating disaster aftermaths. (AA)

      Tom Horlick-Jones, "Modern Disasters as Outrage and Betrayal," pp. 305-315.

        The concept of disaster in the modern world has been socially constructed from traditional notions relating to catastrophic events. Disasters in modern societies contain strong elements of a release of repressed existential anxiety, triggered by a perceived betrayal of trust by contemporary institutions. It is speculated that the well-known "disaster myths" that figure in media and other accounts of disastrous events are elements of a related characterization of disasters as a loss of control of social order. (AA)

      Kenneth Hewitt, "Reaction Paper: Excluded Perspectives in the Social Construction of Disaster," pp. 317-339.

        The purpose of this paper is to review and respond to the preceding five articles in the special issue. My principal charge is to look at the authors’ approaches to answering the question of "What is a disaster?" and respond to their considerations. In doing this, I have outlined a variety of what I believe to be "excluded" perspectives in these formulations of what constitutes disasters. (AA)

      Plus replies to the reaction paper by Gilbert, Dombrowsky, Kreps, Porfiriev, and Horlick-Jones, pp. 341-359.

      E. L. Quarantelli, "Epilogue," pp. 361-364.

        [Summing up and final thoughts on the five papers by Dombrowsky, Gilbert, Horlick-Jones, Kreps, and Profiriev, the reaction paper by Hewitt, and the responses to it by the same five authors.]

    Review Symposium:

      Charles E. Fritz, Russell R. Dynes, and Roy Popkin review Facing the Challenge by the U. S. National Committee for the Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction, pp. 369-376.

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