Social Problems Perspectives, Disaster Research and Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts, Theoretical Extensions, and Policy Implications Thomas E



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1. Disaster researchers have constructed a scientifically based core of knowledge which too frequently has been ignored by high level policy makers, especially during the past six years.

This is not the place to review the core knowledge base that dates back to Prince’s (1920) classic study, the NORC field team reports summarized by Fritz (1961) and others (e.g., Fritz and Marks 1954), or the several reports published in the early National Academy of Sciences series (e.g., Moore et al. 1963) in which Barton’s (1963) theoretical framework first appeared (see also Barton 1969). Additional study syntheses have continued to appear over the years, including the excellent work of Dynes (1970), and those in which I have participated, e.g., Mileti, Drabek and Haas 1975, Drabek 1986, and Drabek 2004. Of course, the recently released Handbook of Disaster Research (Rodríguez et al. 2006) sets a new standard for such summaries.

When asked by my former student David McEntire (in press) to identify the key contributions sociologists had made to the study of disasters, I (Drabek in press) selected these four as being most significant: 1) debunking disaster myths, e.g., Quarantelli and Dynes 1972; Fischer 1998; 2) innovations in research methods, e.g., Stallings 2002; Homan 2003; 3) extensions of sociological theory, e.g., Kreps et al. 1994; Dynes 2002, 2005 and 4) social criticism, e.g., Dynes 1994; Aguirre 2004. Others, of course, would highlight different aspects of this rich legacy. I might too on a different day or week, but these four areas clearly constitute significant contributions reflecting our larger and complex research legacy.

Upon carefully reading the final report of the 9/11 Commission (NCTAUS 2004), I was impressed with the level of detail with which they effectively reconstructed the planning and process of the attacks and the challenges responders confronted. As I pointed out elsewhere, (Drabek 2006b, pp. 224-226), however, many of the intra and inter-agency communication and coordination difficulties paralleled those that had been documented in numerous places following other disasters (e.g., Drabek 1968, 1986). Despite pages of footnotes, the report made no mention of this prior research as Tierney (2005) underscored in her review. And while I agree with Perrow (2005) that the failure to even mention the lack of leadership at the federal level was a major shortcoming, ignoring past disaster research may have paved the way for wrong headed policy recommendations like the emphasis on implementation of the incident command system (ICS) as if this would fix everything. I’ll return to this specific issue later, but it illustrates my overall point.

I also carefully reviewed three of the major policy reports completed after Hurricane Katrina by the White House staff (2006), the Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (SBCIPRHK 2006), and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate (CHSGA 2006). The Senate report noted “a failure to act on the lessons of past catastrophes, both man-made and natural . . .” (p. I-16), but did not specify the sources of such lessons, nor even what they were in specific terms. In fairness, however, I should note that the Committee did consult with and cite testimony and publications produced by several scientists focused on physical aspects of the storm, levee failure, and storm surge modeling, e.g., Ivor van Heerdeen (Deputy Director of the LSU Hurricane Center) (see pp. 4-14 through 4-16) and work by John C. Pine (Director, Disaster Science and Management, LSU) and Hassa Mashrique (Assistant Professor Research, LSU Hurricane Center) (see p. 6-23). They also reviewed in detail the simulated disaster exercise—known as “Hurricane Pam”—and highlighted some of the conclusions reported in local media outlets the year prior to Katrina, e.g., Nolan 2005 (see Chapter 8 of the Senate Report). They also noted FEMA’s failings after Hurricane Andrew and the proposals and reforms implemented thereafter (e.g., National Academy of Public Administration, 1993 and 1994) including testimony and e-mail messages from such policy oriented researchers as John Harrold (Director, Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, George Washington University) and Herman Leonard (John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School) (see pp. 14-17 and 14-24). Finally, they noted that, “Neither the Hurricane Pam exercise nor the resultant Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan contemplated the shelter and transportation of pets.” (p. 16-36, footnote #193) despite prior behavioral research which had documented the need for such, e.g., Health et al. 2001. These notations were the only exceptions I could find.

The House Committee recognized, however, that there should be further exploration of “. . . how socioeconomic factors contributed to the experiences of those directly affected by the storm.” (p. 20) And they cited survey results published in the Natural Hazards Observer by John Barnshaw (2005). Yet, they too sometimes fell into the trap of blaming the victims. “Those individuals in all states who had the means to evacuate, but did not do so, must also share the blame for the incomplete evacuation and the difficulties that followed.” (p. 103). Without referencing the disaster literature on looting, at least they recognized the differences among so-called “looters.” “In some cases, people looted stores for their survival and to diminish suffering, taking items such as food, water, clothing, flashlights, batteries, and camping supplies.” (p. 241).

Fortunately, additional sociological studies will continue to illuminate these matters, e.g., Barsky et al. 2006. But will they too be ignored? You may remember that some in Congress, (e.g., Rep. Charlie Melancon and Rep. William J. Jefferson), like some academics (e.g., Natural Hazards Observer 2006, and Pastor et al. 2006, p. 40) pressed for the appointment of an Independent Katrina Commission (see “Additional Views” of the House Committee report, p. 54). Ruth and I wrote to our congressional representatives on this matter, did you? Unfortunately, to date this recommendation has fallen on deaf ears!

The White House Report (2006) which emphasized “lessons learned” also ignored most of the social science literature on disasters. Yet, seventeen “. . . most critical challenges that were problematic . . .” (p. 2) were identified to serve as a backdrop for a new vision. That is, a “National Preparedness System” is to be implemented along with a “culture of preparedness.” I’ll return to these matters in the fourth section of this paper, and here only note that the 689 endnotes cited throughout the six chapters of the White House report include very few references to what most of us would consider the “standard” sociological disaster research literature, although a few historical (e.g., Vale and Campanella 2005), policy oriented (e.g., Platt 1999) and popularized works (e.g., Larson 1999) were included. The single exception was reference to the text Jerry Hoetmer and I (Drabek and Hoetmer 1991) edited for the International City Management Association regarding the evolution of emergency management within the U.S.A. (e.g., see footnotes 8 and 11 in Chapter Two, p. 15).

While lots of different types of other evidence could be cited, my first theme reflects two basic conclusions: 1) a significant scientifically based core of knowledge has been created by disaster and hazards researchers, and 2) during the last six years especially, this knowledge has too frequently been ignored by high level policy makers.

2. Some basic distinctions can be helpful in exploring the theoretical issues and implications inherent in a social problems perspective. Let me illustrate this point by proposing definitions for four key concepts: 1) social problem; 2) disaster; 3) hazard; and 4) terrorism.

a. Social problem. Reviews of past and current texts reveal differences in how a “social problem” is defined. Most typical, however, are definitions like that proposed by Rubington and Weinberg (2003, p. 4), i.e., “. . . an alleged situation that is incompatible with the values of a significant number of people who agree that action is needed to alter the situation.” This view is implicit in the more complex definitions offered by many others such as Lauer and Lauer (2006, p. 4). Further discussion, however, usually follows regarding the subjectivity inherent in such a position. How many people must define a situation as being “incompatible”? Who “selects” the values that are to be used in making such an assessment?

These questions have led some writers, like Palen (2001) to highlight an alternative position.

“Some sociologists say that public recognition is not crucial for an issue to be a social problem. They say that social problems are the issues identified by social scientists as those about which people should be concerned.” (p. 7).


This matter was introduced years ago by Merton (1961) in the “Epilogue” of the first edition of the Merton-Nisbet (1961) social problems text. Without digressing, I must note, however, that many others made similar analyses over the years (e.g., see Mills 1943). But to stay on point, I’ll simply note the appropriateness of Merton’s chapter sub-title which was “Social Problems and Sociological Theory.” After acknowledging the difficulties deciding who might be the “judges,” Merton emphasized that “It is with the social definition of social problems as it is with other processes in society: those occupying strategic positions of authority and power of course carry more weight . . .” (p. 206). Here, as in subsequent editions (e.g., see Merton 1966, pp. 788-792), he followed with an elaboration wherein “manifest” versus “latent” social problems were differentiated. In this way he tried to provide an out from potential charges of values imposition.

“Apart from manifest social problems, those objective social conditions identified by problem definers in the society as at odds with their values are latent social problems, conditions that are also at odds with values of the group but are not recognized as being so. The sociologist does not impose his values upon others when he undertakes to supply knowledge about latent social problems.” Merton 1961, p. 709).


More current writers, having benefited from analyses of this issue since the 1960s, usually come down on the side of offering at least three complementary theoretical frameworks, i.e., functional, conflict, interaction (e.g., Palen 2001, pp. 13-18) which help in our understanding the public issues and private troubles of our time. But the fundamental issue of value choices remains with the individual analyst or reader. Palen (2001) summarized his view as follows.

“This text takes the position that it is impossible to eliminate personal values and experiences and we invariably make value judgments about which social problems are most important and what should be done about them. Both professionals and nonprofessionals alike make subjective judgments on how social problems should be solved. Everyone has biases, but sociologists make a conscious effort to try to take their own biases into consideration.” (Palen 2001, pp. 7-8).


These considerations provide the context for the next three concepts.

b. Disaster. I’ll return to this concept in a subsequent section, but for now let me propose this definition from Gary Kreps (1989b). Disasters are:

“. . . nonrountine events in societies or their larger subsystems (e.g., regions, communities) that involve conjunctions of historical conditions and social definitions of physical harm and social disruption. Among the key defining properties of such events are length of forewarning, magnitude of impact, scope of impact, and duration of impact (Kreps 1989b, p. 219).
From this theoretical position, which somewhat parallels Fritz’s definition (1961, p. 655), disasters are events of a certain type. While they may differ in terms of such key analytic criteria as length of forewarning, the operative term in the definition is “among”. There are other dimensions beyond these four listed that may, for certain research purposes, be far more significant. I’ll return to this issue later because it is extremely important (see section 6, sub-section entitled “technological disasters”). Also, these events are to be understood as conjunctions of both historical conditions and social definitions of physical harm and social disruption. Finally, there is a “nonroutine” quality about disasters that also differentiates them from other social experiences.

This definition is consistent with that used by the Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences (2006) which was chaired by Kreps. By using it as their guidepost, they were able to skillfully integrate the key conclusions of past research and identify a complex future research agenda reflecting questions like these.

“. . . in what ways are terrorist threats similar to and different from risks posed by natural and technological disasters? How has the increased salience of willful disasters shaped the emergency management system in the United States? Also how prepared are local communities and the nation as a whole for possible future attacks?” (p. 70).
c. Hazard. Hazards are conditions that have the potential to harm to a community or environment (see Drabek 2004, pp. 2-5 through 2-9). Commonly, like Mileti’s (1999) excellent follow-up to the bench-setting “assessment” by White and Haas (1975), we differentiate among “classes” of these using various weather and earth science terminologies. So, we refer to “the earthquake hazard” or “the flood hazard” for a given community, region, or sometimes a nation. Thus, a hazard represents a potential, whereas a disaster references a specific event that has actually occurred. Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that reflects the overall hazard or threat defined by the potential for hurricanes in the community of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast region, and the U.S.A. While it is possible to broaden the reference, most sociologists have focused on so-called “natural” hazards ranging from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, to frost, drought, and heat (e.g., Mileti 1999). Of growing importance, however, are the hazards reflecting various technologies ranging from nuclear power plants (e.g., Perrow 1984) to other toxic substances (e.g., Erikson 1994). As illustrated by the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, however, much of the nation’s entire infrastructure has not been maintained properly. Hence, our failure to invest in our rich technological applications has left many dams, bridges, sewer and water systems, and the like in a dismal state. Just like our cars or our homes, all of these applications require continued reinvestments if the probabilities of disaster are to be reduced.

As I will elaborate in subsequent sections, for years Quarantelli (e.g., 1987b) has pushed us to confront “the fundamental question,” i.e., “what is a disaster?” Many have addressed this question by examining various analytic criteria that differentiate among disaster events such as those noted above and others like frequency, time of day, and so on (see Dynes 1970, pp. 52-55 and Drabek 1986, pp. 22-23, 45-46). More recently, researchers like Simpson and Katirai (2006) have sorted through the literature to identify various discussions and proposals for measures and indicators of risk, hazards, and disasters. Others have noted different discussions of “taxonomic” approaches (e.g., Green and McGinnis 2002). Proposals for “structuring paradigms” vary from Quarantelli who urges that the concept of disaster be limited to “consensus” based events to Green and McGinnis (2002) who “. . . believe that three classes describe the highest order range of disaster events . . . natural disasters, human systems failures, and conflict based disasters.” (p. 4). In contrast, Erikson (1994) has proposed that events reflecting exposure, threatened or actual, to toxic substances clearly reflect “a new species of troubles.” I’ll extend this discussion momentarily to document more of the historical context of my position and its relationship to public policy, but for now the point is to underscore the diversity in viewpoints and lack of closure among disaster researchers.

d. Terrorism. Terrorism is a strategy to gain political objectives by attacking civilian populations with the intent of spreading fear and intimidation. Others have used slightly different language, but this definition includes the basic themes emphasized by many (e.g., see Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism 2002, p. 26; Neubeck et al. 2007, p. 81; McVeigh and Wolfer 2004, p. 388; Palen 2001, p. 476). Until the attacks on 9/11, most Americans did not perceive “terrorism” as a social problem. Specific attacks, like those of 9/11, or earlier events (e.g., bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, 1988; 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City; 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City; see Drabek 2004, Student Handout 5-3 or Waugh 2000, for listings of numerous terrorist attacks), are subsumed within the above definition of disaster. Thus, as with the disaster vs. hazard distinction, it is important to differentiate between specific events and a general strategy of conflict that historically has been used by “the weak.” While “state-sponsored” terrorist acts clearly occur, it is more often a strategy adopted by those with minimal levels of political power. As Palen (2001) put it, “Terrorism is also used by aggrieved religious, ethnic, and political groups who can not see, or refuse to see, any other alternative to influencing change.” (pp. 475-476). By focusing on “soft” targets like hotels, office buildings, and other places of high population density, those using this strategy of randomized killing, expose vulnerabilities that in earlier times clearly had remained “latent” in Merton’s use of the term. Today, however, things are very different. “. . . a national survey in 2003 reported that 8 percent of Americans said they were ‘very worried’ and another 30 percent that they were ‘somewhat worried’ that they or a family member might become a victim of terrorism . . .” (Lauer and Lauer 2006, p. 416). As with other hazards, risk perceptions change and are subject to manipulation by those seeking to instill different rankings among “the social problems” confronting a society (e.g., see Jenkins 2003).

But there are complexities and subtleties that a social problems perspective highlights. “Just who is it that defines what constitutes a criminal act?” “How have such definitions changed over time?” Standard stuff in any social problems course. So it is with terrorism as even a Bush White House committee report emphasized, (i.e., Subcommittee on Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Working group, both of which report to the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) (2005) which in turn operates within the Executive Office of the President).

Among their definitional observations were these.



  • “Consensus as to what actions define terrorism has been difficult to attain.” (p. 7)

  • “. . . the use of the term ‘terrorism’ may over-simplify different types of actors, warfare and motivations, encapsulating them in a single group or act so that critical variables are overlooked.” (p. 7)

  • “The use of the term ‘terrorist’ denies the perpetrator all claim to legitimacy within Western Culture . . .” (p. 7)

  • “The root causes of one terrorist action may have little in common with those of another.” (p. 7).

3. Studies of “claims-makers” help illuminate the processes whereby certain conditions, including hazards and disasters, become defined as social problems.

The social construction of social problems has evolved through a series of penetrating analyses that I simply will note here. These include the pioneering work of Spector and Kitsuse (1973; 1977) who argued that fifty years of textbooks had still not generated a theory of social problems because the wrong questions were being asked. In an effort to go beyond the subjective vs. objective value debate, they proposed that sociologists should focus primarily on questions that could be addressed empirically. That is, “what do people say is a social problem?” And, “how do such perceptions evolve over time?”

To date, this social constructionist perspective has been applied to disaster research most effectively by Bob Stallings (1995) in his now classic study of the “earthquake risk.” He documented that many of the claims-making activities described by Spector and Kitsuse (1977), seemed to illuminate what was happening within the “earthquake establishment” (see pp. 54-60). Clearly “. . . the existence of claims-making activity justifies placing the earthquake threat in the category of phenomena labeled social problems.” (p. 196). Yet, the natural-history model of social problems only partially fit the earthquake case.

A “partial” fit? Why only “partial?” According to Stallings the most important thing missing was controversy. “Currently, most of what earthquake safety advocates do on a daily basis is not at all controversial.” (p. 197). And so Stallings was forced to ask a key question: “. . . can something be a social problem without being controversial?” (p. 197). He did find, of course, some areas of conflict and controversy. But these seemed to be different somehow than those commonly associated with other social problems.

“The chief difference between these and the conflicts usually associated with social problems is that they occur ‘backstage,’ out of public view. Perhaps the earthquake threat is different not because controversy is absent but because somehow it is the ‘wrong kind’ of controversy.” (Stallings 1995, p. 198).
Finally, Stallings (1995) resolved these matters by proposing that the earthquake threat in the U.S.A., up to 1980 at least, was best labeled as a “partially constructed social problem.” “Like organized crime in the 1960s and white collar crime in the 1980s, it remains visible to insiders but nearly invisible to those outside the earthquake establishment.” (pp. 203-204). And he identified three changes that could occur that might move the construction process along: 1) personalization (i.e., name those responsible for minimizing or distributing the risk such as “greedy developers” or “current politicians”); 2) politicization (i.e., identification of certain candidates who would support certain legislation, ballot initiatives, etc.); and 3) “presentization” (i.e., emphasis on how everyday decisions, not future ones, affect risk distribution) (see pp. 206-208). Do you see any parallels to the processes that have been operative the past few years regarding the manufacturing of the fear of terrorism?

4. A complementary perspective on disasters and hazards has emerged that incorporates insights from social problems theorists despite the misgivings and cautions of some.

In the late 1960s I was invited to write a short essay on methodological issues in disaster research (Drabek 1970). This exercise caused me to question the procedures whereby units of analysis could be specified more explicitly. I saw this as necessary to establish some basis for generalization across study findings and guidance in future sample selection and study design. The issues of both internal and external validity seemed critical to me. These matters had real salience to me since many questioned the relevance of our laboratory simulation research to organizational responses to “real world” disasters (e.g., see Drabek and Haas 1969, 1967). So I proposed a simple typology to illustrate my concerns about how “. . . to integrate disaster studies into other substantive areas ranging from family and organizational studies to civil disturbances and revolutions Quarantelli and Dynes 1969”. (Drabek 1970, p. 335). The typology also illustrated three types of comparative research that I believed was necessary for the knowledge accumulation process: 1) across events; 2) across societies; and 3) across groups and organizations. I envisioned a series of emergent taxonomies for both the structural units of analysis and the disaster events being selected for study so as to construct “ . . . empirically tested relationships with the universe to which they apply specified.” (Drabek 1970, p. 334).

A decade later I revisited some of these issues upon receiving an invitation from Gary Kreps to prepare a paper on taxonomy for a conference designed to review his team’s analysis of “organized responses” they identified within post-disaster interviews conducted by Disaster Research Center (DRC) staff during the 1960s (see Kreps 1989d). Their data base included such disasters as the 1964 Alaska earthquake and Hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969). In my conference paper I raised a lot of questions and proposed some future directions. Among these questions was “. . . when should a crisis event be classified as a disaster?” (Drabek 1989b, p. 319). This matter had been made more salient in my thinking by Quarantelli’s IRCD Presidential address in 1986 (Quarantelli 1987b) and a series of studies conducted by Peter Rossi and his associates (e.g., Rossi et al. 1978; Rossi et al. 1982; Wright et al. 1979; Wright and Rossi 1981). The Rossi group was highly critical of the White-Haas (1975) assessment project and a lot of other disaster-hazard research. So they had attempted to increase the rigor of their research study designs by increasing their survey sample sizes. By doing so they concluded that disasters really had little or no effect on communities. And since there was negligible impact, it was bad public policy to succumb to the lobby efforts being made by those within a “growing disaster industry.” In short, a “no-effect” conclusion clearly justified a “no funds” position for either research or amelioration, be it mitigation, preparedness, or whatever. I’m over stating their position just a bit, but I clearly recall hearing such views being expressed at their conference.

I was invited as a disaster researcher, but also had registered criticisms of many past studies. And I refused to be drawn into false choices by an agenda structured around “the worth” of past work be it that flowing from the “old” NORC studies, the DRC or the University of Colorado (e.g., White and Haas). So in my critique of their work (Drabek 1981), I endorsed their effort at design rigor but remained suspicious of their study sample which was comprised of too many “small scale” events. In my judgment, this is what had led them to the conclusion that disasters had “no effect.” As I put my criticism then: “Simply put, were they studying disasters?” (Drabek 1989b, p. 320).

A second theme I introduced pertained to social problems. “. . . I have believed that one form of integration we should seek would be within theories of social problems (Drabek 1981).” (Drabek 1989b, p. 337). I pushed this idea very briefly by proposing that we should try to build better bridges with emergency managers and one way of doing this was to define disaster as “. . . a low-priority, nonroutine social problem. As emerging professionals, emergency managers can be helped to develop a sense of perspective and basis for interpretation by expanding upon a social problems framework.” (Drabek 1989b, p. 341).

Following this conference, Kreps asked me to expand on this idea through an essay that might be included in a special issue he was editing for the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. In his introduction to this special issue Kreps (1989c) noted that this publication reflected “ . . . a resolution passed at the 1986 ISA meeting of the Research Committee on Disasters” (p. 213) which “ . . . called for a special issue devoted to the general question of the boundaries of the field.” (p. 213). As a very practical matter, as co-editor (1985-1990) of our journal (i.e., International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters), I was wanting some guidance. For example, should we accept articles focused on war or other types of conflict situations? If a civil disturbance like the riots in Watts (Los Angeles area of California) was relevant to our readership, what about a riot within a prison?

In the opening essay Kreps (1989c), explained that he would elaborate on “. . . my thoughts on the boundaries question and what I see as the essential role of taxonomy in disaster research.” (p. 213). In his article, Kreps (1989b) addressed the question “What is a disaster?” and proceeded to lay out a rigorous approach whereby future taxonomic work could lead to a series of schema whereby multiple taxonomies could be used to aggregate past findings and guide the design of new comparative studies (see pp. 230-231). He then referenced my earlier work (e.g., Drabek 1981) and explicitly claimed “. . . disasters are nonroutine social problems” (p. 233). He then elaborated briefly on these ideas and concluded with a statement with which I was and remain in full agreement.

“I am certain that a cooperative dialogue based on mutual respect for competing epistemologies is the path to scientific progress in disaster research. I hope this exchange serves an example of what is needed.” (Kreps 1989a, p. 280).


In that same issue, Quarantelli (1989) began his essay with this statement. “The question of a taxonomy of disaster research cannot be addressed meaningfully until some sort of answer is given to the more fundamental issue: What is a disaster?” He then elaborated by suggesting that Kreps’s argument was inadequate because “ . . . Kreps is operating with common sense notions of social problems—namely, something happens that disrupts people.” (p. 249). Furthermore, “. . . except for a few disaster researchers, other sociologists apparently do not see disasters as social problems.” (p. 249). Finally, toward the end of his essay Quarantelli (1989) proposed: “Disasters are better seen as part of social change dynamics than as nonroutine social problems.” (p. 249).

Why? Why would a “social change dynamics” perspective be better? Quarantelli proposed several reasons including the basic and very important idea that this would insure that disasters would “. . . be seen as an integral part of what usually goes on in the social structure, rather than as an external intrusion from the outside . . .” (p. 250). I, however, would propose that this is one of the very reasons why I believe a social problems perspective is so useful. He also registered another concern which I addressed above, that is, the issue of bias.

“A social change emphasis also avoids the extreme relativism and the ideological bias inherent in any social problem approach, along with accepting elite views of what constitutes problems (that researchers sometime act as surrogates for political and economic elites may partly disguise but does not circumvent the issue).” (Quarantelli 1989, p. 250).
Quarantelli (1998) continued to push all of us to address this fundamental question through a compilation of essays that revealed varied answers, perspectives, and orientations. As he first did in his “Presidential Address”, back in 1986, he forced us to think hard about the assumptions we were making when we casually tossed around terms like “natural disasters” and started to generalize to other social situations like civil disturbances or war (Quarantelli 1987b). Most recently, he teamed with Ron Perry (2005) to edit another round of essays and reactions and reactions to the reactions, in and effort to press us even harder. As I read these, I found myself in agreement with Perry that too often “. . . disaster researchers are spending more time talking past one another than talking to one another.” (Perry 2005, p. 315). And while I might prefer a more complex system, hence the term taxonomy rather than typology, I am in full agreement with Ron’s conclusion that empirically documented instances of inconsistency, e.g., absence or presence of looting behavior, requires “ . . . a system of classifying occasions that enables understanding and meaningful interpretation of such disparities.” (Perry 2005, p. 315).

I also noted the definition Bob Stallings recommended that incorporated a portion of that proposed by Kreps and I, i.e., nonroutine. Hence, “A disaster is a social situation characterized by nonroutine, life-threatening physical destruction attributed to the forces of nature, regardless of what other causal factors may seem to be involved (italics in original) (Stallings 2005, p. 263). Where we disagree, however, is the boundary implied by “forces of nature” and no reference to social problems. I was, however, glad to see that others, especially Smith (2005), underscored the importance of highlighting the nonroutine nature of disasters (p. 288).

In contrast, Barton (2005) identified direct parallels to the integrative power of his concept of “collective stress” and the frameworks used by social problems analysts.

“Using the concept of ‘collective stress’ to examine a wide range of situations of large-scale deprivation varying on several dimensions, with ‘local physical disaster’ as one subtype, raises important theoretical questions and points to a wide range of empirical cases from which to learn answers. The wider concept relates the problems of preventing, mitigating, and coping with physical disasters to the general field of social problems and the means by which societies deal or fail to deal with them.” (Barton 2005, p. 151).


Quarantelli’s (2005) concluding essay covered a lot of ground that provided much food for thought. Regarding the need for classification system, or maybe systems in my view, he referred back to a distinction he made in his 1987 article, i.e., genotype versus phenotype.

“Essentially making this distinction argues that less obvious or visible characteristics are far more important than surface features. Our prediction is that our eventual new paradigm will involve far more genotypical rather than phenotypical features we now almost exclusively use.” (Quarantelli 2005, p. 341).


This parallels a view he expressed previously regarding the whether or not reactions to military attack involving nuclear bombs would parallel those following natural disasters.

“. . . if people are asked to evacuate from a certain area, whether the impetus for the evacuation is radiation fallout or a hurricane doesn’t matter. However, people are only going to accept certain warnings as legitimate. But fundamentally, we thought that a nuclear attack was qualitatively different from any other situation. Therefore, we could not say to what degree the response to a nuclear attack or a hurricane would be similar.” (Quarantelli 2004b, p. 325).


See why the issue of generalizability is so important for both disaster theory and policy? Stallings (2006b) has elaborated on both the importance and complexity of this issue for both cross-event and within event comparisons. Analyses like his reflect the type of hard work required to push the field further (see especially pp. 62-65 and 67-71).

Finally, Quarantelli (2005) again noted his preference for a “social change approach” which “. . . would force us to consider the more positive aspects of disasters (all but impossible to consider in a social problem context that focuses on the negative).” (p. 353).

As this issue has begun to sensitize researchers, more comparative work will help us better identify similarities and differences in a wide variety of non-intentional versus intentional disaster agents like war situations. As noted by the Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences (2006, pp. 10-19), comparative historical research on the policy developments that follow major events provides an empirical pathway toward understanding how social definitions emerge and public policy evolves (e.g., see also Rubin 2007 and Birkland 2006, 1997). Another good example of the level of specificity required to pursue this task is Kirschenbaum’s (2006) analysis of family preparedness activities. It turns out that while there are certain similarities, within his Israeli data base at least, conditions of intentional conflict like war, may require explanatory models that differ significantly from those documented for earthquakes and other natural hazards.

But there is more to this issue than just intentionality or conflict as differentiating concepts. Clarke’s (2006) insights are most informative and should be considered carefully by all disaster researchers. For example, in contrast to our emphasis on the post-event emergence of an altruistic community, which does have a clear empirical basis, he appropriately questions the limits of this conclusion. Sure it does fit hundreds of cases studied thus far, but what if London, for example, were hit by surprise? What might be the relevance of the altruistic community conclusion from the macro level view of the world system?

“What, after all could Zimbabwe really do to help England recover? . . . the response wouldn’t be uniform even within the United States. The religious right would probably say Londoners brought it on themselves; it was divine retribution for sinful behavior. Russia could do little.” (Clarke 2006, p. 176).
“I don’t mean to sound coldhearted, but if we’re really going to think smartly and imagine well about worst cases we have to be honest about political realities. The happy conclusion of disaster researchers—that altruistic communities form after calamity—has limits.” (Clarke 2006, p. 177).
Of course, Quarantelli may well be right in his objections to efforts to link disaster studies to those of other social problems. But I believe there is room for multiple approaches at this point in the development of the field. So let’s examine an alternative.

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