Comparative Politics and Disasters: Assessing Substantive and Methodological Contributions

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Comparative Politics and Disasters:

Assessing Substantive and Methodological Contributions

David A. McEntire


Sarah Mathis

Emergency Administration and Planning

Department of Public Administration

University of North Texas

P.O. Box 310617

Denton, Tx 76203-0617


The following chapter illustrates how the discipline of comparative politics may help increase our understanding of disasters in other countries as well as promote more effective emergency management institutions and practices domestically and abroad. In seeking to reach this objective, the nature, goals, history, and background of comparative politics will first be mentioned. The chapter will then discuss the underappreciated method of comparison, and identify a number of subject areas that have been examined or could be addressed by this discipline in the future. The major argument to be made is that the comparative method makes unrecognized contributions to disaster studies and will continue to do so as research advances in the United States and in foreign territories.

“Nations can only be understood in comparative perspective” (Lipset 1990, xiii).

“The significance of disaster . . . is brought sharply into focus when one takes a cross-cultural and international view” (Dynes 1988, 102).


According to the renowned disaster sociologist, Thomas Drabek, the field of emergency management is currently being professionalized and internationalized (McEntire 2001). These changes imply that emergency managers are now more knowledgeable than they were in the past, and suggest that there is increased effort to expand this valued area of public service to other countries.

Although a great deal of attention is being directed toward the increasingly recognized profession in terms of new degree programs, additional academic journals and recurring conferences sponsored by emergency management associations, we lack understanding of disasters and emergency management institutions around the world. This not only calls into question the benefit of applying research from the United States to other nations, but it also limits improvements in the field in this country because lessons are not sufficiently drawn from the positive and negative experiences of others. The obvious outcome is that disaster prevention and management is hindered, both here and elsewhere.

With this preface in mind, the goal of the following chapter is to illustrate how the discipline of comparative politics may help increase our understanding of disasters in other countries as well as promote more effective emergency management institutions and practices internationally. In order to reach this objective the nature, goals, and historical background of comparative politics will first be discussed. The chapter will then discuss the underappreciated method of comparison, and identify a number of subject areas that have been examined or could be addressed by this discipline in the future. The major argument to be made is that the comparative method makes unrecognized contributions to disaster studies and will continue to do so as research advances across foreign territories.

Comparative Politics and its Relation to Disasters

The discipline of comparative politics is the study of political systems and processes around the world (Hauss 1997). It is an area of scholarship that is interested in understanding all nations and the political activities that take place within them. This being the case, comparative politics is sometimes known as comparative public policy – “the study of how, why, and to what effect different governments pursue particular courses or action or inaction” (Heidenheimer, Heclo and Adams 1990, 3). Regardless of the actual title of the discipline, comparative politics might be the only field of study based on an explicit methodology. Its approach to research includes comparing and contrasting variables to identify why change occurs, what makes for a successful government, and how policy can be made effective. According to Wiarda (1993, 12), comparative politics “is particularly interested in exploring patterns, processes, and regularities among political systems.” He further adds that students of comparative politics generally undertake the following types of research: studies of one country, studies of two or more countries, regional or area studies, studies across regions, global comparisons, and thematic studies (Wiarda 1993, 12-15).

As can be seen, comparative politics is an offshoot of political science, and it initially reflected “significant concern for both historical perspective and the norms of political behavior” (Bill and Hardgrave 1981, 2). Although this area of scholarship can trace its roots to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it did not really emerge “as a distinct subfield of political science until the two decades between the two world wars” (Rustow and Erickson 1991, 1). This was a period when scholars became consumed with understanding why conflict broke out in Europe, how new government institutions were fairing, and what could be done differently to ensure political stability and prevent similar events from recurring. After World War II ended and the international community entered the Cold War era, interest in comparative politics grew dramatically. While the United States and the Soviet Union were aligning themselves with their respective allies, scholars began to examine the plethora of countries that made up the Third World. Their goal was to comprehend what these nations looked like and how they might become more like those in the West (or East if you were from the communist block). Comparative politics thus developed a close relationship with sociology, anthropology, economics and other disciplines in the social sciences.

While comparative politics is related to many fields of study, it has not contributed directly to the study of disasters. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any substantial discussion of disasters by scholars of comparative politics. However, it is interesting to note that Green (1994, 143), Walker (1994, 157), Chirot (1994, 174) and others have traced foment for the revolutions in Iran, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union to natural and technological disasters (e.g., earthquakes, Chernobyl) and the preferential distribution of relief afterwards. Nonetheless, comparative politics has remained, for the most part, aloof from disaster studies. But this is not to imply that comparative politics could not benefit the study of disasters, because there are a number of issues that overlap considerably between the two fields (see table 1 below). Disaster researchers have already recognized the value of these issues and have produced some very important findings in these areas (Mileti 1999; Peacock, Morrow and Gladwin 1997; Birkland 1996; Drabek and Hoetmer 1991; Schneider 1995; Dror 1988; Wisner et. al. 1994). More research in these subject areas is needed however. For instance, how do cultures around the world view disasters? Why do class relations have such a large impact on disaster vulnerability? What can be done to increase political support for disaster mitigation policies? Are intergovernmental relations problematic in foreign disasters? What steps can be taken to improve emergency management around the world? Do models such as incrementalism, group think, or misperception shed light on decision making before and after disasters? What is the relationship between development and disasters? These are only a few of the questions that could be addressed by scholars interested in comparative politics.

Table 1
Subject Area Application to Disaster Studies
Political Culture What values and attitudes affect disaster policy?

Socioeconomic Status How do poverty/powerlessness relate to vulnerability?

Interest Groups Why is apathy towards disasters so common?

Institutions/State How do governments/agencies operate in disasters?

Public Policy What makes emergency management effective?

Decision Making Why are choice difficult to make in disaster situations?

Development Does modernization increase/decrease vulnerability?


The greatest potential contribution of comparative politics to disaster studies is in the area of methods. In fact, comparative politics defines itself by “a methodological instead of substantive label” (Lijphart 1971, 682), and this method may do much to advance the study of disaster. But, what exactly is the comparative method and how does it relate to other research methodologies? What problems are inherent in comparison and how can these be overcome? Finally, what are the benefits of comparative research?

First, the well-known comparativist Arend Lijphart “defines the comparative method as the analysis of a small number of cases, entailing at least two observations, but less than about twenty” (Collier 1991, 8). Sartori suggests that this analysis of comparing “is both to assimilate and to differentiate” (1991, 246). He then adds:

If two entities are similar in everything, in all their characteristics, then they are the same entity. If, on the other hand, two entities are different in every respect, then their comparison is nonsensical . . . . The comparisons in which we sensible and actually engage are thus the ones between entities whose attributes are in part shared (similar) and in part non-shared (and thus, we say incomparable) (Sartori 1991, 246).

Prezworski and Teune (1970) also note, however, that our comparisons may be based on most similar or most different designs.

The comparative method is similar to other methods in the social sciences because much of the subject matter in this area does not lend itself to the scientific rigors of experimentation (Lijphart 1971). Nevertheless, comparison lies between the case study and statistical methods because of its modest scope. On the one hand, case studies are utilized to describe, generate hypotheses, confirm theory or expose deviant situations. They are relatively easy to conduct, but they do not allow for far-reaching generalizations. On the other hand, the statistical method is employed to control relationships by mathematically manipulating dependent and independent variables. Although statistics approximates experimentation, this type of method can be very time consuming and expensive (due to the large number of variables involved). The comparative method is thus less difficult to utilize than the statistical method and it also helps to generate stronger conclusions than the case study method.

This is not to say that the comparative method is void of problems. Sartori (1991) has identified five typical problems with this method:

  1. Parochialism – focusing on one country only and failing to incorporate and build upon prior research.

  2. Misclassification – placing phenomena into pseudo classes.

  3. Degreeism – finding it difficult to choose between continuums and categories.

  4. Conceptual stretching – implying that certain words mean everything (e.g., for ideological purposes).

  5. Incommensurability – failing to find a common measure for different systems or variables.

But these challenges need not be insurmountable. They can be overcome by increasing the number of cases, reducing the number of variables, and including comparable phenomena in research strategies (Collier 1991).

In spite of these weaknesses, there are a number of advantages associated with the comparative method. It has been suggested that the “comparative method allows systemic comparison which, if appropriately utilized, can contribute to the assessment of alternative explanations” (Collier 1991, 10). In other words comparison helps us to understand, explain, interpret, and verify or falsify generalizations (Sartori 1991, 244). Furthermore, comparison facilitates “thick description” (Geertz 1973) and limits “conceptual stretching” (Satori 1991). Summarizing these points, Collier states:

Comparison sharpens our powers of description and can be an invaluable stimulus to concept formation. It provides criteria for testing hypotheses and contributes to the inductive discovery of new hypotheses and to theory building” (1991, 7).

Is it any wonder, then, that the scientific method is inherently comparative (Lasswell 1968, 3), or that comparison is regarded to be equivalent to the natural scientist laboratory (Eckstein in Lijphart 1971)?1

Ironically, the discipline of comparative politics has been notably slow to fully adopt the comparative method. Macridis asserted in 1955 that the discipline did not live up to its name when it was initially founded. Sartori even declares that not much has changed in the last fifty years:

Let us squarely face it: normal science is not doing well. A field defined by its method – comparing – cannot prosper without a core method. My critique does not imply, to be sure, that good, even excellent, comparative work is no longer under way. But even the current good comparative work underachieves on account of having lost sight of what comparing is for (1991, 255).
Disaster studies should not make the same mistake.

Potential and Actual Contributions of Comparison
It is evident that comparison enables an understanding of important phenomena. Comparison can help one identify the hazards confront by policy makers, the varying impact of disasters on distinct nations, and the degree of vulnerability in other countries. Comparative work has also been useful to understand emergency management organizations and human behavior around the world. Researchers have likewise produced a number of case and comparative studies which may facilitate understanding of disaster and emergency management internationally. Each of these areas will be discussed in turn.

Hazards around the World

First, the use of comparison helps us to better understand the disasters that may affect nations around the world. The potential for disaster is growing everywhere, but the types of events experienced are based on each country's geography, their use of technology and many other factors.

For instance, African nations face a vast variety of disasters. In 2003, twenty-eight disasters were declared in Africa by the United Nations. The continent is ravaged by floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, and food security emergencies. Moreover, the AIDS epidemic is running rampant throughout many African nations. Of these, however, eleven were complex emergencies. A complex emergency is often sparked by a natural disaster and/or political, economic, or environmental stress. Complex emergencies are also marked by political or military conflict that impedes response and relief efforts (Minear and Weiss, 1995, p. 17).

While Africa is overwhelmingly afflicted with complex emergencies, Asia declared only two in 2003. Asian nations more commonly face hydrometeorological hazards. Floods have been the cause of disaster situations in Vietnam, Indonesia, China, and Sri Lanka. Typhoons have wreaked havoc in Korea, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. In addition to floods and typhoons, drought and epidemics are also a common problem for Asian nations.

Europe and the Middle East have had to deal with terrorism as a rising source of disaster. Suicide bombers in England, Spain, and Israel have all forced emergency personnel to reevaluate their methods in mitigating and responding to terrorists. In addition to terrorism, fire, floods, and shipping accidents have been the cause of disasters throughout these areas.

In Latin America, geological disasters are declared with some frequency. Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico have had issues with volcanoes. Mexico has also been damaged by earthquakes. Floods, droughts, and hurricanes also pose threats for countries in this area.

In North America, the United States faces hazards such as terrorism, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados. Earthquakes are commonplace in California, tornados ravage the Midwest, and hurricanes menace the Eastern and Gulf coasts. Indeed, the variation of climates and geography make it vulnerable to all types of disasters. Terrorism has risen to new heights of awareness since the coordinated attacks of 9/11. Canada also is at risk from similar hazards. In addition, their northern location presents them with severe winter storms.

Impact of Disasters

Disasters have plagued mankind throughout history. Indeed, tales of floods and famines have been passed down for generations. In this modern age, the occurrence of disasters has only become more frequent. The United Nations reports a steady increase of disasters across the globe (UNISDR, 2004). The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction operates under the mandate to “enable all societies to become resilient to the effects of natural hazards and related technological and environmental disasters, in order to reduce human, economic, and social losses” (UNISDR, 2005). As this trend continues it is important to identify how various nations are affected. In comparing disasters in developed versus underdeveloped countries, it becomes clear that the effects of disaster are not uniform.

The UN/ISDR reports that the countries most severely affected by disasters are of low or medium income, and rank low on the scale of human development. Approximately 80% of disasters are in predominantly developing areas (Alexander, 1991, p. 212). When disasters strike a developing nation, a high number of human deaths result. The top 25 countries that experienced the highest numbers of people both affected and killed by disasters between 1994-2003 were all developing nations (see appendix A). As an example, the tsunami that hit Asia in December 2004 left close to 200,000 people dead, and 100,000 missing (USAID, 2005, p.1). Mileti and his colleagues say that “losses from natural disasters occur because of development that is unsustainable” (1995, p. 122). This means that land use planning is lacking, that basic needs are not being met, and that the environment is being degraded. Other reports reveal that underdeveloped nations tend to focus their resources on issues apart from disaster preparedness, and only deal with a disaster after it hits (Aleskerov et al., 2005, p. 256).

While disasters strike the developing world with alarming regularity, they also ravage developed nations. However, developed nations are impacted by fifteen percent of disasters, and their death toll accounts for only 1.8 percent of the total deaths (United Nations, 2004). The effects of disasters in developed nations are felt more strongly in the economic sector, although the strength of their economies are better able to absorb such high losses. During the period of 1994-2003, the countries that suffered the highest economic loss were the United States and Japan (see appendix B). As an example, after the attack on New York City’s World Trade Center, the economic impact was felt much beyond the destruction of the buildings. Economic damage and loss estimates range up into the billions of dollars (Cochrane, 2004, p 293). More recently, the death toll projections from Hurricane Katrina were initially reported in the ten thousands. However, as recovery progressed the toll did not reach the one thousand mark. Instead, the economic factors were more prevalent as major ports in New Orleans were shut down, impacting the shipping and oil companies as well as the tourism industry. Total costs are estimated at $150 to $200 billion. Thus, disasters affect all nations but in very different ways.

The Vulnerability of Nations

The distinct impact of disasters is a result of the nature and degree of vulnerability. Vulnerability is defined as a measure of proneness to disaster along with the ability to effectively withstand or react to their adverse consequences (see Watts and Bohle 1993; Comfort et. al. 1999; Wisner et. al. 2004). McEntire (2004) describes this proneness in terms of the liabilities of risk and susceptibility, and he explains that coping ability is determined by the degree of resistance and resilience. This model consequently captures both the positive and negative features associated with the physical and social environments, and includes variables such as land use planning, politics, economics, culture, psychology, engineering, and institutions. Development can also be linked both positively and negatively to vulnerability (McEntire, 2004). Researchers report that countries with middle and low human development have a higher incidence of disasters (see Appendix C), which is particularly evident in 1999. This disparity is a product of social systems being more vulnerable than others.

As indicated previously, developed nations do not reflect casualties as heavily as developing nations. Their vulnerability is lower because of their ability to acquire and employ greater resources. The wealth of developed nations allows them to allocate funds for mitigation and preparedness measures. As an example, studies are often funded in these countries to identify hazard-prone areas and recommend appropriate measures for protection. Elaborate training systems are created to prepare disaster response teams in developed nations. Everyone from first responders to community volunteers can access training to more quickly and efficiently respond to a crisis. Furthermore, education and technology are relied upon in these countries to develop warning systems for the general public.

Australia, Sweden, and the United States are examples of developed nations that have advanced emergency management institutions. Australia’s national government has an emergency management program that focuses heavily on using education to reduce vulnerability. The United States is now requiring that communities develop mitigation action plans to address rising disaster losses and it is giving special attention to WMD preparedness. SEMA, the Swedish Emergency Management Agency, takes responsibility to effectively coordinate their society’s ability to respond to crises. However, mistakes are still made frequently in developed nations and they have a bearing on vulnerability. For instance, beachfront property is a luxury commodity for the wealthy and such locations are at risk due to hurricanes. People also increase their vulnerability by building their communities on fault lines or near industrial centers. Developed nations do not have perfect emergency management programs.

In comparison to developed nations, developing countries typically lack education, funding, and equipment to reduce their vulnerability. In Botswana, Africa, AIDS spreads quickly because of a lack of education about the transmission of the disease. Developing societies are vulnerable to other hazards because of their impoverished living conditions and weak warning systems. Building codes are rarely established or enforced in developing nations. For instance, squatter towns in Bhopal, India, built near the Union Carbide chemical plant, were partly responsible for the high death rate when poisonous gas leaked from the facility in 1984. Villages on the coast of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India were washed away during the Tsunami of 2005 because of their dangerous location and primitive construction. Nepal has institutions that focus on landslide management and floods, but they have not established a joint, integrated warning system and vulnerability is not addressed (Paudel, 2003, p. 481).

Both developed and developing nations are affected by technology, industry, and culture. Developed nations are facing increased technological disasters as computers become more integrated into every part of their lives. Developing nations, on the other hand, may lack the familiarity with new forms of technology that could reduce or cause disasters. Each group faces adverse risks associated with hazardous material incidents, even though manufacturing plants are increasingly being moved to the developing world. People and governments in both developed and developing nations continue to make mistakes regarding disasters. They each can be found guilty of downplaying risk, augmenting social susceptibility, relying too heavily on technical remedies, and failing to strengthen emergency management institutions.

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