Disaster as Systematic Event and Social catalyst: A Clarification of Subject Matter

November 1995 (VOL. 13, NO. 3)

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For over three decades disasters have been interpreted as systematic 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 include 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, Dublin 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.