what is a Disaster? An Ecological-Symbolic Approach to Resolving the Definitional Debate

November 1991 (VOL. 9, NO. 3)

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The definition of disaster remains a contested issue in sociology. Two contrasting definitions vie for attention: the generic and the event-quality. One definition ignores the physical dimension of disaster focusing exclusively on social consequences. Another definition includes physical dimensions, but proponents of this approach cannot agree on just hat physical features to include. This essay evaluates these two definitions, suggesting the strengths and limitations of each. It offers a third definitional strategy that adds an environmental and symbolic dimension to the event-quality definition. We offer this ecological-symbolic approach as a necessary corrective to the limitations of both the generic and the event-quality definitions. A concluding section demonstrates the utility of this third perspective by applying it to an important discussion in disaster research.