The Critic’s Corner The Sociology of Disaster: Definitions, Research Questions, & Measurements Continuation of the Discussion in a Post-September 11 Environment

March 2003 (VOL. 21, NO. 1)

Download this article

Disaster researchers come from varied fields of inquiry, practice diverse methodologies, yet we embrace some of the same, perhaps dysfunctional, academic traditions. This paper aims to stimulate diverse reactions. It continues the conversation from the 1998 edited Quarantelli book, What is a Disaster? Addressing questions such as “what is a disaster, what is the sociology of disaster, and what is it that disaster sociologists study? It will also begin to argue that it is indeed possible to measure disasters sociologically. An attempted disaster scale is offered. While it has long been argued that such a scale is untenable, it is argued herein that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, an attempt to create such a scale is imperative. A conceptual, rather than a purely quantitative disaster scale is designed—one potentially useful to both researchers and practitioners. It differentiates between the disaster agent, or precipitating event, and the sociological focus, or social structure (and its adjustments). Scale, scope and (time) duration are applied to create ten disaster categories. The scale encompasses everyday emergencies, severe emergencies, six types of “disasters” (focusing on whether a community was partially or completely disrupted or distressed as well as focusing on community size), multiple simultaneous population center catastrophes, and societal annihilation—all forming a continuum ranging from disaster category 1 through 10.