Disasters Are Nonroutine Social Problems

August 1996 (VOL. 14, NO. 2)

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The United Nations proclaimed the 1990s as the International Decade for Disaster Reduction. This proclamation, and the activities it generates, highlights the necessity of exploring the conceptualization of disasters. We propose that disasters are best conceptualizes as nonroutine social problems: social problems because they involve conjunctions of historical conditions and social definitions; nonroutine because they usually are ignored by the public until articulated as dramatic events. We begin by linking the origins of disaster research to social problem theory and, in particular, the functionalist tradition. We explicate how functionalism has provided the implicit assumptions for most sociologically focused disaster studies, but not an analytical treatment of disasters as social problems. Rather that treatment has been simulated by the social constructionist tradition within social problems theory. We propose that social constructionism informs rather than undermines the conceptualization of disasters as nonroutine social problems.