The Northridge Earthquake: Vulnerability and Disaster

By Robert Bolin; Lois Stanford | Go to book overview

2

PERSPECTIVES ON DISASTERS

Disasters are fundamentally social phenomena; they involve the intersection of the physical processes of a hazard agent with the local characteristics of everyday life in a place and larger social and economic forces that structure that realm. We recognize that there can be no ‘neutral’ observations of a disaster’s social effects that are somehow free of the interventions of social theory or the positionality of the researcher. In order to grasp better how disasters are constructed in social science discourse, we map out the diverse intellectual terrain of hazards and disaster studies and characterize some of the main conceptual features of selected social science approaches. We do not attempt an exhaustive summary of research findings or intellectual history (e.g. Drabek 1986; Quarantelli 1987, 1992; Whyte 1986). Rather, our goal is to identify major analytical approaches in historical context to provide background for a discussion of vulnerability analysis.

In keeping with the increasing complexity of hazards and disasters as environmental, technological, and social phenomena, the field of disaster studies is today both theoretically and empirically diverse. In characterizing social research on hazards and disasters, Smith (1996) suggests that the literature can be divided into two general approaches, behavioral and structural ‘paradigms’ (cf. Hewitt 1997; Varley 1994). The former conceives of disasters as events caused by physical hazard agents and views human behaviors primarily as responses to the impacts. It emphasizes the application of science and technology, usually directed by government agencies and scientific experts, to restore order and control hazards. Elements of this ‘dominant view’, as Hewitt (1997) refers to it, appear with some frequency in US disaster research, reflected in its ongoing concern with defining unique features of disasters and how they differ from other types of social phenomena (e.g. Kreps and Drabek 1996; Quarantelli 1995). In contrast, the structural paradigm stresses various political and economic factors which unequally place people at risk to hazardous environments. In this view, disasters are not discrete events but are part of the larger patterns and practices of societies viewed geographically and historically. This structural approach encompasses much of the recent vulnerability work by anthropologists and social geographers (Blaikie et al. 1994; Cannon 1994), and traces its roots in the publication of Kenneth Hewitt’s edited volume, Interpretations of Calamity from the Perspective of Human Ecology in 1983. Structural approaches tie the study of disasters to more general work on society/environment issues and draw from conceptually richer theoretical traditions than those that view disasters as unusual events requiring their own specialized theory.

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The Northridge Earthquake: Vulnerability and Disaster
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Contents vii
  • Contents viii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • 1 - A Common Disaster 1
  • 2 - Perspectives on Disasters 27
  • 3 - Situating the Northridge Earthquake 64
  • 4 - Situating the Communities and the Research 105
  • 5 - Responding to Northridge 130
  • 6 - Restructuring After Northridge 185
  • Notes 217
  • 7 - Vulnerability, Sustainability, and Social Change 218
  • References 238
  • Name Index 256
  • Subject Index 261
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