What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question

What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question

What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question

What Is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question


Are events that create major casualties or social, economic, psychological disruptions such as ethnic clashes in Bosnia or the AIDS epidemic, the same kind of social crises as those generated by natural and technological happenings such as earthquakes and chemical explosions? In What Is A Disaster? contributors from six disciplines offer their views on what a disaster is.

Some contributors argue for a continuation of the traditional approach to disasters, while others contend that behavioral aspects of disasters can only be understood by looking at them subjectively, particularly from the viewpoint of victims. This collection explores the many conceptual differences that exist concerning what a disaster is, and presents important implications for both theory and practice.


In 1917, a Canadian named Samuel Henry Prince began the formal study of Sociology of Disaster with his dissertation on Canada's worst catastrophe, the 1917 Halifax explosion. However, it wasn't until after the Second World War that scholars began to concentrate on this area and produce perceptive studies such as Charles Fritz and J.H. Mathewson's Convergence Behavior in Disasters (1957), readers such as George Baker and Dwight Chapman's Man and Society in Disaster (1962), and books such as Allen Barton's Communities in Disaster (1969) and Russell Dynes' Organized Behavior in Disasters (1970).

In the same era, Dynes' long-time colleague, Henry Quarantelli, started pressing for a world-wide organization of disaster scholars and insisting that this body must have a journal. Quarantelli's efforts led to the creation of the Research Committee on Disasters, International Sociological Association, and publication of the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.

As those who come to know him well learn, Quarantelli is not the sort of person who is ever satisfied with what has been accomplished. He is always searching for new subjects to study, new ways of sharing what has been learned. This volume is a direct result of his dedication.

I want to thank Henry Quarantelli, not just for his work on this book but for the decades of devotion to his students, his colleagues, and, generally, to the world disaster community. There are very few persons who can honestly say that, within their lifetime, they have watched a field develop and prosper and that they have played a key role in making that possible. Henry Quarantelli can say that. All of us in this field owe him our deep gratitude.

Joseph Scanlon
Director, Emergency Communications Research Unit
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
President, Research Committee on Disasters

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