Disasters do not occur out of context but are embedded in the political structures, economic systems and social orders of the societies in which they take place. Above all, they are historical events in that hazards are diachronic happenings, they occur as part of a sequence or process that determines a particular person’s or people’s vulnerability. But endowing disasters with histories and societies with hazardous pasts also requires a concomitant re-evaluation of the means by which such events have been conceptualised and their consequences analysed. Self-evidently disasters can no longer be viewed as merely meteorological or seismic phenomena divorced from social and cultural systems; neither can they simply be reduced to ‘laboratory studies’ of individual or group behaviour during extreme situations. Nor, too, can they be limited to or contained within small-scale ethnographic studies of the origins of communities’ coping mechanisms under stress. All these deal with important aspects of the occurrence and effect of natural hazard on societies but a more holistic approach is still demanded if disasters are to be appreciated in the wider context of the human-environment interplay over time.
Until recently, most of the existing literature on natural hazards has disproportionately dealt with aspects of disasters in the developed world. So, too, its practioners have largely attempted to explain such phenomena by turning to conceptual and methodological modes of analysis that have their origins within a western cultural perspective of how the physical and social world is constructed. The resultant discourse affects the way disasters have been understood within non-western cultures and has led to an under-estimation of the central role they may play in the formation of some societies. To many people who live with the daily threat of disaster, natural hazards are imbued with different meanings and are interpreted from a cultural perspective that accords them a distinct significance. Often, too, there is a barely perceptible and, at times, moving boundary separating hazard from resource, risk from benefit that does not sit well with the more widely favoured units of western analysis. Empowerment, access, resilience, culture and gender are all equally qualifiers differentiating victims from beneficiaries as are class, occupation, citizenship and location. In particular,