The discussion and analysis presented here has been influenced by a line of thinking and analysis that has seen little attention among US disaster sociologists. As such it marks something of a departure from my ‘usual’ research approach. This work concerns the issue of vulnerability to disaster, where vulnerability is understood as a consequence of various kinds of social inequalities. Rather than explaining disaster as caused by some extreme environmental force, a vulnerability approach seeks the explanation of disaster in the ongoing nature of societies and their unequal allocation of risks and resources. While vulnerability analysis, as it has come to be called, has been around for more than fifteen years, my first encounter with it came only a few years ago, and it has significantly altered the ways that I now think about environmental risk and disaster. This book marks an attempt to develop this line of analysis adapted to the particular conditions of one region of the US. To that end this work has several related components: a review of several disaster research traditions, a historical sketch of the dynamics of California’s dramatic urban growth and its ecologies of risk, a general framework for an examination of ‘First World’ vulnerability, and an exploration of the topic in the context of a recent California earthquake. By covering such a range of topics, this book is not intended to be a heavily quantified and exhaustive monograph or metanarrative of the ‘entire’ Northridge earthquake. It instead investigates conceptual issues while examining evidence of vulnerability through a series of case studies. It has been written in the midst of what will be a long complex process of recovery after the earthquake, thus decisive judgements and conclusions of its effects are elusive.
The book represents the combined research and writing efforts of Lois Stanford and myself. A division of labor of sorts was followed in the writing, with each of us contributing specific sections. Professor Stanford contributed segments of Chapters 4 through 6, primarily those having to do with the qualitative methods, and selected aspects of the case studies. As primary author I wrote the remainder of what appears here and took on the responsibility of smoothing over differences in writing styles, theoretical proclivities, and disciplinary differences of a sociologist and an anthropologist. While I have attempted to shape the book into a coherent whole by editing, or, and rewriting the manuscript as needed, some idiosyncrasies in writing styles may remain. There was a certain urgency in getting the book written before too many years pass since the disaster, or for that matter, before another earthquake occurred in ‘Loss Angeles’. While every effort has been made to include the most recent research on the earthquake, more keeps appearing and at some point it could no longer be included.