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  • Disasters in the Twenty-First Century:Modern Destruction and Future Instruction
  • David Brunsma and J. Steven Picou

Sociologists are becoming increasingly aware of the changing nature of risk in late modernity and the shifting landscape of the sociological study of disasters. This increased "consciousness of catastrophe" is directly related to the empirical fact that the number of "natural" and "technological" disasters have increased substantially over the past 30 years. In the past eight years, some 422 disaster declarations have been issued in the United States alone – etching disasters as an important part of contemporary American experience (Bogues 2008). The number of people and communities affected by this most recent spate of catastrophic events reflects a global intensification of death and destruction that invites analytical and empirical application of a critical sociological imagination. While affecting society as a whole, these "focusing events," or "destabilizing events," have also had an impact on scholarly enterprises, shifting the attention of sociologists from more traditional areas of professional inquiry to the expansion and application of innovative concepts and methods to the study of disasters (Birkland 1997; Picou and Marshall 2007). This paradigm shift means that disaster research is being actively re-imagined throughout the broader discipline.

Disasters have always threatened human communities. Indeed, the myths and folklore documenting the devastation of such events are legend (Rosenberg 1997). Nonetheless, the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century seem to have offered more than their fair share: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Hurricane Andrew, 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Sichuan earthquake and Hurricane Ike. These exemplars of modern destruction have all become global mass media spectacles dramatically delivered to living rooms throughout the world. Leading disaster researchers have revised their conceptualizations of disasters to include ideas about the "social amplification of disasters and crisis" and the existence of "trans-system social ruptures." (Quarantelli et al. 2006) The former reflects traditional disasters, such as heat waves and blackouts that are amplified by population density, and the latter, low probability/high consequence events such as asteroid strikes and global nuclear war (Quarantelli et al. 2006). Future global catastrophes also threaten the human community as the pandemic spread of diseases and the inevitable daily threat of terrorism pose risks for the future. [End Page 983]

More than 30 years ago Kai Erikson (1976, 1994) sounded the alarm that sociologists and human communities would be confronted with a type of collective trauma that signaled a "new species of trouble." Later, Ulrich Beck (1992) introduced sociology to the perils of "risk society" and the increasing inevitability of "worst imaginable disasters." Most recently, Lee Clarke (2006) invited social scientists and emergency response specialists to creatively engage in "possibilistic thinking" to foster our understanding and preparation for "worst-case" catastrophes. It is apparent that a revitalized sociology of disaster will be required to theoretically, practically and publicly respond to these challenges to community survival in the 21st century.

Theoretical tradition in disaster research has emphasized a structural-functional systems approach (Fritz 1961; Kreps 1985; Porfiriev 1998). Furthermore, the social construction processes of vulnerability and social change have been viewed as the proper focus for disaster studies (Perry 2006). A more hazards-based model has recently emerged, which views disasters in terms of society and community vulnerability and the identification of resources that promote or hinder patterns of social resiliency (Hewitt 1995; Cutter et al. 2003; Laska and Morrow 2006). In social structural terms, vulnerability has been defined as "…the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard." (Wisner et al. 2004:11) This hazards-vulnerability framework also incorporates concerns of social structural inequality that relate class, race, ethnicity, gender and poverty as organizing concepts for understanding and predicting disaster effects and subsequent differential patterns of collective recovery (Bolin 2006; Oliver-Smith 1996; Fothergill and Peek 2004). This social structural model has served as the predominate paradigm for disaster research in American sociology and fostered our understanding of the impact of disasters, recovery and institutional responses over the past 50 years.

This structural vulnerability...


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