A Half Century Of Social Science Disaster Research:Selected Major Findings And Their Applicability

Quarantelli, E. L.
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Disaster Research Center
Since systematic studies started in the early 1950s, there has now been a half century of social science disaster research. After all this work, what can be said about what is known about the human and social behavior associated with natural and technological disasters? This paper highlights some of the more major findings from these studies. No attempt is made to present all that has been established by the research; that would require writing an encyclopedia. Our goal here is more limited and selective. Drawing from this base of 50+ years of social science research involving thousands of studies, we note some of the more established and important patterns of behavior at the individual, organizational, community and societal levels. However, we will not discuss the societal level directly because there is limited knowledge about that level. Instead we will discuss mass communication systems (in some respects seeing them as surrogates for society). At the end of all the substantive observations we will make some comments on what has been done with this established knowledge, or in other words, how the research findings have been applied. To avoid interminable and specific documentation, readers are presented a large bibliography at the end of this paper that lists the major research literature examined for the purpose of this paper. To what extent are the research-based observations we discuss applicable everywhere? This is a very legitimate question. It is of particular relevance given that most of the studies so far undertaken have been done by social scientists in Western type societies, even though the great majority of disasters occur in developing countries. The observations from the ever growing number of studies in non-Western social systems appears to be consistent with what we have reported in this paper. But more will have to be done before we can be sure that the observations are universal ones. Even if that turns out to be the case, it is also to be expected that there will be societal- and cultural-specific human and group behaviors that might require some qualifications on the general observations made so far. There are some indications that the more universal behaviors are at the individual level, with increasingly fewer universal ones as the analysis goes from organizations to communities to societies. We start with a discussion about community disasters. The great majority of disasters impact a community. However, there are non-community types of disasters, e.g., a plane crash in an isolated rural area. This affects behavioral responses (e.g., crash survivors do not receive the social support that emerges in a community when residents have undergone a common disaster experience). The 20 general observations below around which we organize our comments, are mostly about community disasters. This is the paper written as background for the oral remarks made at the Hazards 2002 Conference in Antalya, Turkey, Oct. 3, 2002. This is also somewhat of an updated version of the material presented in Disaster Research Center Preliminary Paper #280.
Disaster Research