What Should We Study? Questions and Suggestions for Researchers About the Concept of Disasters

Quarantelli, E. L.
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Disaster Research Center
There is no one in this audience who does not immediately recognize the descriptive referent of two phrases we will utter ---the Challenger space shuttle accident and the spread of AIDS virus. However, we would also venture to say, with confidence, that the quick recognition of what we are talking about would not be accompanied by a similar consensus that both one or the other, or neither, should be thought of as a disaster for research purposes. One the other hand, there is probably no one in this audience who will not only recognize, but agree, that the referents of the terms Bhopal and Chernobyl are, and should be, looked at as disaster. Why? Few of us would have trouble characterizing some aspects of the recent Mexico City earthquake or the Amaro, Columbia, volcanic mud slide as a disaster. Yet many of us would hesitate to characterize in the same way the clashes between the Soviet Union military and the native guerillas in Afghanistan, the American air strike on Lybia or the current war between Iran and Irak. Do the deaths from the famine in Ethiopia qualify as a disaster? If yes, what about the much larger number of people who die daily as a result of cigarette smoking? Why do we and other researchers characterize certain occurrences as disasters but deny this label for other phenomena also involving loss of life, substantial great destruction of property, and/or major disruption of social life? This paper struggles with the problem of what we, as researchers, should study as a disaster. In our view, this is by far the most important task currently facing the field of disaster studies, as undertaken by social and behavioral scientists. We are not going to proclaim the definitive answer. Instead, we ask some questions and advance some suggestions for researchers about the concept of disaster.
disaster research , disaster studies