In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Government Resources
  • Academic and Nonprofit Resources
  • Theoretical and Academic Journals
  • Applied and Professional Journals

Political Science Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management
Scott G. Knowles, James Bergey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0074


Risk and disaster—as a broad field of scholarly research and policy analysis—has grown rapidly in the United States since the 1950s. Initially spurred by nuclear attack planning during the civil defense era in the Cold War, this interdisciplinary research area has grown to encompass studies of both environmental (natural disaster) and technological risks as well as the implications of disasters for the economy, society, and polity. The foundational question of “what is a disaster?” has guided a great deal of the social science research, growing initially from case studies of community behavior under stress. A breakthrough moment occurred when researchers determined that answers to the question were constructed by class position in society, geography, and history. A second breakthrough occurred when researchers broke apart the “natural disaster” category, exploring the built-in hazards of the human-environmental interface. The conclusion that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster” has proven highly provocative in terms of examining the variable causes and outcomes of risk-taking in industrial society. If no such thing as a natural disaster exists, then risk-taking must be profitable to key economic actors, sanctioned by government, and endorsed by some citizens while inflicted on the more vulnerable groups who have limited access to power. Understanding the multiple ways that science, media, and politics set norms and package risks for examination (or lack of examination) now rests at the center of the larger inquiry in risk and disaster studies. Beginning in the 1960s, the US government at all levels began to address issues of risk exposure in society through policy interventions. The founding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 signaled a new federal intention to guide disaster preparedness and response across the nation. Four key phases in “emergency management” include disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Mitigation and preparedness involve land-use planning, infrastructure construction and maintenance, and public education efforts designed to reduce the severity of disasters. Response and recovery efforts are focused on saving lives and property and rebuilding communities and economies after disasters occur. Government has consistently struggled to reduce American losses (human and economic) from disasters, and this systemic challenge has proved highly important in activating research that seeks to understand the effects of federalism, geographical diversity, information access and media, and public/private interaction on risk and disaster episodes. Policy-focused research into risk and disaster also extends well beyond the strictly American governmental context, peering into alternative forms of emergency management practiced in other societies as well as the role of multinational efforts, voluntary organizations, nongovernmental organization (NGOs), and private firms.

General Overviews

Disaster prevention and management is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, and an adequate survey of the field ranges from theoretical works to empirical studies as well as to professional/applied research. Broad theoretical frameworks for understanding risk and disaster in modern society seek to explore the causes and contexts of risk, the structures of risk management and governance, and the disparate impacts of disasters. Sociological and STS (science, technology, and society) frameworks have been influential, particularly in the work of the Disaster Research Center, exemplified in Dynes 1970 and Quarantelli 1987 as well as Beck 1992. Geographers and economists have described risk according to localized conditions—the hazards inherent in the land—and the risks created as communities develop in disaster-prone regions. “Hazards research” is a synthetic area of study bringing together geography, economics, and sociology, and it was pioneered by (among others) White and Haas 1975 and Kunreuther and Roth 1998. Since federally supported disaster research started in earnest in the 1960s, systematic attempts to summarize the research and fit it to suggested courses of action in disaster mitigation and management have been made (see Mileti 1999; Tierney, et al. 2001). See also Cutter 2001.

  • Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity. London: SAGE, 1992.

    Highly provocative sociological treatise on the nature of risk in the era of “reflexive modernization”—a time when the productive capacity of industrial society also co-produces pollution, risk, and disaster. Beck proposes the notion that “poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic” as a means of foretelling an emerging age when risk exposure will redefine class position.

  • Cutter, Susan L., ed. American Hazardscapes: The Regionalization of Hazards and Disasters. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 2001.

    An examination of the natural hazards endemic to different regions of the United States, with policy analysis aimed at reducing hazard exposure and losses from disasters. Chapters address methods for mapping and quantifying hazard exposures as well as geographical trends in disaster losses.

  • Dynes, Russell Rowe. Organized Behavior in Disaster. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath Lexington, 1970.

    Classic summation of sociological theory derived from disaster research fieldwork conducted in the 1950s and 1960s by the Disaster Research Center, the National Academies, and other researchers. Among the most repeated findings: Communities are resilient and adaptive in disaster situations with panic occurring infrequently and looting very rare; outsiders converging on a disaster scene can cause more problems for victims than they solve.

  • Kunreuther, Howard, and Richard J. Roth Sr., eds. Paying the Price: The Status and Role of Insurance against Natural Disasters in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 1998.

    Examines the role of insurance against disaster insurance, especially in light of rising disaster losses since the 1980s. Chapters and themes include earthquake insurance, hurricane insurance, the National Flood Insurance Program, mitigation, and regulation.

  • Mileti, Dennis S. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 1999.

    The first major synthetic review of interdisciplinary disaster research since White and Haas 1975. Major themes include theory and tools for sustainability and hazards mitigation, the impact of disasters, and methods for adoption of sustainable approaches.

  • Quarantelli, E. L. “Disaster Studies: An Analysis of the Social Historical Factors Affecting the Development of Research in the Area.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 5.3 (1987): 285–310.

    A condensed history of social science disaster research by one of the pioneers in the field. Details turning points in research methods, theory, and impacts of disaster research.

  • Tierney, Kathleen J., Michael K. Lindell, and Ronald W. Perry. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 2001.

    Synthetic overview of disaster preparedness and emergency management capabilities. Themes and chapters include disaster preparedness, group behavior in disasters, organizational and government response, and recommendations for reform of disaster preparedness and emergency management practice.

  • White, Gilbert F., and J. Eugene Haas. Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975.

    This landmark book summarizing and categorizing interdisciplinary research on natural hazards and disaster is the first book to synthesize social science and physical science research. Provides case study scenarios of disasters and advice on closing the research and policy gaps necessary for reduction of American disaster losses.

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