Skip to main content
Workforce LibreTexts

1.2: Fundamental Theories of Disaster

  • Page ID
    3903
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Over the centuries, there have been four fundamental theories about disasters. These four theories have conceived of disasters as:

    · Acts of fate/acts of God,

    · Acts of nature,

    · Joint effects of nature and society, and

    · Social constructions.

    Acts of Fate/Acts of God

    For millennia, disasters were considered to arise from impersonal and uncontrollable forces—either from unfortunate alignments of stars and planets or as acts of God that were beyond human understanding. Both forms of this theory viewed a disaster as predetermined and, thus, completely beyond the victim’s control. A variation on this theory was that disasters were cosmic or divine retribution for human failings—personal disasters for personal failings and collective disasters for societal failings.

    Acts of Nature

    Over time, increased scientific knowledge led many people to substitute natural causes for supernatural ones. Thus, floods occurred because the large amount of rainfall from a severe storm exceeded the soil’s capacity to absorb it. The rapid runoff exceeded the river basin’s capacity, so the excess spilled over the river banks, flooded buildings, and drowned people and animals. Accordingly, the term natural disaster came to refer to “an outside attack upon social systems that ‘broke down’ in the face of such an assault from outside” (Quarantelli, 1998, p. 266). The resulting conception of man against nature has been especially potent as the driving force behind attempts to “tame” rivers by straightening their channels and building dams and levees.

    Interactive Effects of Nature and Society

    Still later, it was proposed that hazards arise from the interaction of a physical event system and a human use system. Thus, it takes both a hazardous physical event system and a vulnerable human use system to produce disasters. If either one is missing, disasters do not occur. According to Carr (1932, p. 211)

    Not every windstorm, earth-tremor, or rush of water is a catastrophe. [S]o long as the levees hold, there is no disaster. It is the collapse of the cultural protections that constitutes the disaster proper.

    According to this view, human societies adapt to the prevailing environmental conditions (e.g., temperature, wind speed, precipitation, seismic activity) at a given location. Unfortunately, they fail to anticipate the variation in those environmental conditions. Consequently, their adaptation to normal conditions usually is inadequate for extreme events—blizzards, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. This perspective is perhaps best illustrated by earthquake damage and casualties. As earthquake engineers are fond of saying, earthquakes don’t kill people, collapsing buildings kill people. According to this view, people can avoid disasters if they stay out of seismically active locations or, if they do move there, they must build structures that resist the extreme environmental events that will eventually occur.

    Social Constructions

    Most recently, researchers have recognized that disasters are quite systematic in the types of people they harm, as well as the types of geographic locations and human use systems they strike. To the interactive effects theory’s concerns about hazard exposure at specific locations and physical vulnerability of specific structures, social construction theory calls attention to the social vulnerability of specific population segments. To say that hazard vulnerability is socially constructed does not mean people are vulnerable because they think the wrong thoughts—as most people would now categorize the belief that floods are caused by the alignment of the planets and stars. Rather, socially vulnerable population segments emerge because our psychological, demographic, economic, and political processes tend to produce them. Of course these processes have produced many good things. Many residents of the US, in particular, have good jobs, comfortable lives, and we have enjoyed one of the most democratic governments in the world. Nonetheless, all of these conditions have changed over time—life now is much improved from what it was a century ago and there are many ways in which it can be improved still further. Of particular concern to emergency managers should be the many ways in which our institutions can reduce the hazard vulnerability of those who have the least psychological resilience, social support, political power, and are the poorest economically.

    Theoretical Comparisons

    These theories have, in one sense, succeeded each other over time as scholars have found later theories to provide a better account of the data from their research. However, scientific acceptance is different from popular acceptance. Each of the four theories is currently believed by at least some members of society. Indeed, the most cynical version of the Acts of fate/acts of God theory uses it to avoid responsibility for actions that are substantially within human control. For example, representatives of the coal company that built a dam across Buffalo Creek West Virginia claimed the dam’s collapse was an “Act of God” because the dam was “incapable of holding the water God poured into it” (Erikson, 1976, p. 19). This was clearly a feeble attempt to avoid admitting the company negligently built a non-engineered dam from unstable materials, thus risking the lives of downstream residents to maintain company profits.

    Each community throughout the world probably has at least some believers in each theory. Because each theory has different implications for environmental hazard management, the prevalence of each theory has significant implications for policy at the local, state, national, and international levels.


    1.2: Fundamental Theories of Disaster is shared under a Public Domain license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?