History of Research on Disasters

An early study in 1915 of two munition ships' collision in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, marks the beginning of disaster research in the United States by Samuel Henry Prince, a sociologist, who studied the process of recovery from the devastation that left 2,000 people dead and another 6,000 injured. When newspapers resumed publication it was used by Prince (1920) as a marker of the process. No attention was given to the pre-existing conditions nor to the cultural patterns surrounding the catastrophic event. In 1932 Carr suggested that a classification system of typing disasters as "localized" or "diffused," and whether they were "instantaneous" or "progressive," would be helpful in the study of the nature and scale of such physical and social disruptions (Carr, 1932). Until after World War II, disaster research remained largely focused on the traumatic event and the geological and atmospheric causes. Most studies investigated ways to forewarn citizens and to control or reduce the damage.

A broader interest in the social aspects of disasters followed the human destruction resulting from the impact of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For instance, Anthony Wallace, an anthropologist, focused upon the organization of the community and the formal organization of the rescue and relief organizations. Using a time-space conceptual model, Wallace viewed a destructive tornado in Worcester, Pennsylvania, as a behavioral event in which the dynamics of the cultural system were enacted at both the individual and the community levels. He saw the interactive processes of the relief efforts as promoting conflict and transformation (Wallace, 1954). Fritz and Williams (1957), sociologists, and Wolfenstein (1957), a psychologist, related their studies to the collective behavior of human beings in disasters, and Baker and Chapman (1964), sociologists, pressed forward in viewing the interaction between man and society as it related to disasters. Drabek (1970), a sociologist, began studies of past patterns as important in research disasters, and Turner (1981) viewed collective behaviors and social movements in his disaster studies. Also important were the early and multiple contributions of Quarantelli, a sociologist who researched people and organizations under stress (Quarantelli, 1957, 1978). Medical systems emerged as a 20th century disaster relief force by transporting medical units of rapid, efficient aid to all parts of the world, and set into practice readiness training and triaging principles to reduce loss of life and destruction in times of catastrophe (Glittenberg, 1989). Stress and coping, so much a part of human adaptation to disaster, became important models for treating post-traumatic stress syndromes as sequelae of devastating events (Glittenberg, 1981).

Studies done during the early post-war era were concerned primarily with prediction of disasters, warning systems, the immediate impact and the aftermath of catastrophes with little or no attention given to examining historical precursors or sociocultural patterns. Due in part to anthropologists such as Doughty (1971), Glittenberg (1981), and Oliver-Smith (1986), who each studied earthquake destruction in Central and South America, a new direction in disaster research emerged. Using diachronic and comparative methodologies of anthropology, they and other scientists began to view such catastrophic events within an ecological framework (Hewitt, 1983). Current research addresses human societies and their environments—physical, biological, and sociocultural— as inseparable entities in constant flux, and trying to retain equilibrium (Moore, Van Ardsdale, Glittenberg, & Aldrich, 1987). This mutually interactive ecological model is the most promising approach used in today's research of disasters.

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