House doorway standing in flood-damaged village

Defining 'disaster'

During the 1970s, authors began to question the ‘naturalness’ of ‘natural disaster’ (O’Keefe et al. 1976).

Quarantelli, a sociologist, attempted to define disaster in his seminal paper in 1985. Starting from a mental health perspective, his paper takes a wider view of disaster as a ‘phenomenon’. In his introduction in the published article titled ‘What is Disaster? The Need for Clarification in Definition and Conceptualization in Research’ he begins with explaining how the ‘phenomenon’ can have an impact on the mental health of the affected:

‘Whenever we want to research or discuss the consequences of any phenomenon, we need to have a clear idea of what that phenomenon is. So it is when we hypothesize that what we call “disaster” has negative consequences for mental health.’ (Quarantelli 1985)

Later on in his article he adds that:

‘The point, of course, is that no phenomenon is inherently self-defining or self-explaining.’ (Quarantelli 1985)

Up until these discussions, there appeared to be a general and somewhat lazy consensus that disasters were ‘acts of God’, resulting from the realisation of a natural hazard upon those living in exposed areas. Disasters themselves were viewed as the physical impacts of these agents, which caused temporary but significant disruption.

Quarantelli was challenged at distinguishing between the causes of a disaster, the disaster trigger event and the impacts (long and short-term) of a disaster. In trying to define exactly what the word ‘disaster’ means, Quarantelli critiqued several perspectives taken by others, including:

‘In ideal-type terms, disasters have been equated with:

  1. Physical agents
  2. The physical impact of such physical agents
  3. An assessment of physical impacts
  4. The social disruption resulting from an event with physical impacts
  5. The social construction of reality in perceived crisis situations which may or may not involve physical impacts
  6. The political definition of certain crisis situations
  7. An imbalance in the demand-capability ratio in a crisis occasion’

A disaster, disruption or disorganisation in the social system can occur without a physical impact or hazard event. It may be socially constructed as a result of perceived crises; for example changing public behaviour in light of suspicions about a contagious disease, media coverage of threats to safety such as glass in baby food (1986 in the US and 1989 in the UK) or indirect impacts such as loss of tourism revenue after the 9/11 attacks.

In academic theory, disasters are seen as the product of hazard and existing vulnerabilities, which result in risk. When the hazard becomes manifest, the existing vulnerabilities increase the sensitivities of many to impacts and reduce their capacity to respond and recover.

Hazards that strike in areas with low vulnerability are not considered disasters, as is the case in uninhabited regions or areas with effective disaster mitigation strategies and preparedness. Disasters occur where large numbers of vulnerable people are significantly affected.

Lower and middle-income countries tend to suffer much higher death tolls when a disaster hits - more than 95% of all deaths caused by disasters occur in LEDC countries. Between 1995 and 2014, 89% of storm-related fatalities were in lower-income countries, even though these countries experienced just 26% of storms (World Bank 2019). Losses due to disasters are 20 times greater (as a percentage of GDP) in developing countries than in industrialised countries.

Your task

Read page 6-7 of At Risk - Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters published public domain document. Focus on reading the section with Box 1.1: Naturalness versus the ‘social causation’ of disasters in (Blaikie et al. 2003).

Share your thoughts in the discussion area by answering the following questions:

In your view what are the main characteristic of a ‘disaster’?

Like, comment and respond to comments from other learners.


Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davis, D., Wisner, B. (2003) At Risk - Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters [online] Available from: Accessed on [3 May 2019]

O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K., Wisner, B., (1976) Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters [online] Available from: 260, pp.566-567 Accessed on [3 May 2019]

Quarantelli, E. (1985) What Is Disaster? The Need For Clarification In Definition And Conceptualization In Research [online] Available from: Accessed on [3 May 2019]

Quarantelli, E. (1989) ‘Conceptualizing Disasters from a Sociological Perspective’. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters November. rns9, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 243 - 251. [online] Available from: Accessed on [3 May 2019]

World Bank (2019). Disaster Risk Management - Overview. [online] Available from: Accessed on [8 May 2019].

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University