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Interpretations of the term ‘disaster’

Article reviewing Enrico Quarantelli's paper on the different ways in which disasters are described.
Definition of word disaster
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
American sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, considered to be one of the fathers of the academic study of disaster, evaluates a range of conceptual views or ways of defining ‘disaster’ in his seminal 1985 paper.
He reviewed existing literature from the 1930s onwards and identified seven variations in the way disasters were conceived or described. The first three focused on the trigger or threat, while the rest focused on the impact.
  1. A natural or human-induced agent or process, specifically its antecedent conditions – such as the geophysical process that leads to an earthquake; or the physical and chemical process that leads to an industrial explosion.
  2. The impacts of the physical or human-induced agent – the shaking of the ground resulting from the earthquake or the pollution and fire resulting from the explosion.
  3. Assessment above a threshold – specifically relating to the magnitude of the physical agent, ie, the magnitude of the earthquake was large at magnitude 8.7 but also the intensity of resulting damage could be classified as ‘disastrous’.
  4. Social disruptions resulting from physical agents – a disaster in terms of damage to property, casualties significant enough to disrupt social life, ie, severe disruption and damage irrespective of the magnitude of the causal agent.
  5. Actual or perceived crises that emerge from social constructs (that may or may not involve a physical agent) – Quarantelli identifies similar social responses to both actual and inaccurately perceived threats have occurred. So a disaster requires a collective type of social response.
  6. Disasters as political definitions of crisis situations – an extension of point five, a disaster results in particular types of political decision-making and response. In the simplest sense the political ‘declaration’ of a disaster, but also the failure to declare, resulting in a poor or protracted response.
  7. Disaster as an imbalance in the demand capability ratio – ie beyond the capacity of those involved to cope.
(Quarentelli 1985)

Your task

Read pages 1 to 12 of Quarentelli’s paper:
Quarantelli, E.L. (1985) What is Disaster? The Need for Clarification in Definition and Conceptualization in Research [online] available from [10 December 2019]
Take a moment to return to the introductory video at the beginning of the course.
Which of Quarantelli’s disaster perspectives can you apply to the views given by each interviewee? What about your own view?
Quarantelli’s paper was published nearly 35 years ago, has our view of disaster evolved in this time?


Quarantelli, E.L. (1985) What is Disaster? The Need for Clarification in Definition and Conceptualization in Research [online] available from [10 December 2019]
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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