*Sociology of Disasters                               **Manuel João Ribeiro                Abstract: This article presents...
According to Thomas A. Drabek, the conceptualization of a sociology focusedon disasters as social problems gives a correct...
Natural                                                     Environment                                                   ...
enhanced by the vulnerability of the social system itself as it results from anarticulation process between the social sys...
The second phase is characterized by the direct effect of the disaster on thesocial system and can be defined as a process...
2.1. Social vulnerability of disasters       As it was mentioned before, the understanding of disasters becomes analytical...
The distribution of vulnerabilities among the social groups in presence must bedetermined within the analytical context of...
_____________________________________________________________________                                   Sociostructural va...
SVR = (0,4) s1 + ... + (0,8) s7 + ... + (0,6) s13 + ...        Bearing in mind that these are merely simulation values, 0,...
Disaster cultures can present various characteristics according to the socialsystem in which they develop. They frequently...
norms focused on priority action in crisis situations, conceiving disaster managementmodels or making technical regulation...
The approach to the problem of disasters and the systematization of its basicguidelines will now be further developed by a...
emergency periods, during which they are assumed to have panic and/or passivityreactions, become traumatized, self-centere...
It is often said that it is necessary to bring the situation back to normal as soonas the immediate emergency intervention...
processes with social participation                 processes without social participation1. In formal terms              ...
For that purpose, the relations and practices of the different social agents andinstitutions must be interpreted as mechan...
They can be designated as specialized protagonism agents, for they providethe indispensable social support to the preparat...
Emergencies and Disasters, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 10(2),pp. 329-348.(6) E. L. Quarantelli. 1991...
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Sociology of disasters

  1. 1. *Sociology of Disasters **Manuel João Ribeiro Abstract: This article presents a conceptualization of disasters as socially relevant nonroutine processes. The first part is focused on the articulation between the social system and the built environment and consists of a reflection about its dynamics as configurative processes of the systemic causes of disasters. The second part deals with the concepts of social vulnerability and disaster cultures as well as the dynamics that give an analytical framework to the social dimension of disasters. The final part of this article consists of an essentially thematic reference to three specific types of social protagonists and their level of involvement while direct and indirect agents of disasters as social processes.1. Disasters as social processes A sociological approach to the problem of disasters implies the previousawareness of the fact that these phenomena are socially relevant processes in theiressence. The study of disasters is analytically pertinent only within this framework,namely in the presence of a process of involvement in the social system. This socialdimension of disasters is particularly relevant both in the mechanisms which act astheir potential causes and in the consequences which they have on society as theychange the regular course of social life.* Article published in the Journal «Sociologia - Problemas e Práticas» nº 18, edited by the Center forSociology Research and Study/Faculty of Sociology (CIES/ISCTE)** Sociologist of the Municipal Department of Civil Protection, Lisbon City Council 1
  2. 2. According to Thomas A. Drabek, the conceptualization of a sociology focusedon disasters as social problems gives a correct dimension to the analysis of thesephenomena by establishing a link between them and the social system. When theauthor says that «A disaster is a nonroutine social problem», he withdraws fromlimited and reductively technocratic views currently used in some fields of researchand emphasizes the consubstantiation of the phenomenon as a social process (1). Disasters are therefore conceived as failures in the social system and not asmerely external and socially inimputable events. In this context and independently of their immediate causes, disasters arebasically processes of social disruption which necessarily reflect the type and level ofpreparedness of the social system to deal with natural and technological hazards and tomanage phenomena which were mostly created by the system itself as it increasinglyproduced a socially built environment (2). Most current concepts usually identify two major types of disasters according totheir origin or genesis: natural disasters and technological disasters. Naturaldisasters are usually linked to phenomena derived from nature-produced events.Technological disasters have a human origin and usually include phenomena which arecaused by failure, disruption or conscious or unconscious misuse of technological andindustrial developments. This typification is undoubtedly a precious help for the understanding ofdisaster mechanisms. It nevertheless reflects a concept of genetic causality byestablishing a link between the event and the immediate factors that cause it. On the other hand, some social representations of disasters often reflect anattempt to explain these phenomena as having a natural and/or divine cause, thereforegiving them a dimension which goes far beyond the control or the responsibility ofsocial structures. This kind of naturalist and metaphysical determinism is usuallyrejected as far as technological hazards are concerned, although these often tend to beunderstood from the exclusive point of view of genetic causality. However, as it was said above, disasters can also be explained as processeswhich are an essential part of the social system and of the dynamics of the socially builtenvironment. This articulation between the social system and the built environmentnot only results in new disaster risks for the contemporary societies but it also enhancesalready existing risks. According to Anthony Giddens, the technological, industrial andurban developments of modern times have created wide areas of safety in the world,but they have also contributed in a formidable way to the emergence of a series of newrisks (3). Risks are therefore the dark and contingent side of modern societies in searchof progress and new patterns of quality of life. In this sense, the immediate genetic causes of disasters, whatever they may be,must be closely and simultaneously associated to intrinsic processes of systemic orstructural causality which derive from the social system and from its relationshipwith the built environment. 2
  3. 3. Natural Environment natural causes technological causes BUILT ENVIRONMENT Risk (genetic causes) DISASTERS SOCIAL SYSTEM (social Disruption process) (systemic causes)Figure 1: The disaster as a social process The introduction of this concept of systemic or structural causality givestherefore a new analytical and reflective framework to the thematic study of disastersas intrinsically social phenomena by considering them both as events which are deeplyrooted in the relationship between the social system and the built environment and aspotential agents of dramatic disruptions affecting the functioning of society as well aspeople’s lives. The narrow and exclusivist approach that reduces the analysis of thisproblem to a genetic causality determinism is therefore dismissed. «Floods» provide a good example, for they are the type of disaster oneimmediately links with a natural origin. Their genetic cause is indeed related to highpluviometric levels. However, a «flood» can only be considered as a social disasterwhen several systemic causes occur at the same time: undue occupation of alluvial landwith buildings, arbitrary deflection of water courses in order to supply water to otherplaces, building of several infrastructures in certain areas preventing the normal flow-off of rainwater, etc. If identical precipitation levels occur in non-inhabited land or inareas that were previously subject to a correct land use planning, it will certainly beconsidered as a not particularly noteworthy event, apart from the meteorologicalreference in itself. A reconceptualization of this thematic is therefore made possible by thisexplanatory paradigm as it establishes a link between genetic and systemic causes in asimultaneous way and within the same process. It also contributes to a new approach todisasters as social processes while consequently going beyond the limits usuallyimposed by reductive and essentially technocratic views on this subject. As it was said before, modern developments have revealed new balances as faras the problem of disasters is concerned. They have brought about new and neverexperienced patterns of safety and comfort while at the same time institutionalizing thedisaster risk as an omnipresent condition of contemporary societies. The risk is 3
  4. 4. enhanced by the vulnerability of the social system itself as it results from anarticulation process between the social system and nature - built environment - as wellas from the inherent recurrence of that process. Risks can be generically defined as thepossibility that a disaster would occur, either with a natural or with a technologicalorigin. They effectively result both from the probability that a disruptionphenomenon would occur and from the degree of impact in association with theeffects which that same event may have on the social system. In other words, a riskcan be characterized by a threat which is perceived by the social system when facing aconcrete situation of physical, economical or cultural disruption derived from thepossible occurrence of a disaster. Risks - and the dangers resulting from them - aretherefore substantially enhanced by the modern societies’ own process of productionand development, in a simultaneous and increasing way. * The conceptualization of disasters as social processes enables an examinationof each of these phenomena from a diachronic point of view by decomposing themanalytically into three phases. The first phase will be called production/reproduction phase and can becharacterized by the large matrix of social relationships which configure the productiveprocesses as well as the dynamics of functioning that are implied in the interactionbetween the social system and the built environment. This process of socialproduction/reproduction becomes therefore decisively important for the understandingof disasters as problems with a social root. The systemic origin of the disaster isactually consubtantiated during this period, both through the contingent ability tocreate favourable conditions for the potential occurrence of the disaster and through thedimensioning of its level of impact and possible effects. In the same way, two majorlevels of social action can be decisive in this phase as far as prevention and socialprotection of disasters are concerned. The first level deals with more generic areas andintegrates, in a systemic way, all major options and decisions adopted within modernsocieties concerning technological and industrial development, spatial planning andorganization, sociodemographic flows and movements, etc. Some of the mostimportant global options for the future of societies are therefore made during thisphase. They can contribute either to the mitigation of disaster risks and or to theenhancement of the social system’s own vulnerabilities. The second level is morespecific and concerns more operational dynamics of response preparedness forimmediate emergency situations. The development of prevention instruments and theirrespective procedures leads to the consolidation of models and patterns of socioculturalreference and therefore to social and institutional attitudes, behaviors andrepresentations which are likely to encourage the planning of preventive actions whichand the preparation for the possible occurrence of a disaster. They can also lead,however, to neglectful and badly timed technocratic policies which together withinadequate instruments may later jeopardize responses in a crisis situation. 4
  5. 5. The second phase is characterized by the direct effect of the disaster on thesocial system and can be defined as a process of disruption/emergency. This phasecorresponds to the moment the immediate impact of the disaster is concretely felt,clearly showing the report between the social system’s level of preparedness and theeffects produced by the outbreak of the event. It is a decisive moment, a situation ofsocial exception that comprises both the occurrence of the disaster and the emergencyaction which is to be activated in order to face the immediate consequences of theevent. In this phase, predefined models of emergency management planning have to betested in a real situation or, in certain circumstances, it is realized that those responseinstruments do not exist, which leads to an improvisation of measures and proceduresas the events happen. Following the outbreak of this social problem, the social systemhas to face a change in its usual routines and is therefore compelled to find more or lessrapid answers in order to bring the situation back to normal. It is also in this phase thatsuch concepts as solidarity and social participation, voluntary work and socialorganization, authoritarism and social control, etc., acquire a new operative relevance.The occurrence of such a disruption in space and time creates new social mechanismsand dynamics that can prove to be decisive in the field actions that are to be carried outin the emergency management. The third and last phase to be considered is an essential moment in the processof social response to the disaster and will be designated as reconstruction/socialdevelopment. It is characterized by a post-disaster situation during which all majorstrategic guidelines are defined and implemented in order to create the social,economical and political process in which the social system is to recover from theeffects of the catastrophe. In this context and as soon as the basic conditions of socialfunctioning are created, namely after the emergency management work is completed,the reconstruction process is structured and activated in order to recover from thedisruption caused by the accident. At the same time, it is also in this period that theintervention models and projects which are considered more appropriate for therehabilitation of the affected social system are assessed in a prospective approach.There is a confrontation of all kinds of representations and areas, reflecting theexistence of different views within the society and reproducing different models andinterests of social intervention. Among these, there are some trends in interventionprocesses in which the predominance is given to the actions to be carried out in thebuilt environment, aiming to restore the previously existent social, economical andphysical structures. As an example of these trends and from the point of view of thephysically, economically and culturally affected populations, a reference must be madeto the decisions made on the basis of concessions following top down hierarchicalmodels, bearing a strongly paternalistic component and favouring authoritarianassistance systems. However, other trends can be activated, especially those aiming tochange the responses to the effects of the disaster into processes of social developmentwith the will to improve the standards of living of the population in a qualitative way.The externalization of the damage caused by the disaster and the social participation ofthe affected populations are essential processes for this purpose.2. Social dimensions of disasters 5
  6. 6. 2.1. Social vulnerability of disasters As it was mentioned before, the understanding of disasters becomes analyticallypertinent if they are considered as social processes. According to this approach, theexplanation of these phenomena implies the interpretation of their inherent socialdimensions. The concept of vulnerability is particularly associated to the problem ofdisasters since it is one of their most relevant social dimensions. Being a result of theprocess of articulation between the social system and the built environment, risksclearly show the level of exposure of societies to disasters as well as their socialvulnerabilities. The definition of social vulnerability of disasters requires the previousassumption of the fact that the social system is likely to suffer damage. The conceptmust therefore be understood as a manifestation which results from the developmentprocess of social relationships. Vulnerability means insecurity and fragility in thepresence of a danger and must be conceptualized as a notion of explanatory naturewithin its own social context (4). The interpretative dimension of vulnerability within a social theory of disastersalso contains a double analytical reference which contributes in an unmistakable wayto the understanding of these phenomena. This means that the assessment of the leveland degree of exposure to certain dangers must be accompanied by a simultaneousreflection on the ability of the system and the social groups to absorb and recoverfrom the damage which has been produced. Vulnerability is therefore viewed as adynamic process with repercussions both on the phase of socialproduction/reproduction and on the moment of disruption/emergency as well as on theperiod of reconstruction/social development. The development of the favourable socialconditions for increasing or decreasing the vulnerability parameters of the socialsystem takes place during the phase of production/reproduction. In the phase ofdisruption/emergency, the vulnerability characteristics are defined according to theability of the social system to absorb the impact of the disaster, on the basis of thearticulation between the existence or absence of the means and resources which arenecessary to face the accident and the preparedness level of the social, technical andcultural system in charge of the management of the rescue action. In the period ofreconstruction/social development, the vulnerability factors can be assessed accordingto the social system’s degree of ability to recover from the damage produced by thedisaster. Rather than as a reductively natural or technical fact, the problem ofvulnerabilities is considered in its relation to the social context which created thatcondition. It must therefore be said that the condition of vulnerability is the result orconsequence of the social process itself and a social reflection of the relationships thatdefine the type and stage of development of a society. In this sense and as it will bementioned further on, the attitudes to be adopted in prevention must contribute to thereduction or elimination of the social system’s vulnerabilities. 6
  7. 7. The distribution of vulnerabilities among the social groups in presence must bedetermined within the analytical context of the predominant social relationships. It istherefore not surprising to realize that there are different levels of risk exposure in thepresence of the very same danger, which means that there are different vulnerabilitieswithin the system itself according to its social organization, distribution andcomposition. This approach contributes in a decisive way to the use of this concept asa constitutional dimension of disasters as social processes. For that purpose, theassessment of the effects derived from the disaster risk must take into account not onlysocial circumstances like access to property and space, safety systems and technologiesbut also the economical, professional, familial and cultural resources and reserves - aswell as their social hierarchy and distribution - that are available for prevention andrecovery from the effects caused by the disruption process following the disaster. The analysis of social vulnerabilities relies therefore on an interpretative andcomprehensive reading of components with a sociostructural, sociourbanistic andsociocultural incidence. As a reference framework for the application of the concept ofsocial vulnerability and from a merely illustrative point of view, it should be stressedthat it is important, at the sociostructural level, to take into account variables likefamily composition, age and sex structures, education levels, neighbourhood networks,socioprofessional composition, etc., which are determinant in an interpretative study ofthe vulnerability factors within social groups and communities. In the same way and ina more intrinsically sociocultural context, school formation, the access to informationand awareness programs in the area of security and civil protection and their incidencerates, the symbolic and cultural mechanisms of risk perception and representation are,among others, fundamental analytical instruments in the comprehensive formulation ofvulnerability parameters. Last but not least, sociourban elements like the existing urbanstructure and network, housing types and their architectural and building typology,state of conservation, investment in maintenance and occupation densities are essentialfor a correct knowledge and differentiation of the vulnerability patterns within thesocial system. In this way, all necessary conditions have been put together in order to enableand justify the theoretical building of a rate. Being a decisive instrument of analysisand planning, this rate should reflect the type and degree of the disaster’s potentialeffects on the social system. This social vulnerability rate (SVR) establishes relationalmechanisms between the variables of social characterization and the factors related todisaster risks and can be represented by the following mathematical formula: SVR = w1 s1 + w2 s2 + w3 s3 + ... + wn sn The «s» variables represent the social dimensions that must be taken intoaccount in the analysis of the vulnerability to disasters. The values represented by thosevariables must be subject to a specific analysis in each social situation. The set ofvariables to be considered is displayed in Table 1.Table 1 : Variables of social vulnerability 7
  8. 8. _____________________________________________________________________ Sociostructural variables∗ ( s1 ) age and sex structures∗ ( s2 ) socioprofessional structure∗ ( s3 ) legal system of housing occupation∗ ( s4 ) level of education∗ ( s5 ) family∗ ( s6 ) critical groups Sociourban variables∗ ( s7 ) density (occupation rate)∗ ( s8 ) rhythm and types of uses∗ ( s9 ) ratio residential / non-residential∗ ( s10) ratio resident population / present population∗ ( s11) urban network and fabric∗ ( s12) collective facilities Sociocultural variables∗ ( s13 ) specific risk cultures∗ ( s14 ) educational actions (incidence rates)∗ ( s15 ) school formation∗ ( s16 ) communication mechanisms_____________________________________________________________________ The variables above reflect the pertinent universe for a general evaluation of thesocial vulnerability rates. However, due to the social characteristics and specific factorsinherent in any empirical research, it should be stressed that some of these variablesmay not fulfil the necessary requirements to be included in a further evaluation, whilesome other variables which were not mentioned above may prove to be essential for acorrect interpretation of the social contexts subject to analysis. The «w» values represent the weighting coefficients to be estimated for eachtype of disaster risk and are evaluated in relation to each one of the variables. In orderto illustrate this, a type of disaster risk like the seismic risk can be taken as an example,leading to the following situation: 8
  9. 9. SVR = (0,4) s1 + ... + (0,8) s7 + ... + (0,6) s13 + ... Bearing in mind that these are merely simulation values, 0,4 would be theweighting coefficient «w1» of the seismic risk related to the variable «s1» (age and sexstructures); the value 0,8 would represent the weighting coefficient «w7» of the seismicrisk related to the variable «s7» (occupation rate); and so forth. The existence ofdifferent weighting factors for the disaster risk is explained by the probability inherentin the impact that the disaster is likely to have on the variable under consideration. This conceptualization is merely theoretical and will have to be subject to aconsequent process of empirical validation, which is to be provided by thedevelopment of research projects in this specific area of knowledge. However, a framework of reference can be built as of now in order to evaluatethe disaster vulnerability rate (VR) of societies in a comprehensive way. This must bedone taking into account the physical vulnerability rates (PhVR) which are worked outand evaluated by other specific technical and scientific fields of research. Taking onceagain the seismic risk as a reference and according to research work undertaken in thefields of seismology, geology, seismic engineering, etc., some examples of physicalvulnerability can be found in the analysis of variables like magnitude, focal distance,attenuation, local geology and morphology, building typologies, age, materials andstate of conservation of the building stock, etc. The vulnerability rate is therefore to be calculated by the addition of therespective physical vulnerability and social vulnerability rates: VR = a PhVR + b SVR Once again, «a» and «b» would be the weighting coefficients to be given toeach disaster risk, according to the impact estimation and to the effects produced on theexisting physical and social components.2.2. Disaster cultures One of the most important contributions for the a comprehensive understandingof disasters as social processes consists in the theoretical building of the concept ofdisaster cultures. It has already been stressed that the structural origin of risks and disasters liesin the dynamics of articulation between the social system and the built environment. Inthis sense, the analysis of disasters as social processes from the point of view of theirsystemic causes develops an interpretative logic. One of the fundamental references forthe understanding of this problem is therefore the interpretation of the culturalcomponents of the social system. 9
  10. 10. Disaster cultures can present various characteristics according to the socialsystem in which they develop. They frequently - but not exclusively - consist ofpreventive manifestations aiming to deal with possible threats or disaster dangers. It is possible to identify three essential components as far as theproduction/development process of disaster cultures is concerned. Firstly, and as in the case of social vulnerabilities, the organization, distributionand composition of the social system also play an important role in the differentiationof disaster cultures, both in their production and in the effects they have on society. Secondly, disaster cultures develop different stages of perception and socialrepresentation in the present of disaster risks. The analysis of their diversity must takesimultaneously into account the interpretation of the distribution and social hierarchyof the available economical, professional, familial and educational capacities, thespecific identification of the type of risk or risks and also the definition of theestimated socio-geographical areas in which the impact of the disaster is likely to befelt. Thirdly, and as a result of the articulation between the two componentspresented above, it is necessary to consider the mechanisms of social practice, namelythe social attitudes and behaviors developed in the presence of disasters. Disaster cultures can therefore be defined as socially produced sets of values,norms, rules and knowledge providing a framework for the representations, attitudesand behaviors that are adopted according to different expectations within specificsocial and environmental situations (5). The role played by this conceptualization inthe understanding of disasters as social processes is fundamental as it gives anindispensable analytical support to the relationship with the other social dynamics. Infact, disaster cultures show the different social mechanisms (representations,attitudes and behaviors) which are produced by communities, groups and individualswithin the social system in order to deal with disasters either in a latent or in anobvious way. On the other hand, they contribute reflexively to an interpretativereading of the social processes and dynamics which are inherent in the production ofcertain sociocultural types and patterns. The two above mentioned aspects containtherefore the explanatory elements of the different cultural manifestations which arelikely to be found within the social system as far as the problem of disasters isconcerned. The existence of different sociocultural, sociopolitical and sociostructuralpatterns also leads to the development of different attitudes, representations andbehaviors in terms of disaster cultures, with obvious implications for the effects andconsequences of disasters. Cultures with a sociotechnical dimension are a good example in this context.Among others, they are represented in fire departments, civil protection departments,medical emergency services or the scientific community. Their activity is based onspecific manifestations and rely mainly on accumulated professional experience as wellas on technical and scientific research. These sociotechnical cultures also play a relevant role in the elaboration of awide range of procedures such as making emergency plans, producing implementation 10
  11. 11. norms focused on priority action in crisis situations, conceiving disaster managementmodels or making technical regulations and laws. On the other hand, local or social group cultures are also relevant. They have alarge diversity of manifestations that are based both on knowledge and beliefs. Theirrepresentativity is diversified, for they can be found both in local or regionalcommunities and in larger social groups like professional or religious associations. Among a large number of possible forms, local cultures can have the followingconfigurations: a) religious or supernatural rites (processions, oblations, vows, prayers toseveral icons) appealing for divine protection in order to face threatening natural and/ortechnological phenomena; b) building techniques and methods, based on native architecture and on the useof traditional materials that reinforce the structure of the houses and consequentlyimprove their safety, thus enabling them to resist to natural phenomena such asearthquakes; c) socioeconomical organization processes, usually found in certaincommunities or regions and based on empirical knowledge and experience; they aredeveloped in order to face natural events with a potential immediate disaster incidence,though they often become factors of social and economical development in the mediumterm (e.g. using alluvial land for agriculture, where the fertility of the soil is enhancedby cyclic floods). Disaster cultures are therefore social processes and dynamics withunmistakable manifestations in the production/reproduction phase, in thedisruption/emergency moment and in the reconstruction/social development period.During the production/reproduction phase, cultural patterns can lead to thedevelopment of alert and prevention mechanisms, especially adapted as areinforcement or as a social alternative response to disaster situations. They can alsoproduce other particularly technocratic and metaphysical forms, most of which are notactually able to deal with disasters. During the disruption/emergency phase, thelegislative models, behaviors and knowledge that emerged from the development of thecultural patterns have to guarantee the safety of the populations affected by the disaster.In this sense, the emergency management capacity of the social system can lead toresults that prove adequate to deal with the disaster’s contingencies and therefore ableto minimize its social effects, but it can also lead to the lack of support references, sothat communities, groups and individuals have to face the absence of conditions to dealwith the disaster. During the reconstruction/social development phase, which is theappropriate moment to reflect and assess the cultural models of reference, the prioritycan be given to the maintenance and reinforcement of the institutional and non-institutional factors that were able to respond efficiently to the disaster. On the otherhand, this phase can be considered as an opportunity to draw some conclusions aboutthe situation and the inability to achieve an effective capacity of integrated response,probably due to bad timing, omission or inadequate mechanisms.2.3. Social dynamics 11
  12. 12. The approach to the problem of disasters and the systematization of its basicguidelines will now be further developed by analysing and explaining the main factorsthat provide disasters with an essentially sociostructural dimension as far as socialrelationships and dynamics are concerned. The processes and dynamics reflecting the models and practices that configurea comprehensive understanding of the problem of disasters will be discussed on thebasis of the explanatory logic which has been used hitherto, namely within theframework of the three phases already presented - production/reproduction,disruption/emergency and reconstruction/social development. The options made during the phase of social production/reproduction can eitheract as enhancing factors of the social conditions of vulnerability, thus increasing theexisting risks and dangers, or be directed towards prevention and minimization ofthose risks and social vulnerabilities. An analytical contribution to the research on thistheme would be to elaborate both on the daily social representations and practices andon the social processes and relationships that determine the development ofsociopolitical, sociourban, socioeconomical and sociocultural strategies and practices. The relevance of systemic causality in the determination and analyticalexplanation of disasters can therefore be confirmed by the interpretation of the socialdynamics that influence political, economical and cultural decision-making andconsequently lead to the choice of certain options instead of others. Architectural and building criteria are a good example of this as far associourban production is concerned. It is well known that these criteria are often anextremely important element, for they can contribute either to the enhancement ofvulnerabilities or to the minimization of disaster risks. In a systemic analysis it isessential to take into account interpretative mechanisms such as the knowledge of thefactors that led both to political and economical development and to urban and land useoptions, the understanding of the spirit underlying law production, the existing legalframework and the actions undertaken in order to control their application, as well asthe comprehension of the patterns and values that characterize the cultures underconsideration. There are also differentiated developments at the level of the crisis managementprocess during the disruption/emergency phase. The analysis and explanation of thesedifferences must be focused on social relationships and dynamics. A number of analogies and assumptions frequently tend to consider the periodsof crisis following a disaster as manifestations of anti-social behaviors in order tojustify the adoption of measures supported by top down authoritarian hierarchicalstructures. Analogies are usually drawn in the definition of emergency and disruptionsituations caused by disasters, which are considered as violent processes or conflictsidentical to those experienced in a situation of war. Emergency planning responses areconsequently based on strongly centralized and normative models that are typical ofmilitary organizations, in order to guarantee the necessary social control and thesupport to the victims which are assumed to be in a state of anomy. On the other hand,there are certain assumptions about the behavior of individuals and groups in the 12
  13. 13. emergency periods, during which they are assumed to have panic and/or passivityreactions, become traumatized, self-centered or even anti-social. In this sense,emergency planning entities tend to carry out actions that are based on rigidorganizational philosophies, authoritarian control and command. However, according to E. L. Quarantelli, these analogies are not empiricallysupported by studies and research on disasters that have been undertaken in the lastthirty years (6). According to this and other authors, namely R. Dynes (7), the periodsof crisis following a disaster are characterized by a stronger feeling of socialappurtenance of individuals and groups as they tend to significantly intensify themechanisms of mutual assistance and solidarity. On the other hand, Quarantelliconsiders the above mentioned assumptions as generalized myths that are supported bythe predominant social relationships but have little practical application or none at all.According to this author, actions derived from panic - flight reactions, uncoordinatedescape, fits of hysteria - passivity - inability to act or think - traumas - emotionaldisturbances at the level of mental health - self-centredness - isolation attitudes andself-inflicted punishment - and anti-social behaviors - abusive actions like plunderingand delinquency - cannot be analytically confirmed, in terms of exclusive orpredominant occurrence, in the countless studies that have been carried out. On thecontrary, disaster victims often have rational behaviors and show a significant will toparticipate and contribute, in an active and dynamic way, to the emergencymanagement process. As an example, this author recalls that about two thirds of thewounded disaster victims are rescued by relatives and neighbors (8). Although important, the development of the discussion on this set of analyticalparameters falls outside the scope of this article. They nevertheless reflect, in any case,the process and dynamics inherent in the social system in which they develop, while atthe same time enabling the assessment, according to the adopted strategies and thedeveloped tactical options, of the implication and preparedness rates of social groupsand institutions as they cope with disruption/emergency situations following a disaster. Differentiated options can also be identified during the reconstruction/socialdevelopment phase as the social system recovers from the effects of a disaster. Post-disruption strategic guidelines are closely related to the functioningdynamics of the social system before the disaster, for they can effectively act asvaluable mechanisms for the improvement of the life conditions of the affected groupsand communities. They can also lead to situations of social stagnation or even to theloss of the previously experienced life patterns. Within the scope of sociology of disasters and as opposed to theories whichtend to consider disasters as nothing more than dramatic phenomena with high humanand material damage, it is possible to identify a further conceptual paradigm whichaccepts the possibility that disasters could be changed into factors of socialdevelopment as they provide an opportunity to reassess the political, economical andcultural life patterns of the affected communities, groups and individuals.Contradictory as it may seem, this dichotomy simply reflects the paradoxicalconsequences that disasters have on societies. The approach to this problem istherefore focused on the analysis and interpretation of the types of response to disastersthat are provided by the social system. 13
  14. 14. It is often said that it is necessary to bring the situation back to normal as soonas the immediate emergency intervention work is concluded. This assertion relies on apertinent set of analytical considerations as far as the social dynamics of thereconstruction process are concerned. It actually has to do with the way the concept ofnormalcy is understood. If it is assumed that bringing the situation back to normalmeans reproducing the social patterns which existed before the disaster, that might leadto the reconstruction of the social vulnerability rates and levels that caused the disaster.If, on the contrary, it is understood as a chance to correct and improve the previouslyexisting forms of organization and functioning of the social system and to takemeasures in order to reduce the factors of social vulnerability, the reconstructionprocess will then be directed towards social development and disaster prevention. In this sense and as a strategy of social development in disaster situations,Fernando P. Carrasco proposes to use the damage externalization process as well asthe process of social participation of the affected communities and groups (9).According to this author, it is necessary to dismiss the negative effects that disastershave on the social system. Among a number of possible mechanisms, the community,groups and individuals affected by the disaster are to be left out of the economicalcosts of the reconstruction process. In this way, the social rehabilitation andreassessment work can be carried out faster and, on the other hand, it is possible toundertake concrete actions in order to reduce the factors of social inequality and,consequently, the inherent vulnerability contexts. However, and also according to Fernando P. Carrasco, if the damageexternalization process is one of the fundamental elements of the post-disaster socialdevelopment strategies, it has nevertheless to be complemented by the consequentprotagonism and social participation of the affected communities, groups andindividuals. For that particular purpose, he suggests building social programs,methodically divided into three main phases: the first is called project phase andincludes the definition of targets and policies, the conceptualization of workingstrategies and the determination of the necessary methods and resources for theimplementation of the program; during the second phase, which is called operativephase, responsibilities are exercised and decisions are taken according to the previouslydefined strategies and targets; the third and last phase is designated as administrativereproduction phase and includes all activities concerning the maintenance and legaland administrative permanence of the social program. The different levels ofimplication and social protagonism of the affected communities, groups andindividuals during the different phases of the social program determine the quality ofthe effects as far as social development is concerned. According to this author and as presented in Table 2, the effects of damageexternalization are subject to different developments, depending on whether there is asocial participation of the victims in the process or not.Table 2 - Effects of damage externalization Effects of damage externalization Effects of damage externalization 14
  15. 15. processes with social participation processes without social participation1. In formal terms 1. In formal terms• victims participate in the draft/project of • victims are the receivers of programs that designed by other social groups; were reconstruction programs;• victims participate in the implementation of • victims do not participate in the the programs thereby gaining experience implementation of the programs and for the further administrative reproduction consequently have problems with their of those programs. administrative reproduction.2. In structural terms 2. In structural terms• the balance of power between victims and • corporative-like relationships and political authorities is restructured as there centralized decision-making management is a development of concertation and self- are strengthened. management.3. In daily life terms 3. In daily life terms• victims participate in the control and • the organization and distribution of basic distribution of the basic goods during goods is controlled by state and/or charity emergency work; organizations;• victims make arrangements with public and • victims are provided with already organized civil institutions concerning the lodging; draft/project and the progress of house- • victims are provided on an individual basis building programs; with job-restitution programs;• victims create labor unions in order to • the quality of the reconstructed collective claim the restitution of their jobs; facilities deteriorates in the medium term.• victims are responsible for the maintenance of the reconstructed collective facilities. According to the same author, in spite of the dichotomy presented in the tableabove, the empirical analysis and research that have been carried out on the basis ofconcrete experiences and in contexts of post-disaster social development often revealthat there has been a combination of both situations.3. Social protagonists In order to complete and conclude the present analysis and sociologicalapproach to the problem of disasters, this chapter will be dedicated to an essentiallythematic reflection on the levels of implication and protagonism of the main socialagents and institutions. 15
  16. 16. For that purpose, the relations and practices of the different social agents andinstitutions must be interpreted as mechanisms that contribute for an explanatoryanalysis of disasters. In the organization and functioning process of societies and in their articulationwith the built environment, a number of positions and strategies are at stake andsubject to relational negotiations. Depending on the options and balances to beachieved, they can lead to different results in dealing with the problem of disasters.However, rather than going through the different implications of the confrontation ofvarious types of protagonisms, it is important to try to define a typology whichprovides the diverse social agents and institutions with a generic framework and to useit as an analytical reference to be taken into account in approaching the problem ofdisasters. In this context, it is possible to identify three main categories of socialprotagonists as far as disasters are concerned. The first category includes the social agents and institutions that are representedin the society’s economical and business sector such as financial, industrial, urban andinsurance agents, among others, and in the populations in a broad sense: families,communities, social groups. They share common positions and practices within the social structure at thelevel of the production and consumer systems, which makes them direct protagonistsof the processes that condition the articulation dynamics between the social system andthe built environment. Although they may not always have coincident strategicinterests or a common development logic, they clearly determine the social optionswhich in an analytical approach to disasters can lead either to vulnerability contextsand to the enhancement of disaster dangers and risks or to preventive cultures aiming atthe reduction and/or mitigation of disaster risks. The second category is based on arbitration and control and is characterized byan intervention logic. It includes the agents and institutions of the political and legalauthorities at local, national and international levels, the social movements of variouscitizens associations - ecological and environmental groups, labor unions andresident’s commissions, labor and professional associations, religious congregations,etc. - and the mass media - press, radio and television. The activity of these groups can be characterized by a regulatoryprotagonism. Within the problem of disasters, it can be directed towards processes oflegitimization and legal and administrative support of the options and proceduresadopted in the context of the social functioning mechanisms, although they may alsochoose to have a critical position and to denounce social decisions and practicesconcerning forms of social organization and distribution, with consequent effects onthe built environment and on society. The third and last category of social protagonists concerns all agents andinstitutions with a high level of specialization in the field of disasters. It includes theinstitutional security and civil protection agents - firemen, red cross, civil protectiondepartments, etc. - as well as the scientific and technical community doing research andtheoretical-empirical work on disaster-related subjects. 16
  17. 17. They can be designated as specialized protagonism agents, for they providethe indispensable social support to the preparation and organization of emergencyresponse systems at various levels. Their specific social intervention is focused onanalytical studies and research on risks and genetic and systemic causes of disasters aswell as on the conception and elaboration of management models, information,awareness and preventive educational actions, emergency plans, crisis responseoperations, etc. Although the intervention dynamics of these three types of social protagonistshave been characterized individually for presentation purposes, there is a very closearticulation among them as well as a large number of different combinations. Thespecific situations and the social contexts under consideration lead to processes ofsystemic convergence and relational negotiation which can favour either the buildingof alliances based on complicity and solidarity or the development of situations ofsocial confrontation with elements of tension and conflict. This thematic reference to social protagonists provides the necessaryframework for the integration of social vulnerabilities, cultures and dynamics whileimportant dimensions of disasters. At the same time and to conclude, it must bestressed that the contextualization of social protagonists in the dynamics of articulationbetween the social system and the built environment clearly accounts for the need toapproach the problem of disasters by considering them as socially relevant nonroutinephenomena as well as for the pertinence of such an approach.REFERENCES(1) Thomas E. Drabek. 1989. «Disasters as Nonroutine Social Problems», inInternational Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Disaster ResearchCenter, University of Delaware, 7(3), pp. 253-264.(2) F. L. Bates, R.R. Dynes and E.L. Quarantelli. 1992. «Importancia de las cienciassociales ante las catástrofes naturales», Protección Civil, Revista de la DirecciónGeneral, Ministerio del Interior-Espana, Nr. 15, pp. 46.(3) Anthony Giddens. 1992. As Consequências da Modernidade, Oeiras, CeltaEditores. (The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK)(4) Jesús Manuel Macías. 1992. «Significado de la vulnerabilidad social frente a losdesastres», Revista Mexicana de Sociologia, nr. 4, pp. 3-10.(5) Neil R. Britton. 1992. «Uncommon Hazards and Orthodox EmergencyManagement: Toward a Reconciliation.», International Journal of Mass 17
  18. 18. Emergencies and Disasters, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 10(2),pp. 329-348.(6) E. L. Quarantelli. 1991. «Implicaciones de planificación y gestión para el envio deservicios médicos de emergencia (EMS)», Protección Civil, Revista de la DirecciónGeneral, Ministerio del Interior, Espana, Nr. 13, pp. 38-51.(7) Russell R. Dynes. 1994. «Community Emergency Planning: False Assumptionsand Inappropriate Analogies», International Journal of Mass Emergencies andDisasters, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 12(2), pp. 141-158.(8) E. L. Quarantelli. 1991. op. cit.(9) Fernando P. Carrasco. 1992. «Estrategias de desarollo social en situaciones dedesastre», Revista Mexicana de Sociologia, nr. 4, pp. 11-24. 18