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Concepts of Disaster Myths in Disaster Research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2783 words Published: 23rd Apr 2018

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Disaster myth is one of the most component in disaster research.

Disaster myth is a significant part of disaster research. It not only contains important characteristic of this field but also affects other element in disaster research. It merits the attention of many researcher. To have a deep understanding of disaster myth, a broad view of disaster research should be taken into account.


The issue of devising a definition or assessing consensus on a definition plays an important role in not only theoretical but also empirical research. In Handbook of Disaster Research, Ronald W.Perry’s What is a disaster is a prominent research in dealing with this issue. He argued that in regard to definition, he tried to recount the efforts to define disasters by social scientist, instead of seeking a new definition. In this paper, he clarified the problem of definition by specifying its type, purpose, and audience. First of all, he set the type of definition as an area of study, not a concept, although these two dimension are not clearly separable. Therefore the definition that he proposed will address concerns of paradigm and do so by identifying critical features or characteristics of disaster (Perry, 2007) – which is categorized as real definition, more appropriate to define an area of study. Since disaster will always mean many things to many people, and the description will serve many different purposes – thus there will be many definitions (Perry, 2007). He narrowed the scope of definition by following Quarantelli’s research to explain the definition under social scientist’s angle. Hence, the important aspects need to be concerned when defining disaster research is the social context and tradition.

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He divided disaster definition research into 3 main areas: the first is the classical approach, second is hazards-disaster tradition and the last is explicitly socially-focused tradition. In the first part, with the most prominent representative scholar as Fritz, who proposed a definition of disaster in 1961 and its impact has remained until recent time, the main characteristic of disaster definition is dealing with social order disruption (Fritz’s therapeutic community is a significant example) and the emergent norm thinking. The main image of disaster in these research is negative consequences. It was manifest on the definitions that were presented in the first three definition published (by Wallace, Killian and Moore) and also the following empirical researches. Until recent time, there are still many scholar follow Fritz’s premise, but they has added some variance to it. Through these researches, he claimed the evolution in classical approach of definition in contemporary disaster research. These research was inspired by Fritz’s definition, but they also focus more on the process, adaption and change in disaster, as a cycle of adjustment from the disruption of “non-routine event”.

The second area of disaster research is captured from hazards perspective. As its name, despite the fact that they may be concern about social and other aspect, the main focus is still the target agent. In this perspective, disaster is viewed as an extreme event that arises when a hazard agent intersects with a social system (“the human use system”) (Perry, 2007). Although this approach is cticized as paying too much attention to the environmental aspect of disaster and neglecting or not giving enough attention to social aspect, it is still considered as an attempt to define disaster and provide a new angle to explore the field. The classic elaborations of this approach is Burton, Kates and White. From the basis of hazards-oriented studies, until now, research direction of hazards scholar slightly moved from what might be considered an “agent centered” approach to a greater focus on vulnerability (Perry, 2007). The scholar started to add the social nature as well as social consequences in their studies. It has gradually moved to vulnerability, the social side of research, in spite of hazard origins. As can be seen from the development of this approach, disaster research should be examined first at it social side. It led to the third approach: socially-focused approach.

This third tradition see disasters as a social phenomenon. This definition has roots from classical approach and is developed as the changing focus of hazards approach from agent centered toward vulnerability. This premise focuses mainly on social origin of disaster. Some scholar must be mentioned is Barton, Quarantelli, and Dynes. They have published their typology of disaster. For example Barton used his typology to address the cross-classified dimensions of scope (national, regional, segmental, local) by concentration of time (Perry, 2007). He emphasized the focus of the studies is on social dimensions of events, not the events themselves.

In Quarantellli’s typology, disaster (1) are sudden-onset occasions, (2) seriously disrupt the routines of collective units, (3) cause the adoption of unplanned courses of action to adjust to the disruption, (4) have unexpected life histories designated in social space and time, and (5) pose danger to valued social objects. This definition has been followed by many scholar, as can be seen from literature. Although it has root in classical period research, it has added it significant features and developed much more further. Another approach to define disaster in socially-focuses direction is focus on cross-national or cross-cultural aspects. It emphasized the social structure of the definiton. In brief, these scholars see the definition in social relations angle. The 2 things that make it different from classical period approach are it characterizes disaster as a social disruption that generated from social structure and might be remedied through social structural manipulations (Perry, 2007); and social structure can be seen as social change “analytically frozen at one point in time” (Quarantellli, 2005a, p.340).

By listing up the 3 main areas of disaster definition approaches, in the end, author tried to assess levels of consensus between them. He emphasized on Quarantelli’s paradigm of disaster research with two main ideas as follows: disaster are social phenomena, and disaster is rooted in social structure and reflects the processes of social change. This paradigm again reiterates that event itself is not yet a disaster, it have to based on social aspect. Furthermore, it lead to the vulnerability aspect. Beside this, another consensus is the magnitude of disaster should not be measured by the losses of people or property, but by the failure of the normative or cultural system. It also showed the consensus of issue of resilience. The consensus of social disruption and emergent norm thingking has still remained. Finally, effort on defining disaster also focus on its social time and space rather than physical time and space.

Meanwhile, there are also disagreement about these definition, as what kinds of characteristics should be included, the problem of taxonomy, and other issues. In an efforts to solve the problem of categorizing, Quarantelli (2005a, p333) distinguished disasters, catastrophes and crises. Boin , Stallings, and Rosenthal differentiated disasters and crises. As Quarantelli aruged, attention should be paid for classification systems. The taxonomy is the significant issue that researchers need to deal with in order to effectively examine disaster phenomena.

In the end of the paper, researcher proposed agenda for future research. Here again he reminded reader of how important the role that definition plays in the field. There are many of empirical work, but conceptualization still remains unsolved. Lacking of this important point, the field will be fulled of individual research but without a systematic view. He also mentioned the concern of taxonomy, as the classification systems still need to be examined carefully.

In conclusion, author has fully synthesized the development and different approach when defining disaster – a basic and central part of disaster research. By providing 3 main traditions of research in disaster definition, the consensus in term of disaster’s characteristic has been explained thoroughly. Moreover, he also proposed the problem remains in the field, as further research should pay attention to conceptualization issue and classification systems. Only by doing this that research can solve the problem of definition, reach closer to the consensus in the field. This paper gave reader the insight into the field, since they can get the broader view of disaster research.

The second paper we need to take a look at in order to have a general view of disaster research is The social science study of disasters and mass communications written by E.L. Quarantelli (1987).

In this paper, the author has summarized the previous reseaches on social disaster research to depict the present overall state of knowledge. Therefore pointing out the focus of research field, analyzed significant themes of researches through the number and research orientation of studies. He also synthesized the studies related to mass communication in disaster research and finally proposed the way for future research Quarantelli (1987). Plagiarism

As trying to provide a overall view of past and current research, he summarized the development of research field. Although the first systematic social science disaster study has ever been undertaken was started from 1920, until the end of World War II that social and behavioral research of disasterous events started to have any continuity and began to accumulate a body of data (Quarantelli, 1987). He chose it as a starting point to evaluate the pioneering efforts of research. At that time, there were 3 organizations that made great contribution to the establishment of fundamental basis. It was National Opinion Research Center (NORC), Disaster research group (DRG) and Disaster Research Center (DRC). Though there was a little discrepancy between research object of these organizations, caused by their differences in research orientation. For instance, NORC paid most attention to reactions of victims, while DRG focused more on group behavior.

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Despite of that fact, their shared the common feature at research entities that studied both natural and technological disaster and the reseearchers were mainly sociologists. Moreover, beside the victim, transmission of warnings message of potential disaster was also attracted attention from researchers, while little attention was paid to mass communication organization, both from theoretical and empirical studies. When conducting the research about warning message transmssion of media, warning process was the main purpose, not the operation of mass communication. The author emphasized on the unequal coverage of research, since it paid very little attention on institutional area. The reasons provided for this kinhd of dispropotionate research were the problem of methodology because it is hard to apply audiences quantitative method towards mass communication systems and the funding agencies.

Another dominant feature of research at the pioneer studies was they did not recognize the “dual role” that mass communication plays in disasters. They just focused on the reporter role, furthermore, emphasized on the doubt of its validity when reporting disasters, known as disaster mythology. By doing this, they neglected another role that mass communication plays – the role of major organizational actors in preparing for and responding to disasters.

Depart from the pioneering efforts, after 1960s, it marked a next stage of disaster research. It has been a remarkable development of both number and scope of research in compare with the earlier period. The author highlight some major themes found in research findings and observation to synthesize the knowlege gained by social science researchers in term of individual and groups’ behavior that mass media reports in emergency time. Therefore, pointing out the part remains little or unexplored, to suggest recommendations for further research. There are two main themes, covers individual and organiztional behavior. Individual behaviors are described as showing the strong ability to adapt to extreme situation of survivor, their actively behavior in rescure efforts, their stable mental health condition, their choice when choosing friend, family’s place rather than public shelters. Scholars (Fritz, Barton, Dynes, Drabek, Quarantelli and Kreps) concluded that victims absolutely have ability to deal well with disaster. There is a very high consensus that these behaviors are very different from what media report about victim during emergency time. The image of victim behaviors depicted by media is panic, passive, go crazy, lose control, searching for public help. The discrepancy between reality and media report and audience belief is characterized as the “myths” of disasters (Quarantellli and Dynes, 1972).

The second theme is also related to disaster myths, it is description of organizational behavior in disaster time. As conveyed from media report, organizational behavior can be seen as effective, almost indispensable, there is a strong emphasis on the critical role it plays in disaster situation. However, the actual behavior of organizations which was examined by the researchers shows a sharp contrast. In reality, orginizational behavior is ineffective, and even have negative effect in rescue process, as weak ability of managing effort and poor decisions made by public and private bureaucracies (Quarantelli, 1985a). In brief, these two research themes of individual and organizational behavior which relate to disaster myths show the discrepancy between actual behavior and image conveyed by media report. Hence, mass media is responsible for not framing the false image of behavior in emergency time. In searching for explanation, some researchers have stated that mass media personnel tend to take a “command post” view of disaster (Quarantelli, 1987).

Through looking closer to a series of specific studies, the author reiterated the limited number of researches about mass communication in disaster research. Although research in Japanese, French have a slightly higher focus on mass communication, in comparison with research in English langague, the quantity of research regard to mass communication remains small. He also listed some unexplored questions and research areas, such as research relates to operation of naitonal systems in disaster, functioning of cable system, disaster-relevant aspects of magazine productions (Quarantelli, 1987). The disproportion of focus between print media and electronic media is also a problem need to be examined. After listing the specific studies, he concluded that there is a prominent increase in number of empricial research on mass communications and theoretical formualtions efforts in term of mass media operations in the filed. The researcher also proposed the factors that contributes to this acceleration.

(Perry, 2007)


Perry, R. W. (2007). What is a disaster? Handbook of disaster research (pp. 1-15): Springer.

Quarantelli, E. L. (1987). The social science study of disasters and mass communications.

Quarantelli, E.L. (2005a). A social science research agenda for the disasters of the 21st century. In R.W. Perry & E.L. Quarantelli (Eds.),What is a disaster? New answers to old questions(pp.325–396).Philadelphia: Xlibris.

Quarantelli, E.L. and Russell Dynes (1972) When disaster strikes. Psychology Today 5: 66-70.

Quarantelli, E.L (1985a) An assessment of conflicting views on mental health; in C. Figley (ed) Trauma and Its wake (pp. 173-215). New York: Brunner Mazel.


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