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Risque, nature et société

Lucien Faugères
Christiane Villain-Gandossi

I. Positions de recherche, méthodologie

Sociology, risks and disasters

Jan Berting


Si on considère les développements récents de la sociologie - et des sciences sociales en général - il est clair que de nombreuses similarités peuvent être relevées entre, d'une part, la recherche sociologique sur les risques et les désastres naturels, et d'autre part, la recherche sur les progrès technologiques et les risques et désastres d'origine humaine. Un élément très important en est l'accent mis sur les impacts de la technologie et des désastres d'origine naturelle ou technologique sur la vie sociale et culturelle. Dans le texte qui suit, on montre que ce caractère univoque de l'approche sociologique n'est pas fortuit. Il a des racines profondes dans la "culture de la sociologie". Comme tel, il est en relation avec une division implicite du travail entre les sciences naturelles et les sciences sociales. Cette division du travail, et quelques composantes majeures de la "culture de la sociologie" sont les principales raisons d'une réponse inadéquate de cette discipline face au risque, à l'incertitude et aux désastres. Toutefois, il semble y avoir actuellement un changement de perspective: la prise de conscience de l'insuffisance de l'approche jusqu'alors adoptée par la sociologie, face à ces phénomènes, est en cours.

Texte intégral


1Looking at the achievements of sociology-and of the social sciences in general-it is quite evident that many similarities can be discovered between, on the one hand, sociological research on natural risks and disasters and, on the other hand, research on technological developments, technological risks and disasters. One very important element of this research is the heavy emphasis on the impact of technology and natural and man-induced disasters on social and cultural life. We will show that this one-sidedness of the sociological approach is no accident. It has deep roots in the culture of sociology and is, as such, connected with an implicit division of labour between the natural sciences and the social sciences. This division of labour and some main components of the "culture of sociology" are the main sources of an inadequate response of sociology to risks, hazards and disasters. However, there seems to be a rising awareness of the one-sidedness of the sociological approach to this kind of phenomena.

  • 1 E.J. Dijksterhuis, De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld (the mechanization of the image of the wor (...)
  • 2 M. Weber, "Vorbemerkung zu den gesammelten Aufsätzen zur Religionssoziologie". In: M. Weber, Sozio (...)
  • 3 J.H.J. van der Pot, Die Bewertung des technischen Fortschritts. Eine systematische Übersicht der T (...)

2To explain the specific characteristics of sociology vis-à-vis those phenomena, we have to go back to the origin of the modern social sciences. The coming of the modern social sciences is closely connected with the ideals of the Enlightenment and as such with a specific conception of science. Dijksterhuis' analysis of the genesis of modern science shows us the long line of development of the natural sciences, leading to the emergence of the modern natural sciences, in the period between 1543, when Copernicus published his "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" and 1687, when Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published.1 This period represents an enormous progress of human knowledge and of opportunities for research. The dominant view of life is deeply changed. This period did set the course of the natural sciences for the centuries to come, based on a mechanistic image of material processes, not to be conceived of as a complex machine designed by the Creator, but as processes which can be understood by applying the concepts of mechanics: the physics and mathematics of energy and forces. Only the West witnessed the development of such a conception of science based both on rationality (especially mathematics) and systematic observation (especially controlled experiments).2 This conception of modern science is very hostile to magical thinking. It has been pointed out that this anti-magical attitude is endogenous to the Judea-Christian belief systems and that these systems did not, in contradistinction to most other belief systems, impose inhibitions on the control of nature by man. Van der Pot concludes, after a systematic analysis of many theological, historical and sociological sources, that Christianity had an important impact on the origin of the modern dynamic push towards technological change, by the submission of nature, by contributing to a hopeful attitude towards the future and by giving a positive judgement about work that is directed at practical utility.3

  • 4 A.O. Herrera, "Science, Technology and Human Rights: A prospective view". In: C.G. Weeramantry, ed (...)

3This coming of the modern conception of science is tied to the Enlightenment. As Herrera put it succinctly: "For Enlightenment, all things in nature are disposed in harmonious order, regulated by a few simple laws, in such a way that everything contributes to the equilibrium of the Universe. The same rational order is the basis of the human world and manifests itself through the instincts and tendencies of men. The main obstacle to this linear unending progress is, for the Enlightenment, ignorance and the education of all strata of society in the light of reason and science will finally lead to a perfect and happy society".4 Indeed, the rational analysis of the physical and social world will gradually unveil most ideas of the established traditional order as errors, to be replaced by scientific truth. Moreover, in connection with these ideas of the Enlightenment, a new type of society evolved and conscious attempts were made to change political and social orders into the direction of a "rational society". This process toward a new, open society was accelerated with the advent of the industrial society in which a close connection was established between science, technology and the production of commodities for large-scale markets. Two main forces were - and still are - considered to determine the development of modern society:

  1. The march of rationality, resulting from the inquiring human mind that follows the rules of the positivist - logico-empirical - science while analysing the physical and social world in the pursuit of truth. Moreover, this also leads to the development of new technologies, being - partly at least - applications of the growth of knowledge.
  2. The new international large-scale markets which urge industrial enterprises to adopt as quickly as possible the best available technology in the production processes. Failing to do so by an enterprise or branch of industry will result in a quick detoriation of their international competitive position.

4By now, the reader may be tempted to ask what this introduction has to do with the relationship between sociology and disasters. Well, we need some more steps to explain this specific relationship. As follows from what we have said about the modern model of science, the origin of scientific discoveries and of technological innovations does not need to be explained by other factors than the inquisitive mind, following the rules of positivist science. Society has just to wait and see what comes out of these processes of discovery and to adapt to their results. There are no other possibilities to control this "march of rationality" than the control by the scientists themselves, who do not control the direction of scientific development - the discovery of the laws of nature and social life - but who have to see to it that their fellow-scientists abide to the tenets of logico-empirical science.

5The development of science and of new technologies, which are based on the scientific developments, is as such not directly susceptible to human needs. In fact, the logic of this scientific model and of the model of societal development that is connected with it, implies that societal development is a process of reduction of human subjectivity by rational calculation. Control over men and things is secured by substituting (technological) rationality for human interpretation when organising activities.

  • 5 J.B. Vico, Principes d'une Science Nouvelle. 1725, 1730 and 1744.
  • 6 E. Badinter and R. Badinter, Condorcet (1743-1794). Un intellectuel en politique. Paris: Fayard, 1 (...)

6The coming of sociology as Scienza Nuova5 in the 18th century is closely connected both with the "discovery" of society as something that can be distinguished between state and local community life and with the systematic analysis of society on the basis of positivist science: in which ways is social life determined by its natural environment, by its value system which evolved in a long historical process, by the biological characteristics of the members of society and by the development of science and technology (the development of productive forces)? In this perspective sociology was interested, in the first place, in the discovery of "causal laws" which govern social life, in problems of order and predictability. The emphasis was laid on the development of a universalistic and rationalistic body of knowledge in which the individuals as such were considered as "trivial actors"; being determined by forces the effects of which they may control by clinging to the tenets of positivist social science. The programme of this approach to human and social phenomena was worked out clearly by Condorcet in 1785: a) treat human and social phenomena as an object of scientific analysis; b) apply the methodology of the natural sciences to the study of man and society; c) develop "technics" in order to control those phenomena. Badinter and Badinter say that Condorcet's originality is connected with the idea of the development of a science of man as an applied science in which the idea of man is desecrated.6

  • 7 F.G. Herder, Une autre philosphie de l'historié, 1774.
  • 8 E. Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, 1790, Vol. II, p. 359.

7The development of sociology as a positivist science of society did have a profound impact on the division of labour between the natural and the positivist social sciences. It is quite evident that those social sciences, while trying to follow the tenets of the new model of positivist science, could not claim to be "more rational" than the natural sciences. A consequence of this development has been that the task of the social sciences was reduced in many respects to the study of the effects of (natural) science and technology on social life and that they did not undertake to study the significance of social and cultural developments for the natural sciences, the latter being considered to be developing by endogenous forces (the "march of rationality", the discovery of the laws of nature). In fact, this type of analysis of the impact of science and technology on society is quite similar to the study of the impact of natural and technological disasters on social life, at least when the research is based on the above-mentioned "modern" model of development. However, as we explained, positivist sociology is theoretically and methodologically not in a good position to cope with problems of risk and disaster, because it is primarily oriented to the study of social processes, of recurrent social events, of "normal" social life, not to "unique" disturbances of the social order. To this observation we must add that the western social sciences are not totally standing in the tradition of the Enlightenment: From the very beginning there has been a strong opposition to positivist sociology with its heavy emphasis on the role of rationality in social life, its individualism, its universalism and cosmopolitism. In the 18th century the Enlightenment and the modernization trend that is connected with it, were criticised severely by Herder, who introduced the idea of "Volksgeist", a concept that emphasizes the uniqueness of peoples and cultures. He rejected the idea of universal, timeless principles concerning, e.g. Truth, Justice and Beauty. He argued that all norms originate within a specific cultural context and are dependent upon this cultural boundedness for their further development.7 Burke rejected vehemently, in his reaction on the French Revolution, the idea of society as being based on rational contract and on self-interest. He stressed the role of the sense of membership, of moral obligations and of the feeling that one has a place in the community.8

8Neither did the sociology that is opposing the tenets of positivist science contribute to the development of models which can be used to study risks and disasters. In fact, the sociology that is connected with the uniqueness of life-styles and with the idea that cultures have to be treated as "wholes" or "patterns", did restrict itself largely to the analysis of nonindustrial ways of life, including ways of life which were being threatened by industrialism and had to be recorded in order to preserve at least the memory of them for future generations.


9Contemporary sociology reflects the heritage of the past to which we referred to in paragraph 1. It reflects also the major oppositions in the social life of modern societies. As an applied science it is strongly tied to problems connected with the social and cultural developments of society. This implies that sociology is still very much oriented to the analysis of recurring patterns of behaviour and to gradual or spasmodic changes which are caused by economic, social and political factors, than to the impact of the unexpected on social life. This state of affairs also reflects the labour market conditions of sociology in welfare states or market-oriented societies.

10We will describe briefly the main approaches within sociology ("sociology's four cultures") as a preliminary step to answer the question in which ways sociology can contribute to an interdisciplinary approach of risks and disasters and more specifically, to the study of earthquakes. The main differences between contemporary paradigms in social sciences are related to two major oppositions which have not been bridged adequately until now. The first opposition is between a rationalist conception of (social) science ("the Enlightenment tradition) and a historicist conception (Romanticist perspective), while our second opposition is between explanations which are based on methodological individualist approaches may be found both within the rationalist and the historicist conception of social and cultural life (see Scheme I on p.9).

  • 9 R. Bendix, Force, Fate and Freedom. On historical sociology. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univer (...)
  • 10 R. Bendix, p. 9.

11The rationalist conception of science, Bendix says, "... seeks to develop methods which will ultimately make the right understanding compelling to all who seek truth. In this view, understanding is the work of reason emancipated from all forms of unreason, like emotions and partnership".9 The historicist search for truth asserts "... that for all who seek truth the right understanding can be made compelling only for a time-even with the best available methods. Historical conditions, and that means the facts and their contexts, as well as scholars with their interests and methods".10 In this latter view understanding remains always conditioned, because the observer and society, subject and object, are aspects of history and undergo change. A logical conclusion, based on this view, is that our knowledge of social life is not cumulative - as is so strongly stressed in the rationalist conception - or that it is only cumulative as far as the principia media do not change.

12In opposition to the rationalist conception, in which the social scientist tries to discover the nature of social reality and to reduce the variety of social life's forms to simple basic structures (e.g. causal models) which explain social life, in the historicist conception human beings do not only reflect an essentially "unchangeable" order, but are able to create new social orders, based on new interpretations of the meaning of social and cultural life. Human beings are not - or not only - the product of determining forces of the main orders of complexity, but are "non-trivial machines", real actors with discretionary powers - on an individual and collective level - which transcend the limits of the rationalist determining forces.

  • 11 B. Markowsky, "Toward multilevel sociological theories: similations of actor and network effects”.(...)
  • 12 J. Piaget, Le structuralisme. Paris: PUF, 1972, p. 9-10.

13Our second opposition - between structuralist and methodologist individualist approaches - is considered by many social scientists as representing the deepest gulf separating them. Structuralists assert that all interesting and important social phenomena can be explaining by the operation of supra-individual factors, i.e. at a level of analysis involving social structures and/or aggregations of some forms.11 Structuralist approaches often represent social holistic types of explanations, but there are also examples of non-holistic variants of structuralism.12

14In contradistinction to the structuralist, the methodological individualist asserts that the most important and interesting social and cultural phenomena can be explained in terms of the operation of intraindividual factors (e.g. the capacity of rational choice) in relationship with interindividual factors (e.g. social interaction and its unintended consequences or other social phenomena emerging from interaction process).

Table 1. Major oppositions in social sciences

Rationalist Conception of Science ("Nature")

Historicist Conception of Science ("Culture")

Methodological individualist approaches

Structuralist approaches

15This brief discussion of the major oppositions in social sciences has to be considered as instrumental to the discussion of the relationship between sociology and disasters.

  • 13 See, however, J. Berting, "Structures, actors and choices". In: J.H.G. Klabbers, et al., Simulatio (...)

16We have to put forward an important caveat: we do not intend to say that most sociologists can be relegated to one of the 4 cultures which are presented in Scheme I. In fact, many sociologists are aware of the rifts between the four cultures and develop strategies to overcome them, often by proposing a unification which implies the subordination of three cultures to the one that is preferred by them. We will not go into the details of these strategies in this contribution.13 An analysis of games and simulation - not restricted to the domain of sociology - showed that it is possible to classify different approaches within the field of gaming and simulation on the basis of Scheme I. As we will come back to this classification, we give briefly the outlines of the four "cultures" below:

AX (rational - individualist)

171. Decision theory and rational choice theory. Here we refer to the abstract types of decision-theoretical research, in which theorists investigate the logical consequences of decision making by "ideally rational agents" or explore mathematical features of different descriptions of rational behaviour.

BX (historicist - individualist)

181. Gaming. This approach emphasizes, in contradistinction to the former, the ways in which the participants are being changed, and change themselves in the process of playing. This approach is process-oriented, not primarily outcome-oriented (as in, e.g. AX). The game is played by the participants in a virtual world, separated from "real" life as a game, nevertheless related to real life processes because in the process of playing the game participants may change in such a way that they can cope better with the vicissitudes of social life;

192. experimental/descriptive decision theory;

203. sociodrama (Moreno);

214. "Intervention sociologique" (Touraine).

AY (rationalist - structuralist)

221. Simulation. Simulation tries to bring together in a dynamic model the main variables which are considered to represent the systemic character of a part of social reality. Simulation has to represent this reality. This signifies that simulation has as an important task the amelioration of the isomorphy between the model and the "real" system by improving the quality of indicators and by being on the guard against the possibility of system alterations. Simulation is, in principle, related to the real world, not to virtual worlds, it is outcome-oriented, it abstracts from the participants to social life or adopts a construct of man of the AX-type (rational choice);

232. Formal modelling (including models of system development);

243. Scenarios.

BY (historicist - structuralist)

251. role-playing ("theatre");

262. Construction of ideal types (Weberian).

  • 14 C.W. Brown, "A new interdisciplinary impulse and the anthropology of the 1990s". International Soc (...)
  • 15 A. Woodcock and M. Davis, Catastrophe Theory. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978, p. 7; See also E.C. Zee (...)

27As we will see later on, sociology and, more generally, the social sciences, do not only have to cope with the divides between the four cultures but, are also confronted with the fact that the model of (natural) science on which AX and AY are based, is changing rapidly. In this context Brown speaks of a "crisis in the Newtonion paradigm", while referring to Thom who remarks that if the universe were subject to the predictability of determinism, nothing new could ever exist.14 Another important development is René Thom's presentation of differential typology: mathematics starting from the opposite premise of the classical mathematics of Newton and Leibnitz: "... that changes of form (in processes as well as objects) are real, and that the aim of science is to grasp what he (Thom) calls the universe's ceaseless creation, evolution, and destruction of forms".15 This theory is qualitative ("maps without scale") and seems to be applicable both to natural, individual and social phenomena.


  • 16 S.H. Prince, "Catastrophe and Social Change: Based upon a sociological study of the Halifax Disast (...)

28After what has been said it will not come as a surprise that sociology turned rather late to the study of disasters and risks. A recent study on the sociology of disasters mentions as the first reference point an empirical study in this domain of the Halifax disaster, undertaken by Prince and published in 1920.16

  • 17 P.A. Sorokin, Man and Society in Calamity. New York: Dutton, 1942.
  • 18 P.A. Sorokin, o.c., p. 244. It is interesting to note that in B. Berelson's and G.A. Steiner's Hum (...)

29The first theoretical study of disasters is Sorokin's Man and Society in Calamity of 1942.17 Sorokin restricts his study to war, revolution, famine and pestilence. In line with what has been said in the proceeding paragraphs on the position of sociological research in that period, Sorokin limits his analysis to the effects of those disasters upon the human mind, behaviour, social organization and cultural life. He observes that, e.g. disasters can have different effects on different parts of a society: social diversification goes together with polarization of a disaster's effects ("Sinners and Saints in Calamity") and also that disasters reinforce political power as a consequence of the strong need to regulate and control social relationships. Another conclusion is that "Calamities promote scientific and technological progress also by creating new situations for observation and experimentation".18 A real analyses of the causes of disasters is lacking in this study.

  • 19 J. Berting, "Models of Development, Science and Technology, and Human Rights". In: C.G. Weeramantr (...)

30From a theoretical perspective, this study is an example of "disaster determinism", much alike to the technological deterministic models which still loom large in discussions concerning the relationships between technology and society today.19 In many "impact of technology on society" studies a causal chain is established between:

31(1) S → T → O → E → SO → C

32In this - empirically not tenable - presentation it is stated that Scientific development (S) is the most important source of technology (T). The technological development has its primary impact on the organizations which produce commodities and services (O). Those organizations are forced to adopt new, more effective and efficient technologies because of international competitive market conditions. The O has to adapt to the exigencies of T in order to get the highest possible advantages from technological innovations. This means that the division of labour is changing and with it the job requirements. This, in turn, impinges on the required level of education and skills of employees. These developments do have many effects on the economic system and, after a time lag, on society's (SO) family structure, educational system and on the role of the state. Finally, the impact is on the values and attitudes within a society, i.e. on the cultural level (C).

33It is easy to see that this technological determinism (or technological functionalism, technological imperialism, industrial convergence thesis) is related to the "march of rationality"-approach that we did discuss in the preceding sections. It is, as we said earlier, basically similar to the model applied by Sorokin in his disaster study; the main difference being that the first input is different. Where technology is thought to have, in the optimistic Enlightenment model, mostly benevolent effects on social life, certainly in the long run, disasters are primarily regarded as impacts on society with, to a large degree, negative effects. A second difference is that in the technological deterministic model the effects of T are laid out in a well-ordered chain, while the disaster's impact is, in many cases, a direct one on many parts of community life.

34So Sorokin's disaster study has, basically, a very simple structure:

35A disaster (D) strikes a society (community) and produces effects (E1, E2 .. En) the extent of which is sometimes dependent upon characteristics of different parts of SO(E1a,b) (e.g. Sorokin's "law of polarization").

36The analysis of the effects of several, to a certain extent similar disasters, somewhat more complex model:

37That is to say, when disasters of the same magnitude strike different SO's, it is possible that some effects in SO2 are more or less extreme than in SO1 and that, moreover, effects can be perceived which are absent in SO1. The conclusion from model 3 can be that a disaster's effects are partly dependent upon pre-disaster conditions which were present or absent in SO1 and SO2: e.g. the nature of buildings' construction, the specific characteristics of different road systems, the receptiveness to warnings of different parts of a population, the availability of planning systems to counteract the effects of disasters and their appropriateness under varying conditions, the political organization and the quality of leadership and the population's experience with disasters in the past. Knowledge of the significance of these variables under different circumstances and of their interactive effects leads to the next question: which of these variables can be manipulated in principle and upon which conditions is their actual manipulation dependent?

38Model 4 indicates that the manipulation of a certain pre-disaster condition (MCX) reduces the disaster's effects in comparison with a situation (2) in which the same condition (CX) has not been manipulated.

39The next step is to investigate why in SO2 CX has not been manipulated. A comparative analysis may expose the reasons of the differences between 1 and 2 in these respects: the differences of the preconditions of manipulation (PC) may pertain to different value-systems which characterize SO1 and SO2 (SO1 and SO2 may be different societies or the same society in different periods: SO1t and SO2t+n), (lack of) political homogeneity, different economic levels, specific interest groups which oppose the intended manipulation of CX, etc.

40The significance of the presence or absence of certain PC's may be very different, depending upon the fact whether the manipulation is related to ("organizational") measures which will be applied once a disaster strikes, or to structural rearrangements of societal life which are adopted to avoid certain future disasters or to reduce dramatically disaster's main effects.

41It is, moreover, quite evident that important reorganizations of social and economic life in order to avoid or reduce major effects of disasters do have important side-effects on a society. So in this case it will always be of major importance to analyse the nature, extent and intensity of possible side-effects and to link these expected effects to the risks that certain natural or technological disasters will happen and will produce major negative effects.

42Finally, it is important to analyse learning processes within different societies (communities) and the most important conditions of those learning processes. These learning processes will be related to the population's experience with disasters and with the effect of pre-disaster measures on the disaster's consequences.

43As an example I refer to the reaction of the Dutch government and population when the southwestern region of the Netherlands was struck by a major flood disaster in 1953. This disaster struck the Netherlands without warning and was the result of an unhappy combination of springtide and the sudden change in the direction of a gale that had been raging for several days. This sudden change propelled huge masses of water that had been accumulated in the funnel-shaped channel to the coast of the Low Countries, causing the death of approx. 2000 persons and devastating large areas of the southwestern region. As is well-known the Netherlands have a long history that is marked by major and smaller flood disasters. The protection of the country against the dangers of the sea and main waterways is organized in long-established institutions of which the state department for the maintenance of dykes, roads, bridges and the navigability of river and canals (Rijkswaterstaat) if of paramount importance. In several respects Rijkswaterstaat may be considered as a "state within the state".

44Although for many generations the Netherlands had not been confronted with a major flood disaster causing many deaths, the history of flood disasters is well-known and the importance of the defense against the sea is widely accepted within the population. This does not preclude the reaction within some traditional groups to consider the disaster as an act of God (the rumour even went in those days that when the rescue-operations started, on a Sunday, some farmers refused to be transported from their roofs to the mainland).

  • 20 J. Berting, "Public Acceptance of New Technologies in the Netherlands". In: R. Williams and S. Mil (...)

45After this flood disaster, the Dutch parliament came to a number of very drastic decisions to safeguard the population of the South West regions of the Netherlands. One of these decisions was the closing of the branches of the Scheldt estuary (the Western Scheldt excepted) to the tidal influences of the North Sea. The Dutch culture pattern affects the public acceptance of major solutions related to these disasters in a positive way and guarantees the solidarity of those parts of the population which are not threatened by this type of disasters. Nevertheless, the solution that had been taken by Parliament to close branches of the Scheldt estuary to tidal influences was strongly opposed. The reasons for this opposition by some pressure-groups was that the planned construction of a huge dam in the Eastern Scheldt would not only destroy the important oyster culture, but would also cause drastic changes in the biological equilibrium of the whole of the region. After a year-long struggle it was finally decided to build an open surge dam that could be closed in the event of tidal waves endangering the region. This development compelled the development of new technologies to surmount the huge problems connected with this construction. The costs of this mega project rose steeply after this decision was originally taken in 1974. However, the majority of the Dutch population approved of this solution.20

  • 21 M. Douglas and A. Wildavsky, Risk and Culture. An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Envi (...)

46This example illustrates that far-reaching and extremely expensive measures may be taken in order to prevent a risk that is not very likely to recur within the life-time of this and some next generations. Douglas and Wildavsky agree with the statement that there is no single all-purpose number that expresses "acceptable risk" for a society and that choice depends upon the alternatives, values and beliefs that are considered. Values and uncertainties are an integral part of every acceptable risk problem. "Risk should be seen", they say, "as a joint product of knowledge about the future and consent about the most desired prospects".21 Risk is, as they say at the end of their analysis, "a collective construct".

47Since Sorokin's study (1942) on the effects of disasters on social life, sociology has broadened its scope of action in the area of disaster studies:

  1. the theoretical basis of disaster studies has been corroborated22;
  2. a systematic inventory of sociological findings concerning disasters has been established23;
  3. there is, to a certain extent, a development in risk assessment studies;24
  4. the emphasis is now stronger on the analysis of the social conditions of the pre-disaster situation and their relevance to the post-disaster situation (short and long term effects) than in the first period.

48Sociology seems to have had, until now, almost no interest in the role of individual and collective learning processes vis-à-vis disasters.

49Moreover, little attention has been paid to the selection of manipulatable variables-especially in the pre-disaster situation-and to the factors that impinge on decisions to manipulate those variables. In this context it would be very important to analyse systematically the role of cultural variables in the process of the selection of solutions and their actual implementation.

50Finally, research on disasters concentrates heavily on the negative consequences and on the measures to be taken in order to reduce them.

  • 25 E.M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations. New York: The Free Press/London: Collier-MacMillan Ltd, 198 (...)
  • 26 M. Olson, The rise and decline of nations. Economic growth, stagflation and social rigidities. New (...)

51Much less attention is being paid to positive consequences of disasters: disasters as a source of innovations and modernizations. A widely used handbook on the diffusion of innovations does not contain any reference to the significance of disasters or catastrophes.25 The study by Olson on The Rise and Decline of Nations26 shows us, however, that major disasters may contribute to the destruction of too rigid social structures and create new opportunities for social and economic development.


52The "model 5" can be used adequately to indicate to which types of problem solving in the domain of disasters sociology may contribute. Moreover, we have to discuss in which ways the four different cultures of sociology are related to problem solving. Finally, we have to say something about the nature of interdisciplinary cooperation.

  • 27 R.S. Olson, with B. Podesta and J.M. Nigg, The politics of earthquake Prediction. Princeton, New J (...)

53To begin with, it is certainly true that the social sciences do not have much to say about earthquakes as such and the research questions which are related to the physical nature of earthquakes (where are earthquakes to be expected, when will an earthquake occur, what is the expected magnitude of a specific earthquake, etc.). Social scientists can contribute to the analysis of the organization of seismic research and its consequences (i.e. an analysis of the way knowledge about earthquakes is produced, accepted as valid knowledge by the "seismic community" and disseminated to a wider public).27 More important could be the contribution of the social sciences - and of sociology - to risk assessment and the assessment of earthquakes, because in this area the role of social and cultural factors looms large, as we explained in the preceding section. Moreover, sociology can play an interesting role when it comes to practical applications with respect to the pre- en postdisaster period.

  • 28 E.L. Jackson and I. Burton, "The process of human adjustment to earthquake risk". In: Unesco, o.c. (...)

54In the first place, sociology can be used in relation to earthquakes as a type of disaster in order to lay bare the social and cultural nature of risk and hazard in this context. Risk is a social construction and so is "acceptable risk" "... the notion of risk or hazard automatically implies some human or social component", Jackson and Burton remark.28 A comparative analysis of "risk" in different cultures or societies and in relation to different types of disasters can provide important insights.

55Secondly sociology can analyse a disasters' consequences as being dependent upon characteristics of the socio-cultural pre-disaster situation.

56Thirdly, sociology can, together with other social and human sciences, study the behaviour of populations during disasters and the ways in which people adjust and recover afterwards.

57Fourthly, sociology can help to identify the manipulatable variables and the nature of the conditions that facilitate or hinder their actual manipulation.

58Fifthly, sociology can help in the designing of effective instruments to combat a disaster's effects in several ways:

  1. changing the spatial arrangements and the social structure of a society or community;
  2. setting up of effective rescue plans and warning systems.

59Sixthly, sociology can analyse the ways in which populations and their authorities develop long-term responses - or fail to do so - after a society has been hit by a disaster. In which ways is knowledge about a disaster produced within a society and upon what depends the use or non-use of this knowledge? Is knowledge about disasters and effective measures, produced elsewhere, readily available and applied adequately?

60In which ways are measures taken to guarantee that originally adequate instruments are not becoming obsolete (e.g. because a population may lose its alertness when the feeling of being threatened fades away after some time after a disaster).


61With reference to "model 5" we now can state that sociology's contribution to disaster research may pertain to different stages of the process that is implied by this model.

621."Acceptable risk" is related to the ways in which society interprets risks in relation to specific types of disasters and may change its definition of the situation (SO1), SO2 → D1l, D21 (D1 being "disaster" as defined on the "construct" level. (1)

632.Analysis of relationships between PC, (M)C and E (2), (3), (4)

643.Analysis of behaviour (emergent leadership, (in)adequate use of rescue resources, individual and familistic survival strategies, nature of evacuation etc.). (4)

654a.Analysis of opportunities to manipulate variables. (3)

664b.Analysis of preconditions of MC. (4), (3). Nature of political decision making, social differentiation, degree of social inequality etc.

675a,b. Designing: implies the whole range (1)...(4).

686. Society's learning process: implies the whole range (1)...(4).

69Our next step is to link the relationships between sociology's tasks in the domain of disasters to the four (sub)-cultures of contemporary sociology (§ 2). In this contribution I do not have an opportunity to elaborate upon the contents of those four subcultures ("paradigms", "traditions" or "perspectives"). However, it is very important to note that sociologists are not able to grasp all the niceties of the four "paradigms" and certainly they will not be that versatile that they are able to do research within the different "traditions". The conclusion must be that in an interdisciplinary team it must be a point of systematic discussion to ascertain what type (or types) of sociologist (or social scientist) is (are) needed.

70So in relation to the first task ("acceptable risk") it will be very useful to have a BX or BY sociologist at the disposal of the team (symbolic interactionism/interpretative sociology, cultural structuralism) while task 2 (analysis of relationships between PC, MC and E may require in the first place the contributions of AX and AY sociologists; task 3 (behaviour during and shortly after a disaster): AX/AB; task 4: AX, BX; task 5 (e.g. development of rescue and warning plans): AY (simulation methods) or/and AX (decision theory, rational choice theory) etc. From what has been said we may also draw some conclusions concerning interdisciplinary collaboration. It is evident, when we follow the general lines of this contribution, that this collaboration must be viewed as a process itself and, at the same time, the interdisciplinary team has to develop a process perspective when dealing with disasters, a process in which men are not considered to be trivial elements which are pushed by external events, but as conscious, goal-oriented persons, capable to learn in interaction with others (culture BX).

71At the same time it must be accentuated that interdisciplinary research must shrug off the classical division of labour (the Enlightenment model) in which every specialist contributes on the basis of his/her disciplinary body of knowledge. Mostly, these specialized contributions are connected chainlike (a → b → c → d = S ("solution")). It seems to be better to "deconstruct" this very analytical model of collaboration and to adopt a more open type of collaboration in which in all stages of an analysis (see, e.g., model 5) a number of different disciplines try to cooperate in all stages of the problem analysis or research.


1 E.J. Dijksterhuis, De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld (the mechanization of the image of the world). Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1980 (1950).

2 M. Weber, "Vorbemerkung zu den gesammelten Aufsätzen zur Religionssoziologie". In: M. Weber, Soziologie, Weltgeschichtliche Analysen, Politik. Stuttgart: Alfred Kroner Verlag, 1968, p. 340: "Nur im Okzident gibt es "Wissenschaft" in dem Entwicklungsstadium, welches wir heute als "gültig" anerkennen". Weber refers to the mathematical basis of science, the rational proof of statements, systematic empirical bases, systematic classification of law and rational organization.

3 J.H.J. van der Pot, Die Bewertung des technischen Fortschritts. Eine systematische Übersicht der Theorien. Assen-Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1985, Band I, p. 64.

4 A.O. Herrera, "Science, Technology and Human Rights: A prospective view". In: C.G. Weeramantry, ed., Human Rights and Technological Development. Tokyo: The United Nations University, 1991, chapter 2.

5 J.B. Vico, Principes d'une Science Nouvelle. 1725, 1730 and 1744.

6 E. Badinter and R. Badinter, Condorcet (1743-1794). Un intellectuel en politique. Paris: Fayard, 1988, p. 12; "L'originalité de Condorcet consiste notamment à bâtir une science de l'homme comme une science appliquée, c'est-à-dire à désacraliser l'idée de l'homme, démarche en tout point contraire à celle de christianisme".

7 F.G. Herder, Une autre philosphie de l'historié, 1774.

8 E. Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, 1790, Vol. II, p. 359.

9 R. Bendix, Force, Fate and Freedom. On historical sociology. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984, p. 8.

10 R. Bendix, p. 9.

11 B. Markowsky, "Toward multilevel sociological theories: similations of actor and network effects”. Sociological Theory. Vol. 5, 1 (Spring 1989), p. 101.

12 J. Piaget, Le structuralisme. Paris: PUF, 1972, p. 9-10.

13 See, however, J. Berting, "Structures, actors and choices". In: J.H.G. Klabbers, et al., Simulation - Gaming: On the Improvement of Competence in Dealing with Complexity, Uncertainty and Value Conflicts. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1989, p. 8-23.

14 C.W. Brown, "A new interdisciplinary impulse and the anthropology of the 1990s". International Social Science Journal, 116 (1988).

15 A. Woodcock and M. Davis, Catastrophe Theory. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978, p. 7; See also E.C. Zeeman, Catastrophe Theory, Selected papers, 1972-1977. London: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1977.

16 S.H. Prince, "Catastrophe and Social Change: Based upon a sociological study of the Halifax Disaster", pp. 1-152 in Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, Vol. 94. New York: Columbia University Press. This reference is given by Dynes, in "Introduction", in: R.R. Dynes, B. de Marchi, C. Pelanda, eds., Sociology of Disasters. Contribution of sociology to disaster research. Milano: Franco Angeli, 1987, p. 15.

17 P.A. Sorokin, Man and Society in Calamity. New York: Dutton, 1942.

18 P.A. Sorokin, o.c., p. 244. It is interesting to note that in B. Berelson's and G.A. Steiner's Human Behavior. An Inventory of Scientific Findings (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964) disasters are only connected with effects on the population (p. 623-625).

19 J. Berting, "Models of Development, Science and Technology, and Human Rights". In: C.G. Weeramantry, ed., The Technological Impacts on Human Rights. Tokyo: United Nations University, 1993.

20 J. Berting, "Public Acceptance of New Technologies in the Netherlands". In: R. Williams and S. Mills, eds., Public Acceptance of New Technologies. An International Review. London: Croom Helm, 1986, Chapter XII.

21 M. Douglas and A. Wildavsky, Risk and Culture. An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 5.

22 E.g. G.A. Kreps, ed., Social Structure and disaster. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

23 T.E. Drabek, Human Responses to Disaster. An inventory of sociological findings. New York, Springer Verlag, 1986.

24 See, e.g., M. Douglas and A. Wildavsky, o.c.; P.F. Ricci, L.H. Sagan, and C.G. Whipple, eds, Technological Risk Measurement. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984; Unesco: The assessment and migration of earthquake Risk, Paris, 1978; L. Sjöberg, Risk and Society, Studies of risk generation and reaction to risk, London: Alen and Unwin, 1987; W.J. Pelak and A.A. Atkinson, Natural hazard risk Assessment and Public Policy, Anticipating the unexpected, New York etc: Springer Verlag, 1982.

25 E.M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations. New York: The Free Press/London: Collier-MacMillan Ltd, 1983 (1962)

26 M. Olson, The rise and decline of nations. Economic growth, stagflation and social rigidities. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982

27 R.S. Olson, with B. Podesta and J.M. Nigg, The politics of earthquake Prediction. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton U.P., 1989, esp. p. 159 ff.

28 E.L. Jackson and I. Burton, "The process of human adjustment to earthquake risk". In: Unesco, o.c., 1989, p. 241.

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1996

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