What is Risk in Disaster Research?


The first major concept and theorizing popular in the current research disaster is a risk. Risk research encompasses a broad range of topics on the probability of disaster events and their effects to communities.

Risk scholarship flows from work on technology, natural disasters, individual, group, and organizational decision-making, politics, stratification, environment, and social impact assessment (Fredenburg 1986, Dietz et al., 1993). The fields of risk assessment and risk analysis are aimed at identifying, measuring, characterizing, and evaluating the outcomes resulting from natural and technological hazards (Lowrance, 1976; Crouch and Wilson, 1982; Lave, 1982; Mitchell, 1990; National Research Council, 1996).

Dead bodies haiti

“Disaster risk is socially distributed in ways that reflect preexisting inequalities, in that some groups are more prone to death, injury, economic loss, and psychological impairment in the wake of differing hazards (Wisner et al., 2004). Specifically, children, the elderly, women, racial minorities, the poor, persons with physical or mental disabilities, and immigrants have been identified by both disaster researchers and policy makers as especially vulnerable to the harmful impacts of disaster (Cutter et al., 2003)”.


Disaster risk is generally viewed either in a constructivist or objectivist manner. The constructivist thinking views disaster as a social construct and examines the social representations and perceptions, and the interaction between different social actors and phenomena. It views the conditions of risk and the attitudes to risk as rooted in societies that can inevitably lead to disasters. The objectivist or realist thinking which is popular in the natural and physical sciences believes that risk can be quantified and objectively judged (van Niewerk, 2012, p.4).


Other social science perspectives have influenced the products and risk assessments more than sociology has (Dietz et al., 199). In particular, Anthropology examines how culture and ideology shape societal definitions of risk. Douglas and Wildaveshy (1982), for instance, argue that risk is not a reflection of objective reality, but rather a cultural phenomenon that reflects societal and group values and that must be interpreted in the light of their broader cultural functions. The fields of psychology and social psychology which dominated risk research in the social sciences focus on “how individuals perceive various risks, what factors enter into the estimation of risk, and how people make risk-related choices” (Tierney, 1999, p.218).


Despite its popularity, not all scholars rely on risk in assessing hazards and disasters. This concept is not without criticism from sociologists. Zinn (2009), for instance, argued that it is obviously unreasonable to ‘over-rely’ on risk, as it is too narrow for any sociological research, and it is particularly harmful to a sociological approach to risk to subscribe to the technical and ‘rationalist’ understanding of risk or the economic approach grounded in instrumental rationality and a conventional model of rationality. “Although some sociological work is based on rational actor approaches (Coleman, 1990; Gambetta, 1988), most sociologists find this approach unsatisfactory in dealing with situations in which others are involved (Bloor, 1995).


Although research using risk framework recognizes that risks are shaped by structural and institutional contexts, it has no integrating theory. The distinctive contribution of this perspective is its emphasis on the role of shared ideas and normative frameworks, understood in terms of the contribution of cultural and social factors, to the understanding and prioritizing of risks and responses to them among all those involved (Taylor-Gooby and Zinn, 2006).


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