How Are Natural Disasters Socially Constructed?

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With reference to various examples, discuss how ‘natural’ disasters are socially constructed.

While natural disasters such as floods, drought and hurricanes are commonly thought to occur due to environmental forces such as weather, climate and tectonic movements; a deeper investigation into the ‘disaster’ displays other contributing forces. Human factors have a large, if not equal, contribution to the occurrance and outcome of such disasters (Pelling, 2001). As Pelling (2001) argues, there is both a physical and human dimension to ‘natural disasters’. The extent to which the natural occurrence of a physical process, such as a flood or earthquake, impacts on society is constructed by that society, creating a ‘disaster’ as measured by a loss of life, structures and/or money. If a similar natural event was to occur in a place deserted of human life or contact, it would not be termed a ‘natural disaster’ but recognised as the Earth’s natural processes and physical movement. Conversely, these processes are potentially disasterous for the Earth’s plant and animal biodiversity; however the Earth manages to adapt and recover. It is the culture vs. nature separation and the uneven distribution of power in society that has contributed to the recent increase in natural disaster occurrence. There is a separation of society and nature where humans view nature as untamed and wild, leading to their attempt to control it. This has lead to the conservative response to managing disasters we currently use that focuses solely on the physical factors. (Reference the lecture here). Vulnerability due to power inequalities within society impacts the damage caused, and to whom, from these natural hazards.

The social construction of natural disasters results from power inequalities in society that leads to vulnerability of certain groups. Within society we construct categories, for example by class or gender, which are more exposed to risk (McLaughlin & Dietz, 2007). Class inequity...
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