Inside Higher Ed features a growing subfield of sociology: the sociology of disasters.
When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, a small group of unusual first responders is at the ready: sociologists.
In the past two decades, the ranks of researchers who study disasters, natural and otherwise, have seen their numbers swell. In the wake of a tornado or a hurricane — or an oil spill or terrorist attack — these sociologists examine how traditional areas of inquiry, such as issues related to race, gender or social class, unfold in extreme situations.
“They are a really unique opportunity to understand our social world,” said Alice Fothergill, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, of disasters, which she described as a more extreme version of everyday life. “Whatever the behavior is, it’s more exaggerated or sped up in time. There are all these ways in which people are finding that it’s this valuable setting, where people are finding that they have insights that they might not have during non-disaster times.”
Interest among sociologists in researching disasters and their aftermath increased after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. But it spiked even more after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and especially Hurricane Katrina, which is widely credited with drawing more attention to the racial and socioeconomic aspects of a disaster’s impact. Many argued that the black citizens of New Orleans have had a more difficult time getting support — and that the city that is emerging is less hospitable to them.
The article suggests this is a relatively recent development; why is this the case? Disasters, natural or manmade, are not restricted to the past few decades. Could it be tied to globalization which means that we all receive news and images quickly whenever any disaster happens pretty much anywhere in the world? Disasters do tend to make good (read: entertaining/engrossing) news and now they seem to have wider emotional impact. Could it be tied to the growing number of resources that are spent each year by governments and other organizations in response to disasters? Perhaps more than ever more, the “correct” response now matters in terms of public opinion and using resources wisely.