What is a Disaster?

One cannot talk about disaster songs without understanding what we mean by “disaster.” Not surprisingly, this is a complex and contested question amongst academics.

First, it is important to understand that different groups will have different definitions for disaster depending on their perspectives and needs. So a governmental disaster response agency will have a different (although overlapping) definition of disaster from that of a social scientist who will have a different definition from that of an “average” person in society. This makes our task complicated because we are scholars who must engage with scholarly definitions, but our interest in fieldwork and ethnography requires us to respect and acknowledge vernacular definitions of disaster amongst the people who create and sing songs about them. As an ethnomusicologist, one of my goals is to understand the terminology that is used within the community I study, and to understand what this term means to the people within it, not simply to impose a scholarly definition, no matter how convenient it may be.

Within disaster scholarship, there is also considerable disagreement over a definition. However, Perry (2006), has suggested that the following are common themes across social scientific definitions of disaster:

“First, disasters are inherently social phenomena. It is not the hurricane wind or storm surge that makes the disaster; these are the source of the damage. The disaster is the impact on individual coping patterns and the inputs and outputs of social systems. Second, the disaster is rooted in the social structure and reflects the processes of social change. It is from these features of the social system that we find vulnerability to the particular source.” (12)

In other words, if there’s a hurricane but no one is hurt and there’s minimal physical damage, it’s not a disaster. A disaster only exists if something negatively impacts the regular functioning of society in some way, such as through death and injury (usually in large numbers) or massive disruption to infrastructure, which includes physical infrastructure (such as the extensive loss of property), but also other types of infrastructure, such as disruptions to communications, transportation, political structures, and so on. This definition is broad enough to encompass rapid onset disasters, such as natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes) and technological disasters (such as mine explosions) as well as slower onset disasters whose source may be harder to pinpoint (such as a famine or toxic spill, which may take years before its full effects are felt).

However, in vernacular usage, the word “disaster” gets used for a wide range of situations, from complaints that a party was a “complete disaster” to large-scale and cataclysmic events such as tsunamis. And while I think most people would agree with the logic that disasters really depend upon social disruption to be defined as such, I also think that the vast majority of people would define disasters based on their agents, the hazards that produce social damage. Moreover, there are events such as plane crashes and shipwrecks that would surely be defined in the vernacular as disasters, even though they actually quite minimally impact the everyday functioning of society and would therefore be excluded from most social scientific studies of disasters.

For the purposes of this song project, therefore, we accept as disasters those events that cause or threaten harm to people and that are outside normal experience. We are limiting our study to rapid onset events, focusing especially on natural and technological disasters, and we are omitting events caused by intentional conflict, such as war and civil strife. Thus we include songs about the crash of Swiss Air flight 111 over Peggy’s Cove in 1998, the sinking of the oil platform Ocean Ranger in 1982, and innumerable shipwreck songs, but we exclude songs about strikes or battles at sea.

How do YOU define disaster?

Perry, Ronald W. 2006. What is a Disaster? In *Handbook of Disaster Research*, ed. Havidán Rodríguez, E. L. Quarantelli and Russell Rowe Dynes, 1-15. New York: Springer.


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