Section 1:Introduction to the Sociology of Hazards and Disasters – What is a “disaster”? What is “disaster recovery”? How do we understand “disaster recovery” as a theoretical concept? Understanding “sustainable recovery” as a project of “development.”

Key concepts and topics:

  • What is the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
  • What is the “Sociology of Hazards and Disasters”
  • What is a “disaster”?
  • What is “disaster recovery”?
  • How is “disaster recovery” a theoretical concept?
  • How are social inequalities and “vulnerability” linked to the disaster cycle?
  • What is “sustainable recovery”?
  • What is “development” (in the context of disasters and disaster recovery)?
  • What is “cultural competence”?

Part 1: Outline of the section with background information, bibliographic resources for the instructors preparation and learning objectives

  • Background information:

Defining “disaster”: Within the discipline of the “sociology of hazards and disasters” there is agreement that “disaster” can be defined in multiple ways. Considering the multiple definitions of “disasters,” this module will rely heavily on the definition espoused by Wisner et al. whereby a “disaster” is “a situation involving a natural hazard which has consequences in terms of damage, livelihoods/economic disruption and/or casualties that are too great for the affected area and people to deal with properly on their own,” (Wisner et al. 2012; 30).We may expand on this definition of “disaster” to include three broad (and not mutually exclusive) forms or types of “disasters”.

  1. First, there are “natural disasters,” what we might understand as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis, etc. For this learning module, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami may be understood as a “natural disaster.”
  2. Second, there are “technological disasters” that can include power failures, explosions caused by technological malfunctions, and even the Y2K crisis whereby computer malfunctions were expected to wreak havoc on computing systems when clocks switched over to the year 2000.
  3. Third, there are “man-made disasters,” and in the context of this learning module, we can conceptualize the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 – 2009) as a “man-made disaster” – an event(s) that cause(s) disastrous conditions to human populations, and is manifested by humans.
    • “Wars” and civil conflicts specifically may also be referred to as “complex humanitarian emergencies.” In this module, the Sri Lankan civil war will may be referred to as a “man-made disaster” and “complex humanitarian emergency” interchangeably.

Disasters are not one-time events with linear trajectories. Disasters are understood as a cycle with a starting point, often conceptualized as the mitigation and preparation period combined with the onset of the hazard event, a middle or a period of emergency both during and immediately following the event, and an end, where communities return to normalcy and recovery occurs (Tierney 2007).

The disaster cycle: (Tierney 2007)

  1. Starting point (including “vulnerability” and “resilience”)
  2. Onset of hazard event
  3. Period of emergency
  4. Periods of relief and recovery
  5. Long-term recovery

Defining “community”: For the sake of this learning module, we will be discussing “community-level” disasters and disaster recovery. “Community” can be defined in a number of ways, and in this case study, Sri Lankan “communities” are defined as “Grama Niladhari divisions” (or GN division), which is the smallest municipal unit in Sri Lanka. The strength of social networks within communities an important factor when considering a community’s vulnerability to disasters, and it’s ability to recover from disasters. To measure the strength of social networks, sociologists use the concept of “social capital” – those social networks and positions that yield various benefits for their members. Section 2 of this module focuses on this concept in depth. As such it is only briefly introduced in section 1.

Vulnerability and inequalities in disasters: Additionally, it is important to note that “disasters do not affect all members of society equally” (Fothergill and Peek 2004; 89), and as such, this module will include explanations of inequality and disaster vulnerability with a sensitivity to such an understanding. “Vulnerability (to a disaster) is a function of exposure (who is at risk) and sensitivity of system (the degree to which people and places can be harmed)” (Cutter et al. 2008, 559). Vulnerability is a function of social class, gender, race/ethnicity, social capital, and political dis/enfranchisemet among other axes of social inequity (Tierney 2007, Cannon 2000). As such, not all communities experience disasters in the same way, and certainly – not all communities recover from disasters in the same way.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Sri Lanka: The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was a “megacatastrophe” that resulted in widespread destruction of both residential and commercial structures and had extensive human costs (Aldrich 2012). The tsunami killed more than 174,000 people and displaced more than 1.5 million people, and at the time it occurred, the devastation was considered unprecedented (Risk Management Solutions 2006). In Sri Lanka alone, more than seventy percent of the island nation’s coastline was affected by the waves, and roughly 35,000 lives were lost (McGilvray and Gamburd 2013). The persistence of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009; also known as the “Elam War”), which pitted the Sri Lankan government (Buddhist/Sinhala) against the Tamil Separatist Movement (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam, or “LTTE”) during both the onset and relief and recovery phases of the tsunami offers a unique natural experiment for understanding the multidimensional process at play between complex humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters.

Disaster recovery: “Disaster recovery” is also a term that comes with many definitions. “Recovery” as a concept, is equally as dynamic as “disaster.” Recovery from disasters is multi-dimensional and is studied by scientists and practitioners from a wide array of fields. There is a great deal of consensus within the field of disaster studies that recovery from disasters is not a simple return to the status-quo, or a return to the same way a community was before the disaster struck. Instead, we now aim for “sustainable disaster recovery,” whereby those communities that experience a disaster recover in a way in which they “build back better.” Within this “building back better” paradigm, certain community-level features not only return community members to their pre-existing social relationships, economic situations, housing and structural formations, but that these features are heightened or improved upon post-disaster. So, with this in mind, “recovery” may mean that a community builds stronger social relationships, more stable economic relationships, and stronger and more resilient housing and other physical structures (schools, medical facilities, water, and energy provision resources, etc.). Additionally, a community that recovers sustainably will implement risk mitigation and reduction measures so that they will be better prepared for another disaster in the future.

Smith and Wenger (2007) define “sustainable disaster recovery” as:

the differential process of restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the physical, social, economic, and natural environment through pre-event planning and post-event actions. This orientation focuses on processes. It sees sustainable disaster recovery as a holistic, nonlinear series of actions taken by community-level social units and systems that result in alterations to the built, social, economic, and natural environments. Both pre-event and post-event actions are part of the process, including the role state and federal organizations, non-profits, emergent groups, corporations, and others play in local recovery…” (Smith and Wenger 2007; 246)

Building a theory of sustainable community-level disaster recovery: They express that building a “theory of sustainable disaster recovery” is an important exercise for both researchers and practitioners, and will help “guide substantive, integrated research” that spans academic disciplines and practitioner groups (245).

As previously mentioned, not all communities experience the same levels of pre-disaster vulnerability. As such, the process of recovery following a disaster event is a function of pre-existing social inequalities (Phillips 2009, Tierney 2006). It is important to note that recovery is not a linear series of distinct stages or a linear process and that there are thousands of ways to conceptualize recovery and many pathways by which recovery occurs (Aldrich 2012; Jordan and Javernick-Will 2012; Tierney & Oliver-Smith 2012).

Phillips (2009) explains that recovery may be conceptualized as a process with two sub phases: short-term and long-term recovery. Short term recovery and relief may include the rescue of and administration of first-aid attention to survivors, the sheltering victims, and tending to immediate needs of providing food, shelter, and safety to those in need. Long-term recovery includes the rebuilding of infrastructure, the restoration of economic functioning, and the implementation of risk reduction measures within communities.  (Nakagawa & Shaw 2004; Phillips 2009, Smith & Wenger 2007)

This module will focus on four distinct types of recovery:

  1. Social recovery – the tending to the mental health of community members, the physical return of populations to their communities, the achievement of an improved sense of quality of life, the availability of social services, and the strengthening of inter-community social ties;
  2. Economic recovery – returns to viable employment for community members, the return of value within the housing market, and the return of business activity within a community;
  3. Infrastructure recovery – the repair and restoration of local facilities and lifelines, the repair and rebuilding of houses and community structures, and improvements to transportation (repairing and restoring roads and pathways in and out of communities); and
  4. Risk reduction – whereby “lessons learned” from the disaster are incorporated into community plans for future disaster preparedness. For instance (though not limited to): the development, installation, and activation of early warning systems, the development of clear evacuation routes and plans, the engagement of a community with other governmental and non-governmental officials to make plans for future disasters, and the assurance that all stakeholders made aware of future disaster plans.


Differential vulnerabilities and differential recoveries in Sri Lanka’s east coast: This module analyzes two specific communities on Sri Lanka’s East (Batticaloa district) coast to describe both 1) the interplay between “natural” and “man-made” disasters, and 2) differential recovery as a result of differential vulnerabilities. Section 2 dives into these case studies a bit deeper, but the communities are introduced here.

One community is a mixed-religion Tamil community in Kallady, Battocaloa, and the other is a 100% Muslim community in Kattankudy, Batticaloa. These GN divisions are roughly 7 kilometers apart from each other, and experienced similar effects of the tsunami waves, but had vastly different recovery trajectories and outcomes.

The ethno-religious identity of communities is an especially salient feature considering the ways in which the context of civil war shaped recovery experiences. Though “Tamil” is the common language for both communities, the ethno-religious make-up of each community is where the vast differences can be observed. The community in Kallady is a Tamil identifying mixed- religious community consisting of a majority Hindu population and some Christian families, whereas Kattankudy is one hundred percent Muslim. Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking Muslims identify as “Moors”. In the Sri Lankan context, religion and ethnicity are conflated making it difficult to conceptually separate “religion” and “ethnicity” from each other as a primary features that may have shaped recovery strategies and outcomes for these two communities.

It has been observed that this Tamil/Hindu community has not recovered as well (at least in terms of Western thinking) as the Muslim community. Again, this is something that will be discussed in more detail in section 2 of the module. However, the powerpoint presentation includes a brief example that shows the differences in housing recovery between the two communities. It is in section 2 where those differences are explained in more depth.

A brief example (see the powerpoint for photos illustrating what follows; slide #14 –“For Example: Infrastructure Recovery”):Both the Tamil/Hindu and Muslim communities experienced similar physical effects from the tsunami waves, yet had different recovery trajectories and outcomes, which I have found to be partially attributable to their levels of social capital within the context of the Sri Lankan civil war.

  • What you can clearly see from these photos:
    • Tamil/Hindu Community in Kallady: this is an unfinished housing project – photo is taken from where a front-door would be, but is not. There is no finished floor, the roofing is incomplete, and there is also no electricity or running water within the home. This is a typical situation in this community. Furthermore, it was difficult to determine, in some cases, which I/NGO helped to build the house because dissatisfied community members would paint over or rip the plaques off of their homes
    • Muslim Community in Kattankudy: this is a typical photo of a household in the muslim community – a woman proudly standing in her front door next to a plaque that shows the work of a prominent/well-known I/NGO. I found that typically, families in this community were able to re-build close to their families, they have finished homes (with extra decorations – cabinets full of knick knacks and china-ware for special occasions), and upgraded window fixtures; additionally, I did not see one home that was not outfitted with the ability for electricity, and in-home running water, though in some cases – people would complain about the affordability of utilities (though this is not uncommon across many communities in SL who are in general, disgruntled with the Ceylon Electricity Board.)

Again, this is just a visual representation of the different recovery outcomes with a brief explanation. Section 2 covers these differences in depth.


Disaster recovery as “development”: Utilizing the case study of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Sri Lanka allows us to take a more specific look at the role of “development” following disasters. As a result of globalization, human societies are now more interconnected than ever. In the case of Sri Lanka and the 2004 tsunami, this is well-illustrated by the concept of the “Golden Wave” (see: Gamburd 2013) whereby massive amounts of foreign aid and monies flowed into Sri Lanka following the waves of the tsunami. Because this golden wave of resources and money was coming to Sri Lanka from foreign stakeholders, there was a great deal of influence from foreign nations about how Sri Lanka’s recovery took, and is still taking place. Broadly speaking, in this case, Western countries had great influence on the recovery decisions made following the tsunami in Sri Lanka. According to Pelling (2003), we should better understand the links between global processes and local disaster experiences. Here, Western forces may and do exert themselves upon what are often countries in the global South during disaster recovery periods by implementing projects that are intended as “development projects.” Pelling defines “development” as a “economic, social, and political process, which results in a cumulative rise in the perceived standard of living for an increasing proportion of the population” (Pelling 2003; 4).

In the case of Sri Lanka’s ongoing recovery from the tsunami, there are many ways in which “development” is taking place under the guise, or in tandem with, “recovery projects” – for instance, the introduction of new household technologies (electricity, connections to centralized water systems, and waste facilities including septic tanks), or the introduction of tourism-based economic industry where it may not have previously existed. These are just a few ways that “development” takes place in the form of “disaster recovery”; and it is important to remember that there are many sides to the stories of “development” – some communities may not want or need these different technologies, the technologies may not be culturally appropriate, and in the case of Eastern Sri Lankan tourism, the influx of foreigners into communities can and has caused unintended changes to social structures.

Issues with cultural competence: Additionally, when foreign entities are not considerate of the cultural contexts that they are working in, issues arise whereby foreign influences may disrupt traditional cultural practices. In the case of Eastern Sri Lankan housing development, many international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were not aware of the matri-local nature of community organization in Tamil/Hindu communities, and may have built houses and signed house deeds over to a male head-of-household which goes against the local tradition of female-homeownership. Here, we can see that cultural insensitivity in the development-based approach to international disaster aid can simultaneously help to create prosperity and introduce problematic changes to local social structures.

  • Bibliographic Resources:

Aldrich, D. P. (2012). Building resilience: Social capital in post-disaster recovery. University of Chicago Press.

Cannon, T. (2000). Vulnerability analysis and disasters. Floods1, 45-55.

Cutter, S. L., Barnes, L., Berry, M., Burton, C., Evans, E., Tate, E., & Webb, J. (2008). A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural disasters. Global environmental change, 18(4), 598-606.

Fothergill, A., & Peek, L. A. (2004). Poverty and disasters in the United States: A review of recent sociological findings. Natural hazards, 32(1), 89-110.

Gamburd, M. R. (2013). The golden wave: Culture and politics after Sri Lanka’s tsunami disaster. Indiana University Press.

Jordan, E., & Javernick-Will, A. (2012). Measuring community resilience and recovery: a content analysis of indicators. In Construction Research Congress 2012: Construction Challenges in a Flat World (pp. 2190-2199).

Kleinfeld, M. (2007). Misreading the post-tsunami political landscape in Sri Lanka: the myth of humanitarian space. Space and Polity, 11(2), 169-184.

McGilvray, D. B., & Gamburd, M. R. (Eds.). (2013). Tsunami recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and regional dimensions. Routledge.

Nakagawa, Y., & Shaw, R. (2004). Social capital: A missing link to disaster recovery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters22(1), 5-34.

Pelling, M. (2003). Natural disaster and development in a globalizing world. Routledge.

Phillips, B. (2009). Disaster recovery. Auerbach Pub.

Risk Management Solutions Inc. (2006) Managing Tsunami Risk in the Aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. Retrieved from:

Rodriguez, H., Wachtendorf, T., Kendra, J., & Trainor, J. (2006). A snapshot of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: societal impacts and consequences. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal15(1), 163-177.

Smith, G. P., & Wenger, D. (2007). Sustainable disaster recovery: Operationalizing an existing agenda. Handbook of disaster research, 234-257.

Tierney, K. (2006). Social inequality, hazards, and disasters. On risk and disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina, 109-128.

Tierney, K. (2007). From the margins to the mainstream? Disaster research at the crossroads. Annual Review of Sociology33.

Tierney, K., & Oliver-Smith, A. (2012). Social Dimensions of Disaster Recovery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies & Disasters, 30(2).

Wisner, B., Gaillard, J. C., & Kelman, I. (2011). Framing disaster.

Learning Objectives (re: Bloom’s Taxonomy

  • Understand:
  • Students should be able to interpret the meaning of “disaster” as a concept that is multifaceted and has multiple definitions.
  • Students should be able to summarize and compare the three different types of “disasters”
  • Analyze:
  • Students should be able to analyze ways in which their own communities may be vulnerable to a specific type of disaster
  • Students should be able to define “sustainable disaster recovery” and differentiate it from a simplistic definition of “disaster recovery”

Part 2: Two peer-reviewed articles that may be used as background information for the instructor and/or as assigned reading for students

  1. See attached pdf: “Rodriguez et al. (2006)” Rodriguez, H., Wachtendorf, T., Kendra, J., & Trainor, J. (2006). A snapshot of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: societal impacts and consequences. Disaster Prevention and  Management: An International Journal15(1), 163-177.
  2. See attached pdf: “Tierney and Oliver-Smith (2012)” Tierney, K., & Oliver-Smith, A. (2012). Social Dimensions of Disaster Recovery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies & Disasters30(2).

Part 3: PowerPoint slides covering the key concepts outlined in the section that may be used to a brief lecture and to facilitate classroom discussion

  • See attached:
  • Section 1_pt 3_Powerpoint.ppt, and
    • This PowerPoint can be printed as slides for students as a handout, and includes notes for an instructor’s presentation. The included notes are the notes used in the recordings (Part 4)
  • Section 1_pt 3_Powerpoint.pdf
    • This is a .pdf file of just the slides. The hyperlinks within the .ppt file do not work in the .pdf file, but you will find the links in part 6 of this section

Part 4: A video recording of the PowerPoint presentation (given in Part 4) that may be assigned to students for out-of-classroom viewing

  • See attached video recording: BITTEL_AISLS_CDG 2017_SECTION 1 VIDEO

Part 5: One assignment to address higher level learning objectives (application/creation) with a corresponding assessment rubric

Part 6: Links to relevant multi-media resources included in the section

Part 7: A brief list of resources for further investigation