The social construction of disasters in the United States: A historical and cultural phenomenon


  • Tonya T. Neaves, PhD
  • T. Aaron Wachhaus, PhD
  • Grace A. Royer, MPAc



social construction, disasters, language, Culture


Introduction: Societal risks from hazards are continually increasing. Each year, disasters cause thousands of deaths and cost billions of dollars. In the first half of 2011, the United States endured countless disasters—winter snowstorms in the Midwest and Northeast; severe tornadic weather in the Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri; flash flooding in Nashville; flooding along the Mississippi River; an earthquake on the East Coast, wildfires in Texas, and Hurricane Irene. Fundamental disaster planning is regarded as an interdisciplinary approach to develop strategies and instituting policies concerned with phases of emergency management; as such, its needs are predicated on the identification of hazards and assessment of risks.

Problem: Even if the probability or intensity of risks to disasters remains fairly constant, population growth, alongside economic and infrastructural development, will unavoidably result in a concomitant increase of places prone to such events. One of the greatest barriers to emergency management efforts is the failure to fully grasp the socially and politically constructed meaning of disasters.

Purpose: This article investigates the ways in which language has been used historically in the American lexicon to make sense of disasters in the United States in an effort to improve communal resiliency. Serving as both an idea and experience, the terminology used to convey our/the modern-day concept of disaster is a result of a cultural artifact, ie, a given time and specific place.

Methodology: Tools such as Google Ngram Viewer and CASOS AutoMap are used to explore the penetration, duration, and change in disaster terminology among American English literature for more than 200 years, from 1800 to 2008, by quantifying written culture.

Findings: The language of disasters is an integral part of disaster response, as talking is the primary way that most people respond to and recover from disasters. The vast majority of people are not affected by any given disaster, and so it is through discussing a disaster that people make sense of it, respond, and react to it, and fit something that is overwhelming and beyond human control into the normal order of life.

Author Biographies

Tonya T. Neaves, PhD

Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

T. Aaron Wachhaus, PhD

College of Public and International Affairs, University of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland

Grace A. Royer, MPAc

Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia


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How to Cite

Neaves, PhD, T. T., T. A. Wachhaus, PhD, and G. A. Royer, MPAc. “The Social Construction of Disasters in the United States: A Historical and Cultural Phenomenon”. Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 15, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 175-87, doi:10.5055/jem.2017.0326.