A Weberian Program for Disaster Research*


Robert A. Stallings

*Summary of a paper presented at the IVth European Conference of Sociology, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 1999.

Max Weber’s writings on ideal types having proven useful in a previous attempt to answer the question, "What is a disaster?", the further question arose as to whether Weber’s work as a whole provides a useful framework for future disaster studies. Weber himself never made an explicit, systematic study of a disaster. He did make numerous references to disasters in his writings, ranging from describing a flood as a type of non-social event having no sociological relevance to examining beliefs about disasters in ancient Judaism to pointing out the relatively greater vulnerability of looms concentrated in workshops as a result of the Industrial Revolution. If there had been a Weberian study of disaster, what would it have been like? There are two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, answers to this question: one might have been a study in political economy focusing on three dimensions of inequality in political communities generally labeled the economic order, the social order, and the legal order (or class, status, and power); the other might have been a study of disenchantment, the increasing historical dominance of instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität) in social action at the expense emotion, tradition, and value rationality.

A re-examination of Harry Estill Moore’s classic 1958 monograph, Tornadoes over Texas, was carried out using Weber’s political economic framework. The result was not a refutation of Moore’s original conclusions; however, it did give a different texture to his analyses. Moore’s book contains two themes about the disaster process, one implicit, the other explicit. The explicit theme is captured in a final chapter wherein Moore outlines a theory of disaster. This "theory" is a process model of disasters describing a brief period of disorganized behavior immediately after impact giving way to organized activity leading eventually to recovery. This theme portrays the two Texas cities most severely damaged by the storms, Waco and San Angelo, as undergoing a benign, almost evolutionary, social process from destruction to restoration. The implicit theme is that of determined individuals overcoming great hardships to reestablish normal post-disaster lives.

A political economy of the Texas disasters tells a different story, one that is less benign and less inevitable. It is a story of raw economic power exercised by the business classes to manipulate the immediate disaster response and to shape the long-term recovery process. The business class in Waco intimidated that city’s amateurish government, forced the military to cease search and rescue operations, made unsafe structures extremely difficult to demolish, ignored building codes during reconstruction, and directed the flow of donated recovery funds to local businesses; status differences along the lines of race, age, and family structure were telling during both the response and recovery periods; and local government, long constrained by business interests, was nearly totally dependent on federal relief agencies for direction.

A Weberian approach to disaster focusing on the process of rationalization suggests several topics for future research that have not yet been systematically investigated. Among them are the following two lines of inquiry. One is the study of the emergence of new occupational and professional specialties. How do their practitioners use disasters to advance claims of legitimacy? What consequences does the emergence of new specialties have on disasters and other types of disruptions of routines? Among recent examples are the arrivals of "grievance" and "condolence" counselors who turn up after mass shootings, disasters, and the like. Another line of inquiry is the sociological study of emotions in disaster. While seemingly a contradiction to the focus on instrumental rationality, the study of emotions follows logically from Weber’s typology of social action. The emergence of counseling specialists represents in effect a "rationalization" of (the handling of) emotions. More generally, disasters as disruptions of routines are marked off not only cognitively (e.g., with temporal expressions such as "before," "at the time," and "afterward") but also emotionally. These emotions are heterogeneous and conflicting, from extremes of fear and grief to extremes of exhilaration and self-satisfaction. Emotions are both socially generated and socially controlled and change throughout the disaster process. Disasters are an excellent opportunity to study the relationship of emotions to the other three major types of social action.

Overall, it is the political economic framework that seems most needed in American sociological studies of disaster. Such a framework would broaden the focus to encompass the structural aspects of power and inequality that operate continuously to shape disaster mitigation, response, and recovery. Weber’s model of political communities is comprehensive, balanced, and flexible. It thus seems better suited for future disaster studies than the competing theories of Marx and his intellectual descendents such as Ulrich Beck, the synthesizing efforts of Anthony Giddens, or the elaborate categorical schemes of Niklas Luhmann.