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Vulnerability, “innocent” disasters and the imperative of cultural understanding

Terry Cannon (University of Greenwich, London, UK)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 20 June 2008




The purpose of this paper is to make an argument that there are different types of social construction of disasters.


The focus is on disasters triggered by natural hazards.


It is now widely accepted that disasters are a product of a natural hazard having an impact on a vulnerable population. But the value of the concept of vulnerability is in danger of becoming less meaningful because it is removed from the political and economic processes that generate some vulnerabilities. On the other hand, there are some types of disasters that are relatively “innocent”, in the sense that people live in places that are exposed to risk for purposes of access to their livelihood, and not because social forces or power relations have forced them to live there, or made some groups more vulnerable than others.

Practical implications

If it is the case that some vulnerability is “innocent”, then forms of explanation are needed of people's willingness to expose themselves to risk that go beyond the “strong” forms of social construction (where power relations are a key factor in generating the social construction of disasters). Instead, it is essential to examine “cultural” and psychological explanations of people's behaviour, including an understanding of group behaviour, religious beliefs and other aspects that often distinguish the perspective on risk taken by “insiders” compared with the supposedly rational and policy‐oriented approach of “outsiders” who see it as their role to help reduce disaster risks.


The discussion of different types of social construction of disasters is original. Debate on the need to include analysis of cultural and psychological aspects in disaster risk reduction is not very well developed and, according to this paper, is of absolutely crucial importance in reducing the impact of natural hazards.



Cannon, T. (2008), "Vulnerability, “innocent” disasters and the imperative of cultural understanding", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 350-357.



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Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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