University of Liverpool, Fall 2017/2018


Images of disasters flood the news constantly. Mine shafts collapse, hurricanes rage, wildfires devastate, and earthquakes wreak catastrophic horror. Such events are traditionally understood as “natural disasters,” the product of an unruly and capricious environment that spawns devastation unpredictably. We are at the whims of nature, the phrase seems to suggest. But how “natural” are disasters? Disaster studies, the methodology we’ll be exploring in depth this semester, suggests that no disasters are purely natural but are always a product of human interaction with—and manipulation of—nature. In this framework, natural hazards—like hurricanes, drought, or earthquakes—only become disasters in their interaction with the manmade world. 

This special subject module explores the relationship between disasters, culture, politics, and society and provides the tools to think about this relationship historically. We’ll consider the historical trajectories, political decisions, cultural forces, and geographical happenstance that have left some nations and regions more susceptible to disaster than others, and we’ll also consider the ways that societies over time have responded in the aftermath of catastrophe. Finally, the module will examine the usefulness of a disaster studies framework and question the existence of “natural disasters.”

This special subject also serves as an introduction to the methods you’ll be using for your dissertation in the spring semester, and we will work on further developing the skills that you’ll need for that extended, independent research project.