Disasters, Continuity, and the Pathological Normal


  • Ryan Hagen Department of Sociology, Columbia University https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6555-0746
  • Rebecca Elliott Department of Sociology, London School of Economics https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6983-7026




disaster, social change, risk, COVID-19


In this introductory essay to our symposium we argue that “Sociology After COVID-19” needs to center “disaster” itself as an object of study and theory, and that doing so can productively reframe sociology’s fundamental concerns. Building off nascent interdisciplinary work in critical disaster studies, as well as on the insights of our own contributors, we advance and elaborate two theses. First, while disasters are disruptive, they are not purely so; as they unfold, they enfold continuities such that they are best understood as a part of social reality rather than apart from it. Second, disasters are not pathological deviations from “normal” so much as they are the most salient manifestations of the ways that the normal is in fact pathological. A more critical approach to disaster can lead sociologists to examine more closely the interrelationship between the production of continuities and ruptures in social and economic life, enriching our understanding of core disciplinary concerns about social change, stratification, and inequality.


Arcaya, M., Raker, E.J., & Waters, M.C. (2020). The Social Consequences of Disasters: Individual and Community Change.

Annual Review of Sociology, 46, 671–691. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-121919-054827

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Beck, U. (2009). World at Risk. Malden: Polity Press.

Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted. New York: Broadway Books.

Elliott, J.R., & Howell, J. (2016). Beyond Disasters: A Longitudinal Analysis of Natural Hazards’ Unequal Impacts on Residential Instability. Social Forces, 95(3), 1181–1207. https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/sow086

Elliott, R. (2018). The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss. European Journal of Sociology, 59(3), 301–337. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003975618000152

Erikson, K. (1994). A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York: Norton.

Fine, G.A. (2021). Viral Buzz: Rumor and Its Disruptions in Pandemic Uncertainty. Sociologica , 15(1), 43–53. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11620

Gotham, K.F., & Greenberg, M. (2014). Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Graeber, D. (2021). After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep. Jacobin, 3 April. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/03/david-graeber-posthumous-essay-pandemic

Greenberg, M. (2021). Seeking Shelter: How Housing and Urban Exclusion Shape Exurban Disaster. Sociologica, 15(1), 67–89. http://dx.doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11869

Gusfield, J.R. (1984). The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haff, P.K. (2014). Technology as a Geological Phenomenon: Implications for Human Well-Being. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395(1), 301–309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1144/SP395.4

Hennepin County Public Health Assessment Team. (2017). Infant Mortality. https://www.hennepin.us/-/media/hennepinus/your-government/research-data/public-health-data/infant-mortality-2017.pdf

Hewitt, K. (1983). The Idea of Calamity in a Technocratic Age. In K. Hewitt (Ed.), Interpretations of Calamity(pp. 3–32). London: George Allen & Unwin.

Horowitz, A. (2020). Katrina: A History, 1915–2015. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Howell, J., & Elliott, J.R. (2019). Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States. Social Problems, 66(3), 448–467. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016

Jacobs, F. (2021). Beyond Social Vulnerability: COVID-19 as a Disaster of Racial Capitalism. Sociologica, 15(1), 55–65. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11659

Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Macmillan.

Livne, R. (2021). COVID, Economized. Sociologica, 15(1), 21–42. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11636

Madden, D. (2021). Disaster Urbanization: The City Between Crisis and Calamity. Sociologica, 15(1), 91–108. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/12405

Patterson, O. (2004). Culture and Continuity: Causal Structures in Socio-Cultural Persistence. In R. Friedland & J. Mohr (Eds.), Matters of Culture: Cultural Sociology in Practice(pp. 71–109). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raker, E.J. (2020). Natural Hazards, Disasters, and Demographic Change: The Case of Severe Tornadoes in the United States, 1980–2010. Demography, 57(2), 653–674. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-020-00862-y

Ray, V. (2019). A Theory of Racialized Organizations. American Sociological Review, 84(1), 26–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122418822335

Remes, J.A.C. (2019). Disasters as Suffering Out of Place: Toward a Spatial, Subjective Definition of Disaster [Conference paper]. Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action Conference. University of Toronto Mississauga, Toronto, Canada, 18 October.

Remes, J.A.C., & Horowitz, A. (Eds.). (2021). Critical Disaster Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rubio, F.D. (2020). Still Life. Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Shove, E. (2010). Social Theory and Climate Change: Questions Often, Sometimes and Not Yet Asked. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), 277–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276410361498

Simko, C. (2021). Mourning and Memory in the Age of COVID-19. Sociologica, 15(1), 109–124. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11736

Sullivan, E. (2018). Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Tierney, K.J. (2007). From the Margins to the Mainstream? Disaster Research at the Crossroads. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 503–525. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.33.040406.131743

Turner, B.A. (1978). Man-Made Disasters. London: Wykeham.

Vaughan, D. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vaughan, D. (1999). The Dark Side of Organizations: Mistake, Misconduct, and Disaster. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 271–305. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.25.1.271

Wagner-Pacifici, R. (2021). What is an Event and Are We in One?. Sociologica, 15(1), . https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11615

Wrigley-Field, E. (2020). US Racial Inequality May Be as Deadly as COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(36), 21854–21856. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014750117

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Waters, C.N., Barnosky, A.D., Palmesino, J., Rönnskog, A-S., Edgeworth, M., Neal, C., Cearreta, A., & Ellis, E.C. (2017). Scale and Diversity of the Physical Technosphere: A Geological Perspective. The Anthropocene Review, 4(1), 9–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019616677743




How to Cite

Hagen, R., & Elliott, R. (2021). Disasters, Continuity, and the Pathological Normal. Sociologica, 15(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/12824



Special Feature