Organizing Disaster Studies

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In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is developing a 3-5 year disaster research and education agenda for higher education, which includes identifying thematic areas of research and associated relevant disciplines. FEMA needs to think carefully about how to coordinate this cross-disciplinary work. Disaster studies is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that requires knowledge from multiple fields of practice: for instance, to reduce earthquake risks buildings need to be built in a resilient manner (engineering) that matches community needs (anthropology) and at an appropriate price point that ensures market demand (economics).


Challenges in coordinating research

Problems arise when trying to figure out which academics should actually work together to solve different issues. All disciplines are potentially relevant to disasters, but research is a targeted examination into a problem so it is not possible to involve all disciplines in a single research project.

In its draft Emergency Management Research Agenda, FEMA, in consultation with several American academics, has outlined 5 major research thrusts of interest with several sub-thrusts, and identified the different disciplines relevant for those thrusts:

The table provides an overview of which disciplines are important for researching different sub-thrusts (besides ‘history’, which is strangely absent), but says very little on how researchers should work together beyond the silos of those sub-thrusts.


Assessing disaster research as an interdisciplinary network

The table provide data that can be used for network analysis. By turning the table into an adjacency matrix (with sub-thrusts and disciplines as nodes) the thrusts/disciplines can be visualized as a network to unpack the overall structure of the disaster studies and see what the field actually is: an interdisciplinary network.

Below is a network based created using Gephi, a tool for network analysis and visualization. The network shows out-degree:

Out degree is a measure of how many sub-themes a discipline interacts with, so nodes with large out-degrees can be considered widely relevant across the thematic areas. Anthropology and journalism have the highest out degrees.  Nodes with small out degrees would be considered more specialized, applying to specific problems.

Below is a network showing in-degree:

In degree is a measure of the number of disciplines that are relevant to a sub-theme, meaning that sub-themes with large in degrees (such as ’emerging hotspots’) would be quite interdisciplinary.

Network analysis can also be used to detect communities of nodes that are closely interconnected through a dense number of edges. When applied to the disciplinary/thematic networks community detection can help identify the interrelated thematic bodies of research and disciplines as communities.

The figure below shows the disciplinary/thematic map broken into 3 communities of practice:

These groups could be considered three overarching research agendas for disaster studies. Groups could be further refined if these research agendas turn out to be too unwieldy. This map shows a community of four different groups:


The four groups are: 

How universities, funders, and publishers can improve the network of disaster studies

An overall takeaway from all of this is that disaster researchers need to be reaching out across multiple departments as part of their research and teaching. Universities, funders, and publishers all play a role in facilitating this interdisciplinary work.


Since disaster studies is not the purview of a single discipline, universities with an explicit focus on disaster studies should seek to establish interdisciplinary disaster centers, ideally housed outside disciplinary departments, and fill them with cross-departmental researchers. Education might be focused on one discipline, but should include courses that encourage cross-disciplinary literacy. There are specific, well-known centers focused on disaster studies–for instance, the Natural Hazards Center at UC Boulder, University College Dublin’s Centre For Humanitarian Action, and the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London–but they’re few and far between and are often hampered by funding shortages. Cross-departmental appointments can be difficult since departments are often territorial over hires. Universities do offer disaster education, but it might reach out to the right students. For instance, FEMA identified journalism as an important part of disaster research, but disaster reporting does not seem to be a core part of journalism education (Columbia University’s is an exception here). History also seems lagging, given that it was not mentioned in FEMA’s draft report. Reaching out to students may also be difficult since in some universities students may be hesitant to take courses outside of their departments and there are often departmental incentives to have students use their credit hours within their departments.


Funders should encourage interdisciplinary research by requiring interdisciplinary research teams and outcomes. Funders are pretty good on the interdisciplinary research front, and tend to allow for or even require interdisciplinary research. However, disaster research is mainly focused on providing a social benefit, and has to compete with research streams that are easily monetized–and attractive to funders.


There needs to be venues for publishing interdisciplinary research that advances the theoretical and empirical base of disaster studies. There are several disaster specific journals out there (to name a few: Resilience: International Policies, Practices, and Discourses; International Journal of Disaster Risk ReductionDisasters; and the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management). These journals provide disaster researchers a valuable venue to publish their work, but the interdisciplinary nature of these journals, however, poses a danger for the relevance of disaster studies to other disciplines, in that publications may not be on the cutting-edge of the other disciplines that they draw from, to the extent that at times the field might reinvent the wheel. To avoid this it is important to maintain a healthy engagement with other disciplines.


While interdisciplinary research is an important part of disaster studies, is not necessary for all disciplines to work together all the time to understand disasters, and disaster studies today already has a healthy interdisciplinarity to it. The field could, however, benefit from a more targeted focus on establishing connections between different disciplines to address specific issues. This would require structural changes within universities and funding changes by donors, all while ensuring that research outputs remain relevant to the disciplines that they are based upon.

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