ensuing decades (e.g., rapid-onset, big-bang types of natural and human-induced disasters that roughly parallel the effects of explosions). World War II and Cold War public policy concerns about nuclear weapons had a profound effect on the directions of these two disciplines. Thus, parallel development of the hazards field in geography before, during, and after the war was absolutely critical for achieving a balanced perspective, as was Gilbert White’s leadership in natural hazards, generally, and flood hazards, more specifically, in terms of public policy.
It is not coincident then that hazards and disaster research coevolved at roughly the same time. Studies of disasters, hazards, and their associated risks have always been grounded in the everyday and guided by the prevailing social, economic, and political conditions in specific historical periods. The context within which disasters, hazards, and risks are studied and the ways in which society responds to them are often a function of demographic, economic, and political changes not only in the United States, but throughout the world (see Chapter 6). The nature of the subject matter addressed by social scientists—whether events that arise from the interaction of natural systems and human systems, willful or human-induced threats, or technological failures—means that it is impossible to understand the human response without understanding the larger context within which that response takes place. Thus, to understand the types of events studied and the substantive topics addressed by hazards and disaster researchers, some of the macro- and meso-level societal changes that have influenced social science research on hazards, disasters, and risk must be reviewed.
Accordingly, this chapter provides an overview of societal changes that influence how and what hazards and disaster researchers study. The chapter begins with discussions of basic demographic shifts and economic developments in the post-World War II era. A general discussion follows on geopolitics at home and abroad and its implications for hazards and disaster management policies and practices. The reactive nature of these policies and practices in the United States is then characterized as are subtleties related to the enactment of specific mitigation, preparedness, and response initiatives. Settlement patterns are given specific attention in this regard because of their direct and highly complex relationships to hazard vulnerability as well as land-use planning and other forms of hazard mitigation. A discussion of the influences of societal changes would not be complete without a consideration of quality-of-life and social equity patterns and issues as they relate to social vulnerability. To complete its context-setting function for the report, this chapter closes with discussions of technological change and global environmental patterns. The questions that are raised in the conclusion illustrate the uncertainties and continuing importance of societal change for hazards and disaster research.