top of page

Critical Disaster Studies

New York University

Gallatin School for Individualized Study

September 21-22, 2018

Disasters loom large in the human imagination. From the Biblical story of Noah’s flood to science fiction fantasies of nuclear war, every generation, it seems, envisions its own spectacular destruction. Today, in the context of climate change, urbanization, and global conflict, anxieties about environmental devastation, financial crisis, and terrorism join enduring fears of earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and disease. Modern technologies at once offer the promise of protection from existing risks, while creating new hazards; modern media at once helps to shape a public more informed, and more afraid, of their own vulnerabilities. No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of scholars are drawn to disasters, leading to the emergence of what we are calling critical disaster studies.


The developing field of critical disaster studies builds on previous generations of scholarship about disaster—characterized primarily by rich descriptive accounts of specific incidents, comparative sociological studies, and applied policy research on preparedness and emergency management—and adds greater theoretical engagement, interdisciplinary approaches, and critical interrogation of the concept of disaster itself, as well as the related concepts of risk, vulnerability, security, and resilience. Geographers, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists who study disaster increasingly engage with the interdisciplinary fields of science and technology studies, environmental studies, and urban studies. Significant themes in the field include the human foundations of “natural” disaster, climate disaster and the anthropocene idea, “slow disaster” and other forms of chronic or everyday crisis, anticipatory modes of preparedness for future threats, the politics of humanitarian response, the relationships among disaster, capitalism, settler colonialism, and security regimes, and the mediation of disaster in public culture.


This conference will bring together new and established scholars of disaster and related themes in order to evaluate the state of this emergent field and to chart pathways for future research. We seek contributions from the humanities and interpretive social sciences that examine disaster in social, political, cultural, architectural, environmental, and transnational perspectives.

Presentations on Friday, September 21 are open to the public, and will be followed by a keynote address by Kenneth Hewitt. A detailed schedule is below. On Saturday, September 22, participants will gather for a closed workshop to discuss pre-circulated papers.

Organizing committee:


Jacob Remes, New York University (Gallatin School of Individualized Study)

Andy Horowitz, Tulane University (History)

Elizabeth Angell, Columbia University (Anthropology)


Friday, September 21

Labowitz Theater, NYU Gallatin 

One Washington Place, New York, NY


coffee, registration





Knowing Disaster

Karen Holmberg, chair

Scott Knowles, Drexel University (History)

“Disaster as Method: A Review of the Disaster Field”

Ryan Hagen, Columbia University (Sociology)

“Acts of God, Man, and System: Knowledge, Technology, and the Construction of Disaster”

Louis Gerdelan, Harvard University (History)

“Disciplinary Disasters: Science, Astrology and Rival Interpretations of Calamity in the Late Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World” 




Locating Disaster

Marie Cruz Soto, chair

Dara Strolovitch, Princeton University (Gender and Sexuality Studies and Politics)

“When Does a Crisis Begin? Race, Gender, and the Subprime Non-Crisis of the Late 1990's” 

Claire Payton, University of Virginia (African and African American Studies)

“Concrete, Construction, and Kleptocracy: Building the Material and Political Foundations of Disaster in Haiti”

Pranathi Diwakar, University of Chicago (Sociology)

“A Recipe for Disaster: Framing Risk and Vulnerability in Slum Relocation Policies in Chennai, India”




Governing Disaster

Rosalind Fredericks, chair

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, RAND Corporation

“Risk Technopolitics in Freetown Slums, or Why Community Based Risk Management is No Silver Bullet” 

Chika Watanabe, University of Manchester (Social Anthropology)

“Translating Disaster Preparedness between Japan and Chile” 

Rebecca Elliott, London School of Economics (Sociology)

“Plan B: The Collapse of Public-Private Risk Sharing in the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program” 




Imagining Disaster

Eugenia Kisin, chair

Susan (Scotti) Parrish, University of Michigan (English and the Program in the Environment)

“Knowing Future Disasters through Fiction” 

Kerry Smith, Brown University (History)

“The Tōkai Earthquake and Changing Lexicons of Risk”





Kenneth Hewitt, Wilfrid Laurier University (Geography)

"'Acts of Men': Interpreting Disasters of Dearth, Accident, Violence, and Organized Indifference"

bottom of page