Given the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems a crucial time to reflect, from the perspectives of those who have studied disasters and public health crises, on social science’s insights and its potential impact (positive and negative). In this introductory essay to the “Disaster Studies” theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Alexa Dietrich and Scott Gabriel Knowles highlight how disaster research can shed light on the mutual effects of social inequality and disaster over time. Conversely, this theme will both explore how research through a disaster-focused lens can help us understand and address the preconditions and consequences that make the pandemic so devastating, and what can usefully be learned from the responses of institutions and communities worldwide that have most effectively reduced its impact, or that may signal hope for society’s future.
Scott Gabriel Knowles opens our “Chancing the Storm” series with a reflection on how uncertainty—and an engagement with contingency and multicausality—has come to be embraced by historians, not least by those who study the history of disasters. Building on his own research on the history of engineering, Knowles emphasizes temporality and how disasters are both events and technological, environmental, and social processes that unfold slowly over time. Knowles also calls attention to space and scale, especially in the era of the Anthropocene, and how disaster history can make possible “a fusion of the analytical and the irrational—the graph and the story, the cost-benefit analysis and the social analysis” in ways that bring ostensibly opposing approaches together.