Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 79–85 | Cite as

From Calamities to Disasters: Pitirim Aleksandrovič Sorokin’s Insights



When Sorokin wrote the book Man and Society in Calamity, it was very clear what he meant by calamities—natural or man-made (war and revolution, famine, and pestilence)—and how these “monsters” transformed the normal flow of individuals’ lives. Indeed, since calamities occur in each and every age, they exert great influence on many aspects of everyday life: from forms of thought to acting, from social life to the cultural processes of society. Sorokin defines the “typical effects” that are repeated whenever disasters of the same type occur. The principle still holds today; after many years, the lexicon has changed, preferring the term disaster to calamity (now considered archaic, obsolete), but the effects of the events that we call disasters—on the thoughts, behavior, social organization, and cultural life of individuals—have not changed. And this is true despite the fact that scholars not always agree on which events should and/or could fall into this category. In contemporary society, we can hypothesize, even if briefly, the classification and the characteristics of disasters, since these elements differentiate the actions taken by the community affected and by those providing aid.


Calamities Sorokin Disasters Sociocultural phenomena Community 

«The life history of any society is an incessant fluctuation between periods of comparative well-being and those of calamity. For a given period, the society enjoys peace, order, prosperity, and freedom from notable catastrophes. Again, its life is darkened by calamities which, singly or en masse, assail it and destroy its previous well-being. Sooner or later, this catastrophic phase is succeeded by a new stretch of well-being, which is replaced, in turn, by a further period of calamity. And so, this alternation goes on, throughout the entire duration of the society in question.

The relative duration of each of these stretches of the historical road differs for different societies. Now, the era of well-being is longer than the catastrophic; now, the calamitous phase is more permanent. The historical road of some societies is made up mainly of stretches of well-being, punctuated by bumpy portions of misery. The road traveled by other societies consists principally of dreary stretches interspersed here and there by short sections of good pavements.

Among the manifold and diverse calamities that have befallen mankind, four have probably proved the most frequent, most destructive, most terrible, and, at the same time, most instructive and significant—namely, war and revolution, famine, and pestilence. These four monsters are the subject of this investigation, in so far as they affect our minds and behavior, our social organization, and our cultural life. Let us now address ourselves to this task, beginning with the study of their influence upon our basic mental processes, and then passing to their effects upon our conduct, social organization, and culture.

Before undertaking an analysis of how calamities modify our emotional and affective experience, I would stress the general principle of the diversification and polarization of these effects in different parts of the population. By this principle is meant that the effects of a given calamity are not identicalindeed, often are oppositefor different individuals and groups of the society concerned, since individuals and groups differ from one another biologically and psychosocially. Thus, a person who is immune to a given disease is naturally not affected by it in the same way as one who is not immune. One possessed of robust courage and morale conducts himself on a battlefield in away very different from the behavior of a person lacking in morale and courage. One becomes like well-tempered steel—a moral hero—whereas another turns into a coward, a nervous wreck, or a criminal. This diversification and polarization of the effects of the same calamity is attributable also to the fact that not all the members of the society are equally exposed to its dangers and hardships. Even in war, as a rule, only a part of the population, the combatants, are directly subjected to the danger of death and to other hardships. The rest of the population is less exposed, and some groups are only remotely affected. During famines, not all suffer equally—some die of starvation, others suffer less, and still others are fairly well nourished and even derive profit from the tragedy of the victims.

To sum up, owing to biological and psychosocial differences and to the varying incidence of a given calamity, some persons emerge as moral heroes, others as criminals and profligates, and some prove highly religious, others atheistic» (Sorokin 2010, pp. 13–14—italics in original).

The above are excerpts from the Introductory Remarks to Chapter One of Man and Society in Calamity, published for the first time in 1942 by Pitirim Aleksandrovič Sorokin and reprinted in 2010. Sorokin, the “quixotic” sociologist (Mangone 2017), summarized in these few lines the essence of the entire book. I can assert, however, that this quotation also recaps his studies on the cyclical transformations of societies and on the indispensable necessity for social sciences studying sociocultural phenomena, particularly sociology, never to neglect three elements that constitute the indivisible sociocultural trinity (Sorokin 1948)—society, personality, and culture. Sorokin’s attention never departs from the idea of sociology as a science engaged in the study of the meaningful interactions existing between the elements that make up the superorganic phenomena and that, at the same time, can light up the path to improve the living conditions of individuals.

When Sorokin wrote this book, it was very clear what he meant by calamities—natural or man-made (war and revolution, famine, and pestilence)—and how these “monsters” transformed the normal flow of individuals’ lives. Indeed, since calamities occur in each and every age, they exert great influence on many aspects of everyday life: from forms of thought to acting, from social life to the cultural processes of society. Sorokin, defines the “typical effects” that are repeated whenever disasters of the same type occur. Acknowledging that calamities alternate with moments of societal well-being, he establishes as a general principle that “the effects of a given calamity are not identical-indeed, are often opposite-for different individuals and groups of the concerned society” (Sorokin 2010, p. 14—italics in original). The principle still holds today; after many years, the lexicon has changed, preferring the term disaster to calamity (now considered archaic, obsolete), but the effects of the events that we call disasters—on the thoughts, behavior, social organization, and cultural life of individuals—have not changed. And this is true despite the fact that scholars not always agree on which events should and/or could fall into this category. Sorokin had well defined and identified them with respect to the life history of the world at the beginning of the 1940s, but today, the “disaster” category is a much wider container encompassing many events—not just wars, epidemics, and natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis) but also events with wide-ranging effects on the change in the normal flow of everyday life of individuals and societies—and is not a cyberattack also a disaster? Or a terrorist attack? Or the thousands of migrant people who continue to die in the Mediterranean?

In contemporary society, we can hypothesize, even if briefly, the classification and the characteristics of disasters, since these elements differentiate the actions taken by the community affected and by those providing aid.

Disasters can be divided into two macro categories: natural disasters (earthquakes, typhoons, floods) and disasters induced by human action. The latter can then be divided into two distinct types: (a) accidental, due to various kinds of human error (i.e., Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986); and (b) intentional, such as homicides and mass violence (war and terrorist attacks), and cyberattacks.

In light of this classification, the effects do not relate only to emotional or affective processes (such as fear) but also to cognitive processes of representation, memory, imagination, and thought-structuring. According to Sorokin’s analysis, calamities generate two fundamental changes in the cognitive processes: “The first of these effects consists in the tendency of all the cognitive processes to be concentrated more and more upon the calamity and the phenomena that are directly and indirectly connected with it, together with increasing insensitivity (beginning with sensation and perception) toward extraneous elements. [...] The second fundamental effect of calamities upon the cognitive processes consists in a tendency toward disintegration of the unity of our ‘self’ and of mental functioning. It manifests itself in an increasing incapacity to concentrate on objects unrelated to the calamity, in a growing dependence of our thinking upon fortuitous external influences; in a decreasing autonomy and self-regulation of our thoughts, independently of external stimuli; and, finally, in an access of various forms of mental disease. In brief, calamities promote the growth of mental disorderliness and disorganization” (Sorokin 2010, pp. 28, 35—italics in original). These effects often produce a weakening of the “self” that tends to become amorphous and doubling itself, creating dissonance (Festinger 1957) and behaviors that differ in the proportion of the population directly or indirectly involved in the calamity.

This leads to a breakup in the social network, causing the definition of the social structure to become chaotic, which in turn becomes a powerful factor in sociocultural change. An example could be what happens in territories occupied by enemies, or territories that become a haven (refugee camps) for part of the population that undertakes a mass exodus to escape from the adverse effects of conflicts, famine, and epidemics, or what happens in areas contaminated by chemical agents and their effects on the population. In disaster-stricken societies, regardless of the latter’s nature, there is always a “before” and “after” (van den Eynde and Veno 1999), prioritizing the issue of recovery from the emergency by delineating the dynamics that characterize the populations when trying to establish a new order (Mangone 2018) needed to cope with the changing system of needs.

Disasters create great changes both in individuals and in the social structure and pose the need to restart, to re-link the thread of individual and collective life, to seek out a project that can ferry the whole community out of a crisis situation (imbalance) and favor the search for new equilibria. Indeed, the disturbances caused by disasters are not to be considered sui generis, but rather represent a normal moment in the flow of life, which also allows for the recognition of certain characteristics of social systems that might otherwise not be recognized, since disastrous events cause effects on the level of life, socio-psychological regulation mechanisms, and social change: “In this sense calamities one of the potent and radical agents of sociocultural change. Although when the emergency is over, many a society rapidly recovers (reestablishing its equilibrium, its unity, its institutions, its system of social relationships), nevertheless it is never the same as the one that existed before the calamity. [...] For good or ill, calamities are unquestionably the supreme disruptors and transformers of social organization and institutions” (Sorokin 2010, pp. 120–121). The general principle theorized by Sorokin thus anticipates those that will become the research approaches for the study of disaster from the 1980s, based on the closely interrelated concepts of social vulnerability (Phillips et al. 2010) and resilience (Manyena 2006). This is because, as Sorokin maintained, the effects of calamities (disasters) are not the same for all individuals and their communities, and not just for the different direct or indirect involvement of individuals but also for the different types of disasters they are involved in. Wars or terrorist acts, for example, are distinguished from other disasters for the general sense of fear which, due to the lack of trust in institutions, lead to unpredictability and effects that extend beyond the restricted area of the real conflict from which they originate. And it is precisely because of the different characteristics of disasters and the different ways of responding by individuals and communities—depending on their ability or inability (inherent in social interactions, institutions, and systems of cultural values) to withstand the negative effects they are subjected to (social vulnerability)—that both the study of disasters and the interventions helping disaster-stricken communities must be based on an integrated and transdisciplinary approach (Piaget 1972). The solution proposed by Sorokin is the Integralism (Sorokin 1958), a system of knowledge that integrates the three forms of knowledge (empirical-sensory, rational-mindful, and supersensory-superrational) acquired via three means (sense, reason, and intuition).

To understand the real consequences of a disaster for a community, beyond the casualties and material damage, we should not then stop at the disaster itself, at the actual moment of the disaster, but instead go further and observe what happens in later years (for example after the end of a war, after the end of the emergency, after the natural disaster) through various paradigmatic and disciplinary lenses. Consider the persistent sense of uncertainty for the future experienced by people affected by the calamity, their regret for the loss of both assets and loved ones, of their disorientation due to forced separation from everyday habits, and to the inability to recognize themselves in a given historical and cultural context. All this implies not only that the interventions are urgent, but also, from the point of view of “forecasting” disasters, promote the passage from the order of explaining (erklären) to the order of understanding (verstehen). The search for the reason of sociocultural phenomena (in this case, disaster) should no longer refer to a cause but to a meaning that can be the key to interpret the dynamics of individual-society interactions.

In the last few decades, when reflecting on the overcoming of disastrous events, the focus of attention is no longer only on lack and loss, but it also addresses the ability of individuals to adapt and grow despite critical conditions. The key concept has thus become “resilience” that is generally defined as the ability of an individual or group to return to normality after disastrous events (Bonanno 2004; Bonanno et al. 2006) thanks to two elements—a personal one (how the person is and how she responds to the events) and a situational one. We stumble again on Sorokin’s indivisible sociocultural trinity (society, personality, and culture)—indeed, the latter aspect focuses the attention on individuals in interaction within society and particularly on the concept of resilience (Norris et al. 2008) that derives from the resources of the community (economic development, social capital, information and communication, competence of the community). Thinking about the future during or after a disaster cannot ignore the existence of a community, or of a group of individuals that is configured as such, since it is from the relationships that are established and can be considered positive in them that the design and reconstruction of identity features should start from. The community is based on the individual, who expresses its unity and completeness, and not on the roles acted in society. It is the set of daily experiences, and for this reason, it enhances the social and cultural dimension of existence. Through the community social commitment, respect for rights and freedoms, balance between civil needs and responsibilities, and reconstruction of satisfactory relationships between individuals are affirmed. These features would prevent exclusion processes—the resilient community becomes an instrument of action if it is considered as an “open space” in which environmental and social networks are interrelated to ensure the sustainability of social development and social protection initiatives. In this way, the resilient community is not an abstract conceptualization, but it becomes the site for the production of positive actions aimed at recovering from emergencies. If aid interventions are to be made, they must undoubtedly give the utmost importance to the design and reconstruction of the network of relationships that has been destroyed by the disaster. Since resilience is based on relationships, the removal of a number of actors (e.g., refugees and exiles) or the death of part of the population from the territory following a disaster removes potential for the recovery of that community, thus often entailing the intervention of external actors to stimulate such recovery (humanitarian interventions).

In light of both Sorokin’s introductory citation and what said above, we can state that, in order to study disasters, we need to keep in mind two core premises—(1) time and space (social environment) are two central categories for social analysis and are two distinctive and constitutive elements of the phenomenologies related to the disasters and the daily lives of the individuals involved in them. In fact, the latter can be perceived—and therefore studied—in their continuous unfolding, as they flow into the unity of the individual experience and situation; or they may become the subject of a subsequent reflection if we reflect on them after they have been experienced. In the first case, personal history coincides with experience and cannot be separated from it; in the second, instead, reflecting on past actions means that they are treated as something disconnected from personal experience. In this way, time is no longer unitary, and being aware of this means that individuals are oriented in their actions/interactions by the temporal and spatial dimensions (social and historical context); (2) The study of disasters should consider the three different levels of analysis of sociology and social sciences in general: (a) the macro-social level (concerning social systems and their forms of organization); (b) the micro-social level (concerning the individual and her social actions); (c) the meso-social level (concerning the interactions between social system and life-world, where the latter is understood as the set of meanings and representations of a given culture).

Keeping together the three levels of analysis described above implies an intellectual action that goes beyond the “discipline-related” points of view and/or the methods of investigation (qualitative and quantitative). The study of disasters and the methodologies adopted must be oriented toward the integration of the subjective and objective dimension. The unifying element is the interpretation and construction of reality through the relationships between individuals, and between individuals, society, and culture. Since individuals are interacting agents (in everyday life and in institutions), all these aspects have to be read as a correlation of interpretations and not just as the answer to a triggering cause.

For the study of disasters, it is therefore necessary to consider an integrated mix of factors, disciplines, and investigation methodologies. Sociological knowledge and that of other social sciences should come together in a single integrated system of knowledge (integral social sciences) that should focus its attention on all aspects of the transformation of society (in the holistic sense—aspects of personality, society, and culture).

In the twenty-first century, disasters have become much more complex than they were in the last century—although Sorokin had already highlighted the complex nature of these phenomena and the multiple consequences on the personal, cultural, and social level. Consequently, we venture to formulate the following final reflections: (1) the study of disasters—as already mentioned—cannot be caged within the boundaries of individual disciplines (sociology, psychology, history). Instead, these boundaries must be overcome to give space to interdisciplinary approaches in a perspective of strong intersection between political, natural, and social sciences. Moreover, since disasters know no national boundary, it is necessary to develop more and more comparative studies (cross-cultural perspective) in order to identify the relationships, models, and best practices that can be generalized and applied for disaster management; (2) the category of “disasters” should be considered virtual in the sense that it cannot encompass only events that, according to common sense, are defined as disasters (natural disasters, wars, terrorism) but also all those events entailing conjunctions of physical conditions and social definitions of human harm and social disturbances (Kreps 2001) such as cyberattacks; (3) all the disasters that have occurred in the last decades and continue to happen have taught us that vulnerability is increasing (both for the transformations in nature—such as the greenhouse effect—and for the risk-seeking of individuals) and which is why it is necessary to set up prevention and early intervention actions at a local, national, and international level.

A world free of disasters is not conceivable, but we can conceive a world in which the negative consequences of these events are minimized or even avoided (such as wars or terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks). After all, as Sorokin argued, the future of mankind and its development are in the hands of mankind itself (1958): neither law nor education, nor religion or the economy, or science—even though the latter has a specific role in accompanying the processes of improving the lives of individuals and communities—can be enough for this task. This task is assigned to the whole of mankind, and therefore to its communities that can exist only if they have certain characteristics: “A peaceful, harmonious, and creative society can exist only when its members possess at least a minimum of love, sympathy, and compassion ensuring mutual aid, co-operation, and fair treatment. Under these conditions its members are united in one collective ‘we’ in which the joys and sorrows of one member are shared by others” (Sorokin 1948, p. 57). To conclude and define within the limits of the theoretical speculations what we presented here in connection with disasters, we should but resume everything to this prosaic but brilliant insight by Pitirim Aleksandrovič Sorokin.

And it is from this brilliant insight that it becomes necessary, by social scientists, the application of a systemic approach of study and analysis of disasters starting from the assumption that collective damage requires collective strategies. Acting on the community means acting on multiple levels (individual, family, institutional, and social), and it is the whole community the object of since a normalization process of the community needs to be undertaken by reinforcing the existing networks and structures, reestablishing the previous ones, and creating new ones.

“Through a systematic and methodologically founded observation—seen as the main activity to overcome the Comtian ‘social physics’—we can lay the foundations for building an integrated system of knowledge derived from an integral social science. It is therefore necessary to re-define the paradigms of sociology and other social sciences in a direction that keeps together the different dimensions (macro, meso, and micro)” (Mangone 2017, p. 86). On these three aspects, we must keep the door open to free and autonomous scientific reflection (something that Sorokin had already suggested many years ago), but the latter, however, necessarily needs to make a leap toward operability. In the case of disaster management, it does not have to provide the answers, but the guidelines and tools that serve as a guide for interventions to be implemented in order to realize a society that is “fit” for individuals. It is therefore desirable that an integral theory of knowledge on disasters develops and becomes reflective knowledge able to promote positive interactions in the living environments of individuals and between individuals.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human, Philosophic and Education Sciences (DISUFF)University of SalernoFiscianoItaly

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