Vulnerable Populations & Disasters

Marc Settembrino, Southeastern Louisiana University
Southeastern Louisiana University


This course is designed to critically examine the relationship between social inequality and disaster vulnerability. Special emphasis will be placed on social theories of disaster vulnerability, research examining the experiences of socially marginalized populations during disasters, and strategies for reducing disaster vulnerability among marginalized populations.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This an upper level course, the only pre-requisite is Sociology 101, but students are encouraged to take a lower level Sociology of Disasters course before enrolling.

This course will be offered for the first time in Fall 2014.

Course Content:

This course is organized around three units: (1) Theories of Disaster Vulnerability, (2) Factors Influencing Vulnerability, and (3) Empower Vulnerable Populations and Communities. Unit 1 integrates socio-political ecology, feminist, social vulnerability, and community resilience theories. Unit 2 examines how factors such as social class, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, age, health and ability, housing status, and social capital may aggravate or mitigate one's risk. Unit 3 examines community based initiatives to reduce risk and foster resilience. For their final project, students will conduct a case-study of a disaster event, focusing on how vulnerable populations experienced and are recovering from the event.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will demonstrate an understanding of the leading social theories of disaster vulnerability and the ways in which they construct "vulnerability".
  2. Students will demonstrate the ability to compare the ways in which social groups differ in experiencing natural hazards and disasters.
  3. Students will demonstrate the ability to critically analyze the relationship between social inequality and disaster vulnerability.
  4. Students will demonstrate the ability to employ social science data and theories to analyze the effects of disasters on socially marginalized populations.
  5. Students will demonstrate an understanding of how the principles of social justice may be employed to reduce vulnerability among socially marginalized populations.

Course Features:

Disaster Case Study – Students will complete a case study of a disaster event of their choice. For the case study, students will consult relevant academic research, government reports, and news accounts of the chosen event. Students will provide an overview of the disaster event and provide a critical examination of how two (2) socially marginalized groups were effected by the event. Students should highlight any recommendations that have been made to reduce vulnerability for these groups. Students will prepare a written report and provide an in-class presentation to their peers.

Course Philosophy:

I have a strong commitment to social justice and believe that learning should not take place simply to "know" but rather to act. This course assumes that both vulnerability and resilience are processes and that action is required in order to reduce vulnerability or increase resilience. I have designed this course to provide students with an understanding of social vulnerability to disasters and the ability to theorize solutions to vulnerability that will foster resilience. Class sessions will be conducted seminar style, and will integrate popular education and active learning practices. The first two units are designed to introduce students to important concepts in studying disaster vulnerability. These units represent the "add new information" step in the popular education model. Unit three will encourage students to apply this new knowledge and imagine and strategize actions which can reduce vulnerability and increase resilience among social marginalized groups and communities.


Assessment takes place primarily through three unit exams and students' case-study projects.


Vulnerable Populations & Disasters (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 132kB Apr10 14)

References and Notes:

Social Vulnerability to Disasters, 2nd Edition edited by Thomas, Phillips, Lovekamp, and Fothergill
Additional readings are TBD