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Unit information: Calamities: Natural and Unnatural Disasters in the Modern World (Level I Special Field) in 2017/18

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Unit name Calamities: Natural and Unnatural Disasters in the Modern World (Level I Special Field)
Unit code HIST20076
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Daniel Haines
Open unit status Not open



Special Field Project

School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Natural disasters devastate the modern world. For example, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka killed thousands and wiped away communities. But what lies behind the news headlines? How do people experience events like these? This unit examines the causes and consequences of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ disasters. It asks not only how and why disasters occur, but addresses their wider cultural, social and political ramifications. Topics might include earthquakes, flooding, and other disasters. The unit uses a diverse range of primary sources including texts and photographs, introducing different approaches to studying the way that humans have interacted with volatile environments. It draws on an equally diverse range of secondary readings, taking in not only history but related disciplines such as human geography, anthropology and development studies. Along the way, the unit introduces students to important historical themes including social and political change, beliefs and attitudes, and the consequences of modernisation and economic development. The unit surveys moments of catastrophe that have helped to define relationships between people and their environments.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will be able to demonstrate:

  1. a broad awareness of the nature and impacts of disasters;
  2. a sophisticated understanding of the causes of calamities and the extent to which human factors have contributed to both their occurrence and impact;
  3. the ability to set individual issues within their longer term historical context;
  4. the ability to analyse and generalise about issues of continuity and change;
  5. the ability to select pertinent evidence/data in order to illustrate/demonstrate more general historical points;
  6. the ability to derive benefit from and contribute effectively to large group discussion;
  7. the ability to identify a particular academic interpretation, evaluate it critically and form an individual viewpoint;
  8. key writing, research, and presentation skills, as appropriate to level I

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour seminar Access to tutorial advice with unit tutor in consultation hours.

Assessment Details

2-hour unseen written examination (summative, 100%)

The examination will assess ILOs 1-8 by assessing the students’ understanding of the unit’s key themes, the related historiography as developed during their reading and participation in / learning from small group seminars, and relevant primary sources. Further assessment of their handling of the relevant primary sources will be provided by the co-requisite Special Field Project.

Reading and References

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the Third World (2001) Edward Simpson and Stuart Corbridge,‘The Geography of Things that may Become Memories: The 2001 Earthquake in Kachchh-Gujarat and the Politics of Rehabilitation in the Prememorial Era’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol 96, No 3 (2006), pp.566–85 Ben Wisner, J.C. Gaillard and Ilan Kelman (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction (2012)

Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and natural hazard in the Philippines (2003)

Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister (eds), Natural disasters, cultural responses: case studies toward a global environmental history (2009)

Henrik Svensen, The end is nigh: a history of natural disasters (2009)