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Unit information: Calamities: Natural and Unnatural Disasters in the Modern World (Level I Special Field) in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

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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




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:

  1. Identify and analyse key themes in the history calamities and disasters in various contexts
  2. Understand and use historical methods specific to the study of calamities and disasters.
  3. Discuss and evaluate the historiographical debates that surround the topic
  4. Understand and interpret primary sources and select pertinent evidence in order to illustrate specific and more general historical points
  5. Present their research and judgements in written forms and styles appropriate to the discipline and to level I.

Teaching details

1 x 2hr Seminar per week

1 x 1hr Seminar per week

Assessment Details

  • Portfolio Part 1: 750 word primary source analysis [10%] (ILOs 1-3)
  • Portfolio Part 2: 750 word broad question [10%] (ILOs 1-3)
  • 4000 word research project [80%] (ILOs 1-5)

Reading and References

  • Greg Bankoff, Rendering the World Unsafe: Vulnerability as western discourse, Disasters 25:1 (2001): 19-35
  • Greg Bankoff, 'Time is of the Essence: Disasters, vulnerability and history', International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 22:3 (2004), 23-4
  • Tirthankar Roy, Natural disasters and Indian history (New Delhi, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Ayesha Siddiqi: Climatic Disasters and Radical Politics in Southern Pakistan: The Non-linear Connection, Geopolitics (2014)
  • Katharina Thurnheer, A house for a daughter? Constraints and opportunities in post-tsunami Eastern Sri Lanka, Contemporary South Asia 17, no. 1 (2009)
  • Ben Wisner et al, At Risk (second edition, 2003)