Unpredictability, Uncertainty, and Fear: Measuring Natural Risk Perceptions


ARMAŞ, Iuliana, Percepţia riscurilor naturale: cutremure, inundaţii, alunecări
Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, Bucureşti, 2008, 226 pagini

With international discourse becoming more and more focused on increasing the disaster coping capacity of local communities in the face of disasters and on decreasing the take-for-granted quotient, Iuliana Armaş’s book serves a dual role – it supports the decision-making process by revealing a presumed but never before seen facet of Romanian citizen’s perceptions on natural risks, as well as providing analysts and researchers with a unique and essential stepping stone in disaster risk research.

Armaş confidently weaves a niche between two fields of study that would appear to anyone else as un-amalgamable, in order to provide readers with a unequivocal understanding of the sources of social vulnerability – the cultural, personal and societal perceptions that shape our understanding of the environment that surrounds us and the hazards we’re exposed to, as well as the sources of cognitive dissonance – of how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, and more importantly, how we adjust our cognitions. Armaş’s declared goal is to identify the „specific patterns by which different human communities relate to natural risk situations.” 1

Armaş’ expertise in her primary field of study – geography, grounds the reader in a seemingly „engineering” mindset, exposing mechanisms, while the psychological component draws a picture of the processes, dynamics and relations present both at the collective and the individual level. Whether one reads Armaş’ book from the perspective of a political actor in need of informed decisions or as a political science researcher in need of a better understanding of the individual and collective mechanisms of perceiving and reacting to disasters, her case studies provide enough factual and methodological data to ensure both needs are duly met.

The book is structured in two parts, preceded by an introduction which offers the much needed context, outlining the conceptual framework and the archetype of evolution as an explicative-integrative support, hinting at future development trends. The first part of the book is a succinct and efficient overview of the theoretical and methodological aspects involved. In contrast with many of the books in the field of disaster management, the author succeeds at delimiting her conceptual approach in a swift and effective manner, avoiding becoming superfluous by delving into too much detail. In our opinion, some of the definitions used, particularly on the topics of risk, hazard, exposure, vulnerability or resilience do not do justice to the case studies presented in the second part, nor do they reflect the most current views in the field. Armaş should not be held liable nevertheless, as her research scope does not include drawing definitive theoretical distinctions2, and besides, the ongoing debate on the definition and operationalization of key concepts, such as disaster, vulnerability or resilience continues to produce massive amounts of information that often comes into conflict. Rather, her theoretical approach likely reflects her preference for expediency.

The second part of the book takes on a more practical approach, presenting three case studies on the perception of natural risks. This is where Armaş’s expertise truly shines through. The major argument in favor of offering precedence to this research, as opposed to international desk studies stands, in our opinion, in the familiarity of the author with the subject matter. For example, the surveys included in the Annex were developed and tested over a ten year period, which is far more than anyone else has allotted to the subject. Furthermore, the author was the coordinator of several research projects financed by CNCIS, CEEX and PNII, over a period of eight years, thus creating a direct line of accountability and commitment to the success of this endeavor.

The first case study measures seismic risk perception in Bucharest in several stages. The author’s approach is methodical, walking the reader through the location under analysis in a manner similar to a proficient tour guide. It starts by drawing a picture of Bucharest’s specific risk profile, explaining the sources of seismic risk – the Vrancea hotspot and the crustal activity concentrated in the Carpathian Arc, and reviewing disaster events in Bucharest’s history and their impact in a simple and illustrative manner that does not alienate the lay reader. While this overview’s relevance to political science researchers may appear limited, it paints a grim picture of the responsibility that institutional actors must assume, of the damage they must prevent and of the disastrous impact that poor planning can have.

In the case of the historical center exploratory study focused on the Lipscani area, the author sets forth to identify the level of representation and content of natural and technological risk, targeting the estimated four thousand „secondary”3 inhabitants, exposed and vulnerable by living or working there. The study took into account socio-demographic determinants, in order to identify the mental representation of the risk category, to estimate the level of danger perceived, and to subsequently evaluate the means through which risk is classified. By administering standardized questionnaires, the author was able to conclude, amongst others, that risk was difficult to define across all demographic categories, particularly with poorly-educated, low-income female respondents4 and that all interviewees perceived risk as misfortune, „nenorocire5, defining it based on three criteria: the characteristics of the phenomenon, its consequences, and its egocentric implications.

The author signals an important aspect that was common to all respondents, the tendency of the urban population to identify anthropic risks as major dangers, disregarding natural risks with the notable exception of earthquakes. This particular finding, that massive snowfalls or floods are not considered major risks is of particular relevance, reflecting a diminution of risk perception based on the recurrence of such events, drawing an important correlation between risk perception and the vulnerability of the inhabited space. By comparison, were Armaş’ study be conducted once again, within the same parameters half a decade later, the results would reflect an indubitable shift in perception.

Furthermore, Armaş identifies a correlation between the level of severity of risk and the level of control and preventability. As such, she identified a positive correlation between controllability and the possibility of preventing a risk from manifesting6, its predictability influencing the perception that those risks can be mitigated and thus placing them further down the scale. The principal component analysis used five factors of one, two or three items – earthquakes, floods, droughts, snowfalls and storms. Anthropic risks, slow-setting natural phenomena alongside the risks of different nature that give the effect of blockage/siege7, and those that derive from the interaction of man with the environment only account, however, for 60.8% of the variance, the factorial model failing to explain the difference.

Armaş subsequently tests a random sample of 100 subjects with regards to the fourteen evaluated risks, aiming to identify their level of prototypicality. Predictably, 39% of the respondents designated earthquakes, clearly differentiating from other natural or anthropic risks, as the Lipscani area manifests a staggering probability to be severely affected in case of an earthquake (almost 100%) and has a very low coping capacity. In the next stage of her research, Armaş returned to the Lipscani historical center to test the relationship between social vulnerability and seismic risk perception. Armaş defines psychosocial vulnerability as „the capacity of a human community exposed to a natural hazard (…) to resist, to cope and to recover from impact”8, opting to focus solely on the first level of social vulnerability – the capacity to recover from disaster impact9. Armaş used poverty rates, sex and age vulnerability to gauge their perception of the probability of occurrence, the impact of previous events, the predictability of occurrence and of the possibility to mitigate their impact, drawing a comparison between evaluations done in 2005 and 2006. 

The next step in Armaş’s endeavor moves further towards the general. The author monitored the perception of seismic risk in Bucharest over a period of ten years, aiming to identify the differences in the way people relate to the probability of occurrence of dangerous events, to determine the evaluative content with regards to the probability and the implications of seismic risk, as well as to identify orientation patterns and trends in perceiving seismic risk. In this context, Armaş aimed to demonstrate that the socio-demographic, cultural and economic particularities of respondents lead to differentiated relationships with risk events.10 Furthermore, Armaş set out to determine the correlations present between the type of ownership or the characteristics of the property and the attachment or perception of risk. Annual evaluations that comprised between 100 and 220 respondents showed a radicalization of risk perception in the context of increased socio-economic and environmental vulnerability11, a higher level of risk perception amongst the population with lower levels of education, with the most awareness manifested by elderly females with modest education.

Of particular relevance to the political scientist is the increased state of fear of respondents, faced with limited options of mitigating risk, given economic conditions. Even more significantly, Armaş underlines the constant decrease in the level of trust expressed with regards to the coping capacity and the support of local authorities, showing a visible loss of prestige of state institutions, which are „gradually divested of the trust of the citizen.”12 By appealing to focus groups and administering a 31 item survey to a sample made up of 500 subjects, Armaş concluded the seismic risk evaluation by identify several psychological triggers with regards to seismic risk, grouped under four factors of which perceived social vulnerability and perceived psychological vulnerability cover the most recurring triggers.

In the two chapters that follow, Armaş proceeds to repeat the process with flood perception in the Danube Delta (carried out in July and August 2007), as well as with the perception of landslide risk in two different areals – the municipality of Breaza, and the village of Petriceaua (carried out in 2002 and 2003). In the flood risk study, Armaş underlined the personal vulnerability perceived by inhabitants of three sample communities – Sf. Gheorghe village, Tudor Vladimirescu neighborhood, and the central area of the municipality of Tulcea. Both case studies reflect a similar pattern, that when self-reliance (confidence) is lowered due to a lack of resources, the individual seeks outside support and security, and when his needs are not met by institutional actors, fear becomes a constant mindset, being projected upon the surrounding environment. This lack of trust eventually translates, once disasters occur, in a very low level of resilience, in a failure to adjust and survive, making these individuals the most susceptible to „severe post-disaster trauma.”13

Armaş concludes the second part of the book by underlining the importance of understanding risk reaction patterns, taking into account economic, social, political and cultural vulnerability that reduces or limits access to opportunities14. The increased awareness of disaster risks, and the perceived lack of control with regards to the anthropic and the natural environment thus lead to increased uncertainty, which can only be mitigated by measuring and taking into account disaster risk perception in designing policies that adjust the coping capacity of communities.

Laura-Madalina Spătaru
[The International Emergency Management Society]


1 Iuliana Armaş, Percepţia riscurilor naturale: cutremure, inundaţii, alunecări, (Bucureşti: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2008), 191.
2 To provide just one example, vulnerability is a multifaceted concept which, beyond categorization, reflects much more than „propensity for harm”, and as such, we feel that the respective subchapters could have been developed further. Integrating the works of David Alexander and Omar Cardona could have been beneficial to the reader in obtaining a better grasp of the concepts under examination and their particularities. A clearer delineation of the differences between hazards and risks would also be required in subsequent editions.
3 Armaş, Percepţia, 91.
4 Armaş, Percepţia, 98; 65% of which could not define the word „risk”
5 Translated as misfortune, the concept takes on even more negative connotations in the Romanian language
6 Armas, Percepţia, 101
7 Armas, Percepţia, 103.
8 Armas, Percepţia, 109, our translation.
9 In our opinion, Armas could have used the distinction between hazard and risk a bit more selectively, specific formulations within the text allowing for a debate over accuracy, i.e. hazard understood as a dangerous phenomenon, substance, human activity or condition versus risk, understood as a combination between probability of occurrence and potential (negative) impact. Hazards are depicted, according to UN/ISDR terminology as a component of risk, not as an interchangeable, identical construct. Moreover, a clearer distinction is needed between the different phases of disaster management cycle (mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and reconstruction) in order to clearly understand what the study is trying to measure.
10 Armas, Percepţia, 121.
11 Armas, Percepţia, 124.
12 Armas, Percepţia, 126.
13 Armas, Percepţia, 164.
14 Armas, Percepţia, 179.



LAURA-MĂDĂLINA SPĂTARU – Doctorand, Facultatea de Ştiinţe Politice, Universitatea Bucureşti, Master, Managementul Proiectelor, Şcoala Naţională de Ştiinţe Politice şi Administrative, Licenţă, Facultatea de Ştiinţe Politice, Universitatea Bucureşti, specializare „ştiinţe politice în limba engleză”. În prezent, vice-preşedinte tineret al The International Emergency Management Society (TIEMS, Romania) şi vice-presedinte al Asociaţiei Salvatorilor Voluntari pentru Situaţii de Urgenţă (ASVSU).




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