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Mobile Disasters

Catastrophes in the Age of Manufactured Uncertainty

Steve Matthewman

Sociologists of disasters and those agencies dedicated to disaster risk reduction and emergency relief tend to fix disasters, to confine them in time and space. This article argues for the necessity of a mobilities turn within mainstream disaster studies, demonstrating what the new mobilities paradigm (NMP) can contribute to disaster scholarship. Disasters should be seen as mobile agents with spatially and temporally dispersed effects. They are mobile because people, nonhuman life-forms, information, and commodities move. The ecosystems and earth systems that sustain us are also always in flux. Instead of focusing on isolated disaster cases, this article calls for a “big picture” ecological sensibility that recognizes the complexity and interconnectivity of our world, and addresses the new forms of mobility, temporality, spatiality, and potency inherent to today’s disasters. This task is urgent: while previous eras may have announced the apocalypse, ours may well be the last one to do so.

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Catherine O'Byrne

The Piper Alpha disaster remains the most significant event in the history of the British North Sea oil industry, yet despite a large range of scholarship on the topic women's experiences of the disaster have not been heard publicly. This article uses oral history testimony to add the private experiences of women who were affected by the disaster to the public experiences of men. The focus of the analysis is on the gendered and political nature of remembrance and the impact that women had on the way that Piper Alpha was commemorated and remembered.

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Anatomy of a disaster

The neo-liberal state in Mumbai's 2005 flood

Judith Whitehead

This article discusses the networked forms of governance that have arisen as part of roll-out neo-liberal policies in Mumbai, India, focusing on the flood of 26 July 2005 and its aftermath. The municipal government's inaction during and after the flood is attributed to the decentralization of governance, as well as to cutbacks to public health and basic services in recent years. The rise of competitive urbanism as a part of roll-out neo-liberalism is analyzed as producing gaps in disaster management planning and implementation. The article concludes with a call for a refinanced state and a centralization of municipal bodies under a unified municipal council, seen as necessary to provide the professionalized services required during large-scale emergencies such as floods.

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Md Saidul Islam and Si Hui Lim

Home to 60 percent of the world's population, Asia accounts for 85 percent of those killed and affected globally by disaster events in 2011. Using an integrated sociological framework comprised of the pressure and release (PAR) model and the double-risk society hypothesis, and drawing on data obtained from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), PreventionWeb, and the IPCC special report on extreme events, this article offers a sociological understanding of disaster development and recovery in Asia. The particular focus is on seven Asian countries, namely, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Rather than treating disasters entirely as “natural” events caused by “violent forces of nature”, we emphasize various ways in which social systems create disaster vulnerability. We argue that existing disaster mitigation and adaptation strategies in Asia that focus almost entirely on the natural and technological aspects of hazards have serious limitations, as they ignore the root causes of disaster vulnerabilities, such as limited access to power and resources. This article therefore recommends a holistic approach to disaster management and mitigation that takes into consideration the various larger social, political, and economic conditions and contexts.

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Susann Baez Ullberg

Flooding has long been a recurrent problem in the Argentinian city of Santa Fe, mainly affecting the poverty-stricken suburban outskirts. In 2003 one of the worst floods ever occurred, which also affected residents in the middle income sectors who had never been flooded before and who reacted with an extraordinary process of commemoration and protest against the government for its lax disaster management. Paradoxically, most other past disastrous floods in the city’s history seem to dwell in the shadows of social oblivion. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the years 2004–2011, this article analyzes how local flood memories are made through daily life practices and places in the suburban outskirts, more than through public commemorations, which has implications for vulnerability and risk.

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Zuzana Hrdličková

Field trips play a significant role in the building of expert knowledge of numerous institutions. So why is their nature and significance for knowledge production rarely discussed in the anthropology of expertise? In this paper, I draw on the particular instance of an expert field trip undertaken by a disaster management organization in the Indian state of Odisha in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin in 2013. I show that field trips are contingent practices defined by their sequential logic, relationships, interests, and by the personal perceptions of people who undertake them. The choice of personnel to carry out this field exercise is fundamental and depends on institutional views of aims and understandings of what constitutes expertise. In line with E. Summerson Carr’s argument that expertise is something people “do” rather than “hold”, I show that enacting expert status serves to assert power and to enable its holder to achieve their aims.

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Blurred memories

War and disaster in a Buddhist Sinhala village

Mara Benadusi

This article analyzes the regimes of truth and efforts at falsification that emerged aft er the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, where the experience of fear, the blurring of memory, and the fabrication of identity became normalized during the course of a long civil war. By shedding light on the memorialization processes in a Buddhist Sinhala village on the border of the northeastern Tamil zones, the article shows how the tsunami has reinforced governmental devices for controlling peoples and territories, insinuating itself into the core of the enduring process of securitization of fear in Sri Lanka. Yet, however much the politics of memory tends to cloud matters, the article also demonstrates that it never goes uncontested, as long as subjects can channel their capacity for action in unexpected directions.

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Hannah Swee and Zuzana Hrdličková

Although communities around the world have been experiencing destructive events leading to loss of life and material destruction for centuries, the past hundred years have been marked by an especially heightened global interest in disasters. This development can be attributed to the rising impact of disasters on communities throughout the twentieth century and the consequent increase in awareness among the general public. Today, international and local agencies, scientists, politicians, and other actors including nongovernmental organizations across the world are working toward untangling and tackling the various chains of causality surrounding disasters. Numerous research and practitioners’ initiatives are taking place to inform and improve preparedness and response mechanisms. Recently, it has been acknowledged that more needs to be learned about the social and cultural aspects of disasters in order for these efforts to be successful (IFRC 2014).

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Frida Hastrup

This article analyzes local concerns with nature and natural changes in response to the tsunami of 2004 based on anthropological fieldwork in the South Indian fishing village of Tharangambadi. It explores the fishermen's effort to restore confidence in their environment after the disaster, and argues that this entails a subtle strategy of relating to climate and weather that aims at gradually transferring the rupture of the tsunami to a more manageable pattern of seasonal variation. In analytical terms, the article investigates how the fishermen work to reassert their subjectivity in the aftermath of the overwhelming disaster through operating with different perspectives on their environment. In conclusion, the article suggests that these shifting perspectives more generally reflect notions of different intensities of change and creative local modes of adaptation ensuing from a disruption like the tsunami.

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Virginia García Acosta

*Full forum is in Spanish

English abstract: This article explores the social cohesion-disaster risk reduction binomial. This is the continuation of previous publications, published both in Regions & Cohesion and in other places, aimed at examining available concepts that may be useful for the study of disasters and risk, their reduction and their prevention. The article reviews various definitions of social cohesion and disaster risk reduction to later explore the link between them by introducing associated notions such as solidarity and resilience. These are reflections that have nurtured the Consortium for Comparative Research on Regional Integration and Social Cohesion (RISC) working group called “Social Construction of Risks and Disasters” and that, we hope, continue to nourish it.

Spanish abstract: Este artículo explora el binomio cohesión social-reducción de riesgos de desastre. Se trata de la continuación de ejercicios anteriores, publicados tanto en Regions & Cohesion como en otros espacios, dirigidos a examinar conceptos disponibles que puedan resultar útiles para el estudio de los desastres, del riesgo, de su reducción y prevención. El artículo revisa diversas definiciones de cohesión social y de reducción de riesgos de desastre para, posteriormente, explorar el vínculo entre ellas a partir de incorporar a la discusión nociones asociadas como solidaridad y resiliencia. Se trata de reflexiones que han nutrido al grupo de trabajo del Consorcio en Investigación Comparativa en Integración Regional y Cohesión Social (RISC, por sus siglas en inglés) denominado “Construcción social de riesgos y desastres” y que, esperamos, lo sigan nutriendo.

French abstract: Cet article explore le binôme cohésion sociale-réduction des risques de désastre. Il s’inscrit dans la continuité de publications antérieures parues dans Régions & Cohésion et dans d’autres espaces dans le but d’examiner les concepts disponibles qui pourraient être utiles pour l’étude des désastres et des risques, de leur réduction et de leur prévention. L’article révise plusieurs définitions de la cohésion sociale et de la réduction des risques de désastres pour explorer ensuite le lien entre elles à travers l’introduction de notions associées comme la solidarité et la résilience. Il s’agit de réflexions qui ont alimenté le groupe de travail du Consortium pour la recherche comparative sur l’Intégration régionale et la cohésion sociale nommé «Construction sociale des risques et des désastres » et qui, nous l’espérons, continueront à le nourrir.