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).
Social sciences reveal key elements and help to understand the social dimensions of catastrophic events. Sociologist Samuel Prince’s Catastrophe and Social Change (1920), analyzing the impacts of a munition explosion in Halifax, Canada, was among the first to demonstrate the contribution that social sciences could make toward understanding disasters. However, major volumes of work on disasters started appearing only at the end of the twentieth century, when a “disaster community” consisting of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners, was “sparked into being” (compare Marres 2005) by a shared interest to better understand and find solutions to the conditions of life that underpin disasters, otherwise known as vulnerability (see Bankoff et al. 2004; Furedi 2007).
Since the days of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in the 1990s the body of work analyzing social dimensions of disasters has grown considerably. It is beyond the scope of this issue to present a detailed review of such literature, especially when several excellent reviews already exist (for example, Oliver-Smith 1996; Solberg et al. 2010; Tierney and Oliver-Smith 2012). However, in this brief introduction, our aims are to outline the key terminology of the field; identify several prominent, contemporary anthropological studies of disaster contexts that have emerged in 2000s and early 2010s; and introduce the ethnographic, anthropological contributions presented in this special symposium of Nature and Culture to illustrate our theoretical point: that living with disasters is a process in which knowledge is created and re-created.
For the past two decades, three key terms have been widely employed in relation to disasters: hazard, risk, and vulnerability. According to the UNISDR (2007), hazard is any dangerous phenomenon, activity, or condition that may disrupt health and environment. Risk combines the probability of an event and its negative consequences. And vulnerability indicates conditions of life, such as socioeconomic status, that underpin the impact of disasters. Drawing on these definitions, disasters can be understood as a product of a hazard occurring in a specific locality, impacting communities in different configurations of vulnerability in vastly different ways. Indeed, as many other scholars have argued, while the force or location of a hazard cannot be changed, the magnitude of a disaster’s impact can be mitigated in a number of ways including interventions that take into account the social basis of vulnerability (for example, Wisner et al. 2004). Societies around the world vary in the ways they choose to recognize and prepare for risks, revealing that these decisions are often the result of political thought, institutional logics, and social hierarchies (for example, Beck 1992; Dynes and Tierney 1994; Scarry 2011; Tierney 1999; Tierney et al. 2001; Tironi et al. 2014).
Early anthropological contributions to the study of disasters can be found in volumes such as The Angry Earth (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 1999), which has put forth the argument that disasters are socially constructed processes that need to be viewed and studied as not just a single physical event, but as a whole process in which the event is just one part. Several years later, this argument was extended further in the volume Catastrophe and Culture, where Susanna Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith (2002) as the contributing authors emphasized that disasters are “all-encompassing” as they are both ecological and social phenomena. However, in order to fully understand how these phenomena interplay and how human societies respond to the threat of natural hazards and disasters in general, more ethnographic research needs to take place. After all, “disasters are social and political events linked to who we are, how we live, and how we structure and maintain our society” (Fothergill 2004: 27). Therefore, understanding contexts within which disasters play out is extremely important.
In recent times, a number of large-scale disasters have catastrophically impacted communities in different localities, and have become topics of discussion globally. Several new, important ethnographies have emerged providing explanatory narratives of the destruction inflicted by these disasters, and the dynamics of recovery. For example, Vincanne Adams (2013) describes the role of the privatization of services and its economic impact on the long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina in the US and Roberto Barrios (2011) looks at the complexities surrounding post-Katrina neighborhood recovery planning. Monica Falk (2014) and Claudia Merli (2011) both address the role of culture and religion in Thailand after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, while Judith Schlehe (2010) explores the role of culture and religion in the context of earthquakes in Indonesia. As these studies indicate, disaster recovery is highly contingent on socio-cultural contexts, resulting in outcomes that are highly diverse, embedded in ongoing social processes. And, as Kathleen Tierney and Anthony Oliver-Smith (2012) recommend, disaster recovery should be situated “within the context of broader global, social, historical and institutional dynamics that influence societies” (Tierney and Oliver-Smith 2012: 141). Thus, with their emphasis on the local context, anthropological approaches seem to be well-suited for documenting this context-based variety and for supporting successful disaster recovery processes.
While recovery has certainly become an important subject of interest for many ethnographers, including the authors of the contributions presented in this symposium, it has emerged that the fundamental processes that help societies make sense of and absorb the trauma that disasters can inflict are in fact those of remembering and knowledge production. In the following paragraphs, we show that understanding how various actors “remember” and “know” disasters is vital to comprehending the diverse ways in which societies, communities, and individuals engage with these destructive events.
In general, communities that have a history of disaster and hazard experiences possess a certain form of shared knowledge that provides an understanding of what to do in the event of a disaster in the given locality. For example, in Japan the public is notorious for being extremely well-prepared for earthquakes, while the Philippines is known for their highly efficient community-based services that provide immediate response when cyclones and severe storms occur (Bankoff 2007). In these cases, the disaster-related knowledge that members of these communities possess is acquired through their everyday lives. However, while this knowledge may appear homogenous, it in fact consists of highly diverse parts. This point is illustrated in this special symposium by Hannah Swee who describes how local cyclone knowledge in the Australian tropics is formed as an assemblage of heterogeneous parts. Drawing on her fieldwork in Far North Queensland, she argues that this assemblage of knowledge is composed of factors that range from disaster management information to locally generated ideas. And, as this knowledge is subject to re-evaluation, she also explores how it changes and fluctuates through time as cyclones are lived with as recurring, annual threats.
This shifting shape of knowledge is affected by a diverse range of factors and processes. One such process is that of memory and remembering, which Susann Baez Ullberg investigates in her article on the role of memory in relation to floods in Santa Fe, Argentina. Although floods occur regularly in this city, she explores how a particularly destructive flood that occurred in 2003 has been remembered intrinsically in a process that she terms “embedded remembrance,” while other floods have been forgotten. She argues that remembering takes place in the present as it is embedded in daily practices, objects, and places, while the actual content of memories varies between neighborhoods, social classes, and individuals. Thus people living in one place experience and know recurring disasters in vastly diverse ways.
On the other hand, less commonplace or especially destructive disasters contribute to the production of new knowledge. They leave their survivors shaken not only by the loss and destruction but also by having suddenly experienced the unexpected, the unknown, the unprepared for, presenting the public with a new set of realizations. For example, many communities affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 had no living memory of tsunamis. By having survived the disaster, new awareness has been created, altering the ways in which the population thought of and prepared for disasters. However, the ways in which the newly acquired understanding is going to be incorporated into the everyday social processes depends on multiple factors including local organizations, politics, hierarchies, and power structures. For example, a decision has to be made as to what kind of knowledge will be picked up and reproduced for future generations. In her ethnographic account of a disaster expert field trip presented in this symposium, Zuzana Hrdličková’s paper shows that the catastrophic experience of the 1999 Orissa Supercyclone in India has led to the creation of new disaster preparedness infrastructure in the state and improved cooperation among the general public during evacuation efforts in the years after the event. Based on her research in the aftermath of the 2013 cyclone Phailin in India, she describes how the process of acquiring institutional knowledge is often determined by the sequential logic of the expert’s itinerary, as well as relationships, interests, and personal perceptions. Thus any institutional learning from disasters is a contingent practice.
Politics and media are extremely powerful in determining the reality that will be formed and remembered. For instance, Gregory Button looks at the ways in which knowledge can be politicized as different actors, such as the media, “manufacture, revise, or withhold knowledge” (Button 2010:16) in order to produce a constructed form of reality, while Edward Simpson’s (2013) ethnography of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake shows the link between memory work and the political contestations that arose in the wake of the disaster. Yet, in the end, all disasters become part of everyday life in one way or another, altering knowledge along the way. As Frida Hastrup (2011) describes in her ethnography of a tsunami-struck village in Tamil Nadu, India, the disaster gradually unfolded into everyday life through specific processes such as remembering, and in this way, a new awareness about global environmental processes, such as climate change, is formed. Hence the knowledge created by disasters is molded into shape by numerous actors and it gradually seeps into the daily existence of communities and individuals.
Numerous ethnographies have shown that the social context within which disasters happen is of the utmost importance as it shapes recovery. However, disasters also become incorporated within larger explanatory narratives of ongoing social change. This is well illustrated in this symposium by Seumas Bates. Focusing on a group of white males in rural Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, he explores how recurring disaster threats and recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill play out in the narratives of White males perceiving that their historical position of privilege is threatened. Thus, disasters and disaster recovery can be understood in light of ongoing processes of “becoming” and the everyday.
The four articles in this special symposium of Nature and Culture were first presented at the panel, “Living with Disasters: Hazards, Continuity, and Change,” at the biannual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists in 2014 and they showcase contributions from highly relevant contemporary social research. The articles of Hannah Swee, Susann Baez Ullberg, Zuzana Hrdličková, and Seumas Bates are based on ethnographic fieldwork. They illustrate the great number of ways in which diverse individuals, groups, and communities engage with disasters, through constant creative and re-creative processes of knowledge production.
Adams, Vincanne. 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bankoff, Greg, Georg Frerks, and Dorothea Hilhorst. 2004. Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development, and People. London: Earthscan.
Barrios, Roberto. 2011. “‘If You Did Not Grow Up Here, You Cannot Appreciate Living Here’: Neoliberalism, Space-Time, and Affect in Post-Katrina Recovery Planning”. Human Organization 70(2): 118–127.
Button, Gregory. 2010. Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Dynes, Russell Rowe, and Kathleen Tierney, eds. 1994. Disasters, Collective Behavior, and Social Organization. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Fothergill, Alice. 2004. Heads above Water: Gender, Class, and Family in the Grand Forks Flood. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hastrup, Frida. 2011. Weathering the World: Recovery in the Wake of the Tsunami in a Tamil Fishing Village. New York: Berghahn Books.
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Merli, Claudia. 2010. “Context-Bound Islamic Theodicies: The Tsunami as Supernatural Retribution vs. Natural Catastrophe in Southern Thailand”. Religion 40(2): 104–111.
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Schlehe, Judith. 2010. “Anthropology of Religion: Disasters and the Representations of Tradition and Modernity”. Religion 40(2): 112–120.
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Tierney, Kathleen J., and Anthony Oliver-Smith. 2012. “Social Dimensions of Disaster Recovery”. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 30(2): 123–146.
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