Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Disasters Abstract

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Anthropological Contributions

to the Study of Disasters
This chapter addresses the contributions of anthropology towards the field of disaster studies and emergency management. Anthropology’s concern with the holistic study of humanity in relation to social, political, cultural, and economic contexts, as well as the breadth of its studies done internationally, seem to make it well-positioned to answer calls from within the field of disaster studies for an “expanded horizon.” This article examines contemporary contributions and investigations, following the life-cycle of a disaster event, from pre-disaster vulnerability, conceptions of risk, individual and social responses and coping strategies, and relief management. It concludes by providing recommendations for future research.

Henry, D

  1. Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Disasters. In Disciplines, Disasters

and Emergency Management: The Convergence and Divergence of Concepts, Issues

and Trends From the Research Literature. D. McEntire and W. Blanchard, eds.

Emittsburg, Maryland: Federal Emergency Management Agency.

-special thanks to the editors, and to Anthony Oliver-Smith, Peter Van Arsdale, and Linda Whiteford for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Doug Henry, Ph.D.

Dept. of Anthropology

University of North Texas

(940) 243-1515

Anthropology attempts to engage its subjects holistically and comparatively, placing its focus on the broader context of human interactions in contemporary, historical, and prehistorical time, as well as the interrelationships between cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental domains. In its approach to studying disasters, this has meant calling attention to how risks and disasters both influence and are products of human systems, rather than representing simply isolated, spontaneous, or unpredictable events. There is especial concern with how cultural systems (the beliefs, behaviors, and institutions characteristic of a particular society or group) figure at the center of that society’s disaster vulnerability, preparedness, mobilization, and prevention. Understanding these cultural systems, then, figures at the center of understanding both the contributing causes to disasters as well as the collective responses to them.1 A holistic approach examines the complex interrelationships between humans, culture, and their environment, from the human actions that may cause or influence the severity of disaster, to the position of social vulnerability that defines disaster impact, to the range of socio-cultural adaptations and responses, including the impact of aid and the infusion of donor money. The comparative, relativistic approach of the discipline has often given it a critical stance, privileging local knowledge and local ways of management, while problematizing the dominant models of relief.

Given calls within disaster studies for an “expanded horizon” more inclusive than the current domestic, natural hazards focus, anthropology seems ideally situated to make a contribution to the field. Its own broad perspective includes what Dynes (2004) calls “slow-onset” disasters, public health epidemics, and complex emergencies. Because anthropologists often work in the developing world, where vulnerability to disasters is the highest, they have been positioned to comment on issues like risk, change, management, and assistance. Some of the most complete reviews of the field have been done by Anthony Oliver-Smith (see, for instance, his 1996 “Anthropological Research on Hazards and Disasters,” and 1999 The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective (edited with Susanna Hoffman), which provide much of the basis and inspiration for this current review); many of the conceptual categories that follow are his. The chapter is organized to follow anthropology’s contributions to the complete life cycle of disaster, from issues of vulnerable and perceived risk, to individual and social responses and coping strategies, to relief and recovery efforts.
Pre-Disaster Risk and Vulnerability
Culture influences that some people within the social system are more vulnerable to disasters than others. Ethnic minorities, disempowered castes or classes, religious groups, or occupations may live or work in physical areas that are relatively disaster-prone (Torry 1979, Zaman 1989, Haque and Zaman 1993, Bankoff 2003). For example, the mortality from the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala so disproportionately impacted the poor (unable to afford standard construction, and forced to live in landslide-susceptible ravines and gorges) that the disaster was called a “classquake” (Blaikie et al. 1994). In addition, cultural ideas about gender occupations and gender roles may predispose women (and often, by association, children) to be disproportionately represented among groups whom disasters strike, or who are most vulnerable to its effects (Agarwal 1992, Shaw 1992, Fothergill 1996, Bari 1998). Studies of vulnerability and risk have thus focused largely on environmental and technological susceptibility, such as at living near waste disposal sites (Johnston 1994, Pellow 2002), water contamination (Fitchen 1988), workplace contact with toxic chemicals or dust (Sharp 1968, Michaels 1988, Petterson 1988), and industrial accidents (Wallace 1987). Pre-disaster inequalities within social relationships have also been shown to exacerbate tensions and discrimination during times of crisis or relief (Jackson 2003). Torry (1986), for instance, showed how pre-disaster religiously sanctioned inequality existing in India structured the provision of relief during famine in such ways that reinforced the cultural model of customary discrimination. He notes that social adjustments during crisis "are not radical, abnormal breaks with customary behavior; rather they extend ordinary conventions” (1986: 126). Working with Bangladeshi communities resettled from erosion prone riverine areas, Haque and Zaman (1993) suggest that relief efforts that ignore broader cultural institutions like religious and sociopolitical organization, may do so at their own peril, in that they ignore factors that influence or limit how communities are able to organize and respond to their own situation.

In parallel with work in other disciplines, anthropology has sought ways to call attention to (and alleviate) structural conditions of predisaster vulnerability that predispose some communities to experience disaster or that increase the severity of disaster impact. Such conditions include gender inequality, global inequities, endemic poverty, racism, a history of colonial exploitation, imbalances of trade, and underdevelopment. Poor or ethnic minority groups may have little choice but to live in sub-standard housing on or near unstable land prone to flooding, drought, disease, or environmental pollution (Bodley 1982, Johnston 2001). The developing world experiences three times the disaster-induced death rates of the developed world (UNDRO 1984). Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist, takes stock of the profound and spreading social disaster within the poorest countries of the world that HIV/ AIDS and tuberculosis infection represent (1999, 2004). With millions dead and tens of millions of children left orphaned in Africa alone, Farmer places the blame for the epidemic squarely on structural forces: the poverty and racism that heighten vulnerability by preventing the poor from receiving education and health care access, the multinational greed that prevents life-prolonging treatment drugs from reaching the poor, and neo-liberal economic policies that force governments to slash safety nets and reduce spending on crucial social services (see also Schoepf et al. 2000).

Research from the African Sahel has shown that economic pressures associated with colonialism and global trade induced unsustainable practices that increased the local vulnerability to desertification, famine, and starvation (Turton 1977, Fagan 1999). Oliver-Smith notes the “socially created pattern of vulnerability” that Spanish-induced changes in building materials, design, and settlement patterns induced in Andean cultures, that contributed to higher mortality during a 1970 earthquake in Peru (1994). The pressure for economic development, modernization, and growth through means such as mining, deforestation, urbanization, and hydroelectric dams, can lead to dramatic environmental degradation, loss of food security, and increasing disease vectors, thus elevating vulnerability to natural and infectious hazards (Scudder and Colson 1982, Simonelli 1987, Cernea 1990, Shipton 1990, Hunter 1992, Lerer and Scudder 1999).

There is also research on how various actors involved in pre-disaster situations assess and define risk and vulnerability. Anthropologists have emphasized local models of risk construction, and stressed the importance of understanding the sociocultural context of judgments and indigenous linguistic categories and behaviors about what is dangerous and what is not. They note that public perceptions about risk and acceptability are shared constructs; therefore, understanding how people think about and choose between risks must be based on the study of culturally-informed values as well as their social context of poverty or power (Wolfe 1988, Cernea 2000). Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) note, for instance, that scientific ratios that assess levels of risk are incomplete measures of the human approach to danger, since they explicitly try to exclude culturally constructed ideas about living “the good life.” Risky habits or dangerous behaviors are conformations to lifestyles, and thus become evaluated within other socially and culturally evaluated phenomenon. Food, money, or lifestyle may outweigh perceived vulnerability. People live in Los Angeles, for example, not because they like breathing smog, but to take advantage of job opportunities, or because they value natural beauty, a warm climate, etc. Altering risk selection and risk perception, then, depends on changing the social order. From the point of view of sociology, Mileti (1999) similarly argues that any shift in vulnerability-preparedness must include a shift in cultural premises that privilege technological solutions, consumerism, and short-term, non-sustainable development.  He notes that in the U.S., centralized attempts to guard against natural disasters, especially those that employ technological means to control nature, may ultimately create a false sense of security that can exacerbate the risk of even more damage occurring. For instance, dams and levees meant to protect communities from flooding along the Mississippi River basin actually encouraged denser settlement patterns and industrial development in flood-prone areas, which inflicted much greater losses during a large flood that caused the levees to fail. Paine (2002), in writing about Israeli citizen responses to violence from the Palestinian uprising, notes that consciousness of risk can actually be socially negated. Particularly for Zionist Israelis, the acceptance of religious identity and collective mission supersedes any rational calculation of vulnerability. Finally, Stephens (2002) writes how political culture can shape risk assessment. In Europe in the years following the Chernobyl disaster, risk assessment has been effectively delegated away from individual or personal level to the realm of scientific “authoritative experts.” Stephens’ work shows the pressure among these experts to both inform an anxious public about the levels of risk surrounding nuclear energy, nuclear accidents, and radiation danger, and simultaneously assuage the public that everything is “normal” and “under control.”

Responses to Disaster
Individual and Organizational Responses

As Oliver-Smith notes, hazards and disasters challenge the structure and organization of society. Much anthropology, therefore, examines the behaviors of individual actors and groups within the events surrounding a disaster. The anthropology of disaster response has focused on changes occurring within cultural institutions like religion, ritual, economic organization, and politics, especially concerning the relative degrees of local cooperation or conflict, the ability of local institutions to mitigate the impact of a disaster, and the differential capabilities of response due to ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic status (Das 1997). Pannell (1999), for instance, notes that inland resettlement of a coastal community because of volcanic activity involved dramatic and destabilizing changes in subsistence, organization, and identity. Research has also focused on how vulnerable populations variously respond to both the crisis and the provision of aid, in particular the aged (Guillette 1993), women (Vaughan 1987, Shaw 1992, Alexander 1995, Bari 1998), and children (Gordon et al. 1996, Tobin and Whiteford 2001, Shepler 2003). Each of these populations may have different coping mechanisms, different vulnerabilities, and different capabilities (Anderson 1994, Nordstrom 1998, Skelton 1999). Research has also focused on the interactions and interrelationships between donors, providers and recipients of aid (Oliver-Smith 1979).

With the rise in occurrence and severity of technological disasters such as oil spills and chemical explosions have come anthropological studies of community and corporate responses. Research into the Exxon-Valdez Alaska oil spill uncovered how communities recover from the stress and impact of the spill. Some of these have shown that disasters can stimulate a range of social responses, from initial anger and denial to social integration and cohesiveness, as new groups form to initiate bargaining for responsibility and obligation (Button 1992). Loughlin’s work on responses to the Bhopal, India, chemical explosion shows how corporate and community definitions as to disaster, culpability, and accountability can be at odds, and that disasters may stimulate new forms of local activism and social consciousness (Loughlin 1996). Such research provides grounding for the concept of “environmental justice” (Johnson 1994), which attempts to define rights for those communities whose subsistence is primarily dependent on an ecological relationship with their surrounding natural resources.

Though disaster-literature typically focuses on the population-level, disaster-related trauma may have individual effects that become expressed in culturally informed ways, in response to fire (Maida et al. 1989), earthquake (Bode 1989, Oliver-Smith 1992), technological disaster (Palinkas et al. 1993), or complex emergencies (Jenkins 1996, Caruth 1996, Young 1997, Henry 2000a). Anthropologists have come to use the analytical term “embodiment” to focus on the complex meanings of disaster-related trauma that become manifest in individuals, as the lived experiences of disaster, and the creative ways that survivors use to comprehend the trauma done to their lives, and attempt to move on (Kleinman et al. 1997, Green 1999, Anderson 2004, Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). Henry, for instance, notes how haypatensi (from the English medical condition “hypertension”) evolved in the war-torn areas of Sierra Leone as a new kind of local sickness experienced by refugees and internally displaced persons in response to their experiences of violence, displacement, and the provision of relief aid (Henry 2000b). Cathy Caruth (1996) notes that when traumatic experience is remembered, a “historical narrative” is created in which the events become restructured and resituated in ways that help the survivors understand and make sense of what happened, and move forward (see also Malkki 1990). The analyses of trauma narratives have been recognized as valuable in helping illuminate how people come to make sense of the violence done within disaster (Poniatowska 1995, Jenkins 1996, Coker 2004). As Coker points out, the references within that narrative need not be straightforward, but become locally understood and expressed indirectly in culturally defined idioms (somatization, a new kind of sickness, Divine punishment, supernatural wrath, spirit possession, etc.).

Anthropologists have often been critical of the dominant Western classification-diagnoses “PTSD,” or Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, especially its claim to represent universal “human” responses to extremely traumatic situations. They trace the diagnosis through the historical construction of “trauma,” especially in its transformations by 19th and 20th century scientists, and the study of war-traumatized WWII soldiers and Vietnam veterans (Hermann 1992, Young 1997, Petty and Bracken 1998). Bracken notes that PTSD was created through Western categories, and that the therapy it entails is shaped by Western ideas of cognitivism, in which trauma is located as an event inside a person’s head, rather than representing a social phenomenon, where recovery might be bound up with the recovery of the wider community. Instead, in line with the Western model, children and adults are universally encouraged to talk about traumatic experiences, or draw, paint, or use storytelling, in effect provoking them to relive the trauma. Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been critical of this kind of approach; it conflicts with the holistic and relativistic approaches of anthropology described above—“Talking cures” or counseling that ignores other family or community members may be cross-culturally inappropriate, especially in other parts of the world, where conceptions of individuality and person may be much more connected to the social context than in the Western world (Young 1995, Brett 1996). Parker (1992) further notes that any implication that traumatic disaster is “temporary” ignores the fact that many people live with chronic insecurity, economic frailty, and extended states of trauma.
Responsive Belief Systems and Coping Strategies
Since the beginning of the discipline, anthropologists have been interested in how people draw upon and alter their belief systems in efforts to come to terms with events of catastrophic change, violence, loss, resettlement, and even humanitarian relief (Lindstrom 1993, Maida 1996). These events can involve changes in social institutions like religious beliefs or customs (Stewart and Harding 1999), social organization (Colson 1973, Oliver-Smith 1977), attitudes and values (Bode 1977, Oliver-Smith 1992), even marriage institutions (Loizos 1977).

Anthropologists have shown some of the adaptive coping strategies that even relatively isolated world populations have traditionally used to respond and cope with disasters from the environment, such as flood, drought, conflict, earthquake, volcanic explosion, and disease (Turton 1977, Torry 1978a, Zaman 1989, Tobin and Whiteford 2002). Archaeology, for instance, has used the material record to provide long-term depth for understanding the human-environment relationship in both historical and pre-historical time. This has involved using flora, fauna, and material remains to examine the relationship between contextual variables like the magnitude or speed of a disaster with social variables such as population density, wealth distribution, and political complexity, in order to assess how disasters have impacted human response and social adaptation over time (McGuire et al. 2000, Bawden and Reycraft 2001). Some of the work here notes how disasters can instigate cultural evolution (Minnis 1985, Mosely and Richardson 1992); others note the disastrous consequences of unsustainable environmental practices that human behavior can cause (Fagan 1999, Redman 1999, Dods 2002). In contemporary time, Elizabeth Colson has pointed out the creative coping mechanisms that can occur within social systems as a result of the upheaval of forced relocation, such as flexible forms of social organization, familial obligations, occupations, and belief systems (1973, 2003). Monica Wilson notes how the cultural norms of hospitality in southern Africa enabled shipwrecked explorers and traders to be welcomed and integrated into the social order of local communities (1979). Davis echoes this, noting that the suffering involved in traumatic experience is social—“the experience of war, famine, and plague is continuous with ordinary social experience; people place it in social memory and incorporate it with their accumulated culture (1992: 152). For Davis, suffering results not so much from a “breakdown” in the proper functioning of the social order, but rather is itself a painful part of the social organization. This includes the culturally diverse ways that people mourn, and how they draw upon culturally and religiously defined symbols to find strength (Bode 1989, Hoffman 1995).

In some areas of the world, people have long had to deal with social disruption, such as areas in the African Sahel, where drought, famine, and political insecurity have become somewhat common, if not always anticipated, events. In Sudan, for example, Van Arsdale (1989) coins the term “adaptive fluxto refer to the indigenous self-help tactics and long-term coping strategies that have evolved to enable people to survive under fluctuating, harsh, and erratic conditions in what is a socio-economically and geographically peripheral area. People may activate migration networks that send some family members to urban areas, farmers may enact systems of crop rotations or sharing of draft animals to increase the chance of a successful harvest, or they may rely on grass-roots political councils to mobilize food resources or security during scarcity or political instability. In Ethiopia, for example, Hailu et al. (1994) note that these kind of local council decisions were able to mobilize 6,000 peasants to build a dry-weather road to eastern Sudan in a short time. This later enabled relief-assistance to reach the area during famine.

Adaptive strategies can, however, become strained under the larger-scale of vulnerability that has frequently accompanied the transformations inflicted on indigenous societies since Western contact, colonialism, industrialization, and incorporation into the world market. Already mentioned was how British colonialism and economic pressures in the East African Sahel eroded (and in some cases, outlawed) preexisting indigenous methods of drought survival, and increased the local vulnerability to desertification, famine, and starvation (Turton 1977, Fagan 1999).

Responses Within Political Organization

Anthropologists have noted how disasters can alter political organizations and power relations between individuals, the state, and international actors. Disasters may provide a kind of structuring idiom that allows people to more clearly apprehend their own political situation and their own position of power (or marginality) relative to that of the state (Chairetakis 1991, Button 1992). Chairetakis notes that where states or political parties are able to exploit the situation by being seen as a major player in relief, relief efforts can bolster the dominant political interests of those already in power (see also Blaikie et al. 1994). Davis, writing about the consequences of earthquake and tsunami in Alaska, notes that disaster assistance functioned to increase the integration of native groups into the state (Davis 1986). Alternately, disaster and relief can stimulate the development of subaltern means, identities, or interests. Robinson et al. (1986), for instance, writing about local responses following the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake, note how neighborhood and student organizations recovering from the quake felt empowered to mobilize and demand more accountability from the political party in power.

Responses Within Economic Systems

Anthropologists have always been interested in the material and economic exchange of peoples, especially in terms of production, distribution, consumption, the allocation of scarce resources, and the cultural rules for the distribution of commodities. Because disasters and disaster relief can so dramatically impact material subsistence and exchange, anthropologists have looked at the changes that disasters can bring to economic systems and related mechanisms like employment, sharing, egalitarianism, and morality (Dirks 1980). Torry, for example, studying Hindu responses to famine, notes that social inequalities situated within caste or other sanctioned structures can produce marked inequalities in access to resources, and the unequal distribution of relief items (Torry 1986). Oliver-Smith, writing about immediate responses to avalanche and earthquake in Peru, notes that previously existing stratifications like class and ethnicity can temporarily disappear in a short-lived wave of altruism. Once national and international aid appears, however, old divisions can reemerge, and conflicts over access to resources begin again (1979, 1992).

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