Anthropological Approaches in Disaster Management
The disastrous event of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center September 11th 2001 boosted an already emerging tendency within geo-politics and disaster emergency relief; a tendency that combines emergency relief operations in so-called disaster areas with national security concerns and policy making (Bonnén and Søsted 2004). Hjalte Tin (2000) has examined this tendency and its origins within the Danish aid sector and defines it as “risk aid”. Risk aid is often provided along with military intervention, and it is implemented in regions or countries not on the basis of how much suffering a given population is enduring, but rather on the basis of the perceived amount of threat it is believed to entail towards the West (Tin 2000). The threat can either take the form of massive refugee floods washing in over Western boarders, or the form of terrorists eager to blow themselves up along with thousands of innocent Western civilians. Whereas the link to the belief that disasters can produce refugees is rather obvious, it may not appear quite as logic and straight forward why such events should create terrorists? – But the risk aid discourse ties a broad spectrum of events that are often defined as disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, famines, the AIDS-epidemic, widespread poverty, and war to the construction of fundamentalist ideologies as well as to the production of young people, who are willing to carry out atrocious acts in the West.
The implementation of large-scale relief operations have to date primarily been based on political decision making, as Western governments are the primary institutions providing the funding for such interventions either via bilateral approaches or via the UN institutions. However, relief organizations are currently finding it increasingly hard to oppose the risk aid discourse or get a voice within it, in order to secure funding for the disasters they find to be the most entitled, and in the form they wish for (Askov 2004). It thus appears that they lack an argument that can form a counter discourse beyond the risk aid discourse, or even better some convincing arguments grounded in scientific knowledge of the consequences of disasters. That is not to say that decision-making would not still be based on a political agenda. The argument would, however, stand stronger if it went beyond mere rhetoric’s and was based on scientific knowledge regarding empiric reality especially on the progression of disaster events, as the risk aid discourse projected by Western governments are largely concerned with the perceived risks such events pose to their own boarders. That leads to the overall question of what anthropology has to say. What does anthropology currently know about what disasters do to people and what people do with disasters? And how does anthropology know?
Historically anthropology has generally neglected disasters as objects of study sui generis. Since the 1980s, however, a small group of disaster researchers have been emerging. Currently their work is mainly represented in two books edited by Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susan M Hoffman The Angry Earth and Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (1999; 2001). Occasionally anthropologists also contribute to the interdisciplinary journal, Disasters (Bankhoff 2001; Seitz 1998), or contribute with research on disasters in credited anthropological journals, such as Anthropology Today and Annual Review of Anthropology (Richards 1992; Shaw 1989; Shipton 1990). Despite the fact that anthropological disaster research is only an emerging field others (Bankoff 2001) predict that how to mitigate the effects of hazards and relieve the consequences of disasters is destined to be a major issue of academic enquiry in this century. Moreover, the above outlined risk aid discourse certainly shows that there is an urgent and practical requirement for a wider comprehension of disasters and increased scientific scrutiny into disasters as a social phenomenon.
In relation to the above debate the overall theme of this thesis will be to answer the question:
What is the current status of anthropological disaster research, and is it possible to construct an approach to the field that facilitates future theory building concerning disasters and simultaneously provides the applied field with new advantages?
The fundamental argument throughout this thesis will be that the current anthropological approach to disaster research is based on an underlying approach to comprehending, defining, and analyzing disasters explicated in the so-called PAR-approach to disaster research developed by Piers Blaikie et al. (1994). This approach does, despite a set of obvious explanatory advantages, posses some disadvantages and fallacies both in regard to applied practices and in relation to facilitating theory building. I propose that it is possible to construct a more informed approach to anthropological disaster research.
My critique of the PAR-approach and the following attempt to construct a new approach will take vantage point in a case study from the 2001 flood in Mutarara District, Mozambique and its subsequent phases. The case study is comprised on data gathered during a baseline study I conducted in the area in 2003 for Danida Educacao Tete, Mozambique.
Via a PAR-analysis of the Mutarara disaster I wish to show that the PAR-model has some definite advantages regarding the identification of the causes of a given disaster and the internal logic of the processes leading to a disaster, furthermore the model constitutes a good “check list” for factors to examine in relation to any given disaster.
On the other hand, I will argue that the PAR-approach has a limited scope. Firstly, because it is primarily aimed at grasping a very linear disaster process of limited complexity, but it cannot grasp a mulitlinear and highly complex disaster event, such as the Mutarara flood of 2001. Secondly, I will attempt to show that the scope is limited in the sense that the PAR- model constitutes a situational analysis, which says a lot about the disaster process in retrospective, and at its best provides an insight into the current situation status of a given disaster event and its causes. – But because the PAR-approach is situational and the focus is centered on individual processes leading to disasters it neglects the complex, dynamic, and systemic aspects of culture or more to the point Emile Durkheim’s (1982) notion that the “the whole equals more than the sum of its parts”. Therefore the PAR-approach cannot be utilized for predicting and projecting the potential outcomes and consequences of a given disastrous event in progress. To be fair, the PAR-approach never intended or claimed to include the aspect of prediction and projection, but it does claim to entail a “cure for disaster” – a recipe for the practitioner on where to take action and what actions to take against the creation of future disasters (Blaikie et al. 1994:7:8). – But what about the current disaster in progress? How can the practitioner take the best actions towards limiting the negative effects of that, if he does not have an understanding of how the disaster will progress? The PAR-model gives little or no insights into that question.
What I suggest is that a disaster process does not end with the death of the individual, or the repatriation or resettlement of a given population segment, like the PAR-approach suggests, on the contrary it continues to effect internally and externally via a complex web of interrelated processes on various levels from the individual level to in some cases a global level. Thus in order to make applied decision making on which actions to take on a sound basis it is essential to gain insight into the dynamic and the systemic aspects of the culture in which the disaster is unfolding. Otherwise practitioners risk implementing actions that furthers the negative effects of a disaster instead of relieving them – or choose not to take any actions as a given disaster might appear too limited in scale to call for intervention.
Furthermore, the PAR-approach to disaster basically defines all disaster-like phenomenons within the equation for disaster R (risk) = H (hazard) + V (vulnerability) as being disastrous: the loss of crops, the loss of livelihoods, deaths, illness, damage to houses, loss of animals, etc. – But to whom is that a disaster? The PAR-approach clearly considers the loss of the individual and the individual’s loss as disastrous, at the same time it includes for example the loss of an entire community in a mudslide as disastrous (Blaikie et al. 1994:126:168). Thus all unfortunate events become disasters when analyzed via the PAR-model, as the matter of scale has no place within this framework. The lack of scale in the framework is of course very sympathetic to the victims, but I argue that it becomes problematic in regard to disaster researchers being able to compare and thus develop scientific knowledge about disasters if the question of scale is not considered. – The question being; is it a meaningful exercise to compare disastrous events as different in scale and scope as the Mutarara flood, a car crash, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center? That is of course a rhetoric question, as I via the below critique of the PAR-approach wish to show that the field of disaster research needs to develop a concept of disaster, which takes the matter of scale into consideration. That is necessary for the progression of anthropological disaster research, as well as for the development of an improved applied approach. In addition, the concept of disaster that I call for should include a dynamic concept of culture, which the PAR-approach lacks, making it possible to predict the potential progression of a disaster, because if the potential of a disaster is not considered the matter of scale becomes blurred. In other words; without the right insight into the dynamics of a given society it is easy to assume via the PAR-approach that a disaster event “ends” with for example the resettlement of a population. However, my point is; depending on the structures and dynamics of a given culture a relatively small, unfortunate event, might have the potential to develop into a disaster of a much larger scale.
As a way of determining the scale and the potential scale of a disaster process I suggest that Pierre Bourdieu’s (2000) concept of doxa is introduced to the analysis of disasters. The concept of doxa can be used to examine whether or not a given disaster has shattered the reproductive system of entities of various scales such as: family level, local society level, regional level, national level, or global level. In addition to applying the concept of doxa as a definition and a measurement of disaster, I propose, that Frederik Barth’s (1989; 1993) concept of “streams of cultural traditions” is combined with the doxic definition, as the concept provides an adequate tool for conceptualizing the potential progression of a disaster process. In that manner a broad spectrum of scales of disasters can be examined and accepted as equally disastrous to the victims, but it is possible to avoid comparing a car crash with a famine, or to overlook a given disastrous event because it for example did not cause any immediate deaths. This approach will in turn provide applied practitioners with a more sound and informed basis upon which they can choose what actions to take against a given disaster in progress, as they are provided with a tool for predicting the progression of a given disaster.
The Structure of the Thesis
Chapter one will provide a historical outline of how social science in general and anthropology in particular has undertaken the challenge of studying disasters. It will conclude that historically anthropology has largely been blind to the possibility of viewing disasters as an object of study sui generis, and that the current anthropological approach despite many different foci areas are based on the PAR-approach developed by Blaikie et al. (1994).
Chapter two contains an outline of the fieldwork in Mutarara and background information on the field location including a brief review of the history of Mozambique. The main part of the chapter consists of a descriptive account of the 2001 flood in Mutarara District and its subsequent phases, which will be used as point of reference throughout the thesis. It will conclude that the descriptive account leads to a series of question in regard to the behaviour of both the flood victims and the local authorities in the wake of the disaster.
Chapter three contains a PAR-analysis of the Mutarara flood 2001, where root causes, dynamic pressures, and unsafe conditions are identified as outlined in the PAR-model. It will conclude that the progression of vulnerability combined with a hazard impact in the form of a flood led to a series of disaster-like phenomenons. These phenomenons are virtually identical to a PAR-analysis on the Bangladeshi floods 1987/1988 provided by Blaikie et al. (1994:144), despite the fact that the root causes and dynamic pressures of the two cases are hardly identical. That in turn questions the causality of a disaster process claimed by the PAR-model.
Chapter four constitutes a critique of the PAR-approach with vantage point in the PAR-analysis of the Mutarara disaster. It concludes that there are at least five different problems embedded in this approach. The main problems are that it cannot embrace the behavioural patterns of the victims thus it leaves all blame of the disaster on the authorities and various historically produced structural impediments. And that its definition of what a disaster constitutes is flawed, which makes the definition invalid. That leads to a definitional debate concerning the need – or not – for a definition on what a disaster is. I conclude that a definition is essential to the progression of scientific knowledge on disasters, and moreover for its applied advantages.
Chapter five consists of an attempt to create a new definition and approach to disaster research with vantage point in the conceptual frameworks of Barth (1993; 1992; 1989) and Bourdieu (1976; 2000). Through a few, and by no means all-encompassing examples from the Mutarara case, I show how this new approach can be utilized to comprehend how disaster progress.
The conclusion sums up the overall findings of this thesis, and reflects on the scientific and applied implications of the proposed new approach to disaster research.
Past and Current Trends within Anthropological Disaster Research
In this chapter I will outline how social science in general and anthropology in particular has undertaken the challenge of studying disasters in order to account for, where the inspirations to the current anthropological approach to disaster research originates from. I will examine how disaster research started out as a war science and since moved on to other fields such as technological and natural disasters. Despite great interest in the field among other fractions of social science, anthropological contributions to disaster research has until the 1980s been rather insignificant. During the 1980s the grounds were prepared for the current approach to anthropological disaster research.
The Early Historic Developments of the Relationship between Science and the Study of Disasters
According to Carlyle Jacobsen (1962) the first recognition of science to be able to contribute to the understanding and not least prevention and mitigation of disasters developed during the American Civil War. During the Civil War the National Academy of Sciences was established in order to make scientific knowledge available to officers of government. The objective of this cooperation was to achieve better and more informed planning on various courses of action towards an urgent problem via the latest technical information provided by the scholars (Jacobsen 1962:1). The institutional set-up for this cooperation between government institutions and academic institutions often took the form of committees. Not until 1952, however, was an actual disaster committee established with primary focus on disasters as such, not just as a source of technical information to government institutions in any simple manner. The Committee on Disaster Studies was set up in the wake of World War Two and in 1957 it was succeeded by the Disaster Research Group (Jacobsen 1962:1).
Despite of the early American interest in mitigating disasters through the cooperation of officials and scholars no research specifically aimed at disasters as research object sui generis was conducted until 1920, where Samuel Prince was the first social scientist to introduce the study of disaster to scientific scrutiny with his research on the munitions explosion in Halifax (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:4). Others (Csonka 1995) have convincingly argued that anthropology at the time suffered from a complete blindness towards disasters. For example Kaj Birket-Smith’s expedition to the so-called Inuit Caribous completely overlooked or ignored the fact that they were conducting research among a famine stricken population on the verge of extinction. Birket-Smith was more concerned by the fact that “his” Caribous were acting out of place, by eating tinned meat instead of hunting in the traditional manner (Csonka 1995:5:10).
During and after World War Two social science began to study bombardments’ impact on human behavior. This research was called the World War Two Strategic Bombing Surveys, and it focused on “moral issues”, such as absenteeism from work after a bombardment (Barton 1969:58; Jacobsen 1962:1; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:4). After World War Two this research object evolved into the social scientific study of both natural and technological disasters. Anthropologists became some of the earliest contributors to this research although it was primarily a field constituted of sociologists (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:4; Torry 1979:518). Disaster research bloomed after the Second World War and between the 1950s and 1970s a whole series of work on disasters was published (e.g. Baker and Chapman 1962; Barton 1969; Dynes 1970). This sudden interest on behalf of the social science in a research field not many appears to have worked in before is likely to have developed due to two interrelated factors influencing the academic community, namely:
- The widespread fear of a nuclear attack on the USA during the Cold War
- Newly set up institutions that provided funding specifically to disaster research
The spirit of the time was permeated by fear of a nuclear attack on the USA (Barton 1969; Baker and Chapman 1962), and it was assumed by officials and academics alike that disaster research would create knowledge, that translated into official management and defence strategies would have the ability to mitigate human suffering and prevent a total societal collapse in case of a nuclear attack:
Today the idea of disaster has a special meaning. Never before has the entire human race lived on the edge of one. Atomic weapons now in hand could wipe out a nation; those that can be built could fatally damage the civilization of the whole world and perhaps wipe all humans from the surface of the earth. Social science research on disaster since 1945 has been supported mainly by government agencies attempting to plan civil defence against atomic weapons (Barton 1969:1:2).
The American government had many questions in relation to human behaviour during and after nuclear attacks, and it appears that funding was abundant for research in this field as long as it kept focus on answering the right kind of questions as exemplified by this quote from a disaster researcher<href=”#N_1_”>(1):
What might be expected in the behaviour of people under stress? What could be anticipated about moral, emotional shock, and depression in the recovery period after bombing? Would advanced training make people more knowledgeable and presumably more rational under threat? These are but a few of the questions, which were addresses to the Committee on Disaster Studies by officers of the Armed Forces and the staff of the Federal Civil Defence Administration (Jacobsen 1962:2).
The only existing nuclear disaster at the time was of course the disastrous event of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Disaster researchers naturally utilized data from that event in their research, but even more so they studied various other types of natural and man-made disaster from floods to wars. In addition, laboratory experiments to test group- and individual behavior under severe stress were conducted. According to Allen H. Barton (1969) the objectives of this line of inquiry was to combine the data gathered from all these various disasters and disaster-like-experiments and develop a system model or a set of related models that could account for the observed variations over many cases (Barton 1969:48). The ultimate goal of such a model will have been to predict human behaviour in any given disaster including a nuclear attack. Therefore it was generally not critical to the research frameworks what types or scales of disasters were researched, because all social processes during and after a disaster were perceived not to be identical anyway. In the model each disaster with its own characteristics was simply one variable out of many. Therefore it was more a question of collecting data from as many types of disasters or stressful events/situations and as much data as possible, than in depth research into a single type of disaster or a specific issue regarding disasters apart from of course the overall theme of human behavior (e.g. Dynes 1970; Barton 1969; Baker and Chapman 1962).
Anthropological Contribution to Disaster Research during the 1940s and 1950s
William Torry (1979) and Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001) argue that anthropology did contribute to the new research field both before and during the 1950s, however, they disagree on the issue of to which extend anthropologists participated and which approach anthropology took on disaster research especially during the 1950s (Torry 1979:518; Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999:1; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5). Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001) argue that anthropological participation in disaster research remained low throughout the 1950s due to general anthropological focus on normality and continuity as prescribed in the structural functionalist framework. In other words mainstream anthropology focused on everything that disasters were not, as disasters were perceived as being abnormal isolated events “…a particularistic and functionalist emphasis on the construction of cultural profiles based on the ethnography of normal, daily life precluded addressing the issues of disruption and change that disasters represented” (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:4:5). Whereas Torry (1979) on the other hand suggests that anthropologists began examining disasters systematically and in depth during the 1950s. An approach he describes as being much in line with the sociologist approach “Not until the 1950s, however, did cultural anthropologists begin to examine systematically and in depth the social consequences of natural disasters, to search for cross-site invariances in disaster related behaviours, and to codify these findings or to participate in hazard-control planning” (Torry 1979:518). Whether or not anthropology was associated in directly with the Disaster Research Group in the 1950s as Torry (1979) implies is unclear, as he provides no references to those studies. The only study referred to from this period in the two historic overviews that appears relatively compatible with the general research approach of the time is Anthony F.C. Wallace’s anthropological study from 1956 on the Worcester Tornado (Torry 1979:518; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5; Oliver-Smith 1999a: 25).
Despite the fact that Torry (1979) and Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001) disagree on when exactly anthropology started engaging more systematically in disaster research they both agree that overall the early anthropological contributions came about more by chance than by an actual focus on disaster as a research object sui generis. Anthropologists on fieldwork just happened to encounter floods, droughts, and hurricanes during their fieldwork, and such events and the cultural response to them were included in the now classic ethnographies on for example the Nuer, the Turkana, and the Tikopia (Torry 1979:518; Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5).
Anthropological Contribution to Disaster Research during the 1960s and 1970s
In the beginning of the 1960s sociology was still engaged in studying human behaviour during disasters in relation to the threat of a nuclear attack on the USA, whereas American cultural anthropology experienced a re-emerging interest in socio-cultural change, cultural ecology, and multi-linear evolutionism (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5). Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001) argue that natural disasters logical relationship to the natural environment and disasters perceived ability to create some form of socio-cultural change or at least put existing cultural institutions under severe stress resulted in a realization on behalf of anthropology that it had important contributions to make to the study of disaster. In turn disaster research could provide anthropology with new, expository insights (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5). Torry (1979) on the other hand argues that anthropology at large was not looking close enough towards the study of disaster for its expository value during that period (Torry 1979:520). Thus whereas Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001) argue that there is a direct relationship between disaster research and the development of cultural ecology and that the two have an almost “symbiotic” relationship, Torry (1979) views disaster research as lacking behind the new theoretical development (Torry 1978:520:521). However, neither of those approaches studied disasters as an object in itself. Disasters were only included either as catalyst factors for change, or as some form of indicator of how well adapted a given people was to its natural environment.
Anthropological Contribution to Disaster Research during the 1980s
The new theoretical developments that influenced disaster research in the 1980s had its roots further back in theoretical history, namely to the 1970s new theoretical frameworks of structural Marxism and political economy (Ortner 1984:138:144). In relation to disaster research, however, the most important element that those frameworks reintroduced to anthropological inquiry was the concept of history (Ortner 1984:142). The concept of history was evoked to explain how societies changed and evolved with the arrival of capitalism and/or modern state structures. Oliver-Smith (2001) argues that these new theoretical ideas were introduced to disaster research already during the 1970s from various sources, but especially advocators of political economy:
In the 1970s, however, anthropologists and cultural geographers working in the developing world found that mainstream disaster studies brought little of value to the task of analyzing disasters in third-world contexts. These researchers criticized the essentially passive role prior investigators had assigned to society in risk etiology and the scant attention paid to local, national, and international factors in increasing or exacerbating both risk and impact. Anthropologists concerned with advancing the field of cultural ecology urged researchers to focus on hazards from an ecological and social organizational perspective (Vayda and McKay 1975). Researchers from and in the third world called for a rethinking of disasters from a political-economic perspective, based on the correlation between disaster proneness, chronic malnutrition, low income, and famine potential, which lead to the conclusion that root causes of disasters lay more in the social than in nature (Oliver-Smith 2001:27).
Contrary to cultural ecology’s primary focus on nature as the variable for adaption and via the concept of history a disaster was no longer seen as a purely natural phenomenon, but rather a social phenomenon and a historical process. By focusing on the social and now regarding a disaster to be a phenomenon that was essentially a historic process, rather than an isolated event, the concept of power became central to disaster enquiry during the 1980s. Thereby discourse analysis rooted in French traditions found its way into disaster research. According to Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001:5) these new frameworks and foci of anthropology at large led to a revival of disaster research, as new scholars engaged in the field in order to study power structures. It was assumed that disasters per se had a remarkable ability to bring forward social relations and power structures that were otherwise hidden in the social fabric.
To my knowledge the first scholar, who introduced all these new ideas in a single critique of previous theoretical approaches and disaster mitigation/prevention practices, was the culture geographer Kenneth Hewitt (1983). He launched a groundbreaking critique of what he defined as “the dominant view” within disaster research and applied practice. According to Hewitt (1983) the entire focus of disaster research would have to change in order for disaster practices to develop. As he saw the situation, more and more attention on behalf of policy makers and disaster practitioners were given to managing disasters, but at the same time more disasters occurred and the damages they brought with them increased as well. What Hewitt (1983) was asking was: What was wrong with disaster research and applied practices since disasters kept happening and even worsening in spite of decades of disaster research and mitigation practices?
In order to answer that question he first looked at the focus areas of disaster research and at the implicit concept of disaster integrated in that approach, because maybe researchers were looking in the wrong places all together in their attempt to understand and explain disasters? Though social science in the previous decades of disaster research had come a long way in separating disaster events from fatalistic explanations, such as inevitable “Acts of God”, he still regarded disaster researchers preoccupation with disasters as phenomenons largely attributed to nature and cut off from everyday human experience and ordinary human activity, as being essentially wrong (Hewitt 1983:6). He termed this approach to disaster research the dominant view.
The dominant view’s focus on technology and expert solutions to disasters led him to argue that a close analogy existed between the dominant view of disasters and the concept of madness in a Foucauldian sense<href=”#N_2_”>(2). In Hewitt’s (1983) opinion the insecurity and lack of meaning that natural hazards represent is to modern technocratic society was what madness was to Enlightenment “Disaster in the 20th-century international system involves comparable pressures upon dominant institutions and knowledge, as did the “crazed poor” in the social and economic crisis that formed the underbelly of the Enlightenment. Madness and calamity are very disturbing. They directly challenge our notions of order” (Hewitt 1983:9). The danger of having this supposed order challenged is, according to Hewitt (1983), Foucault’s notion that disorderliness has the potential of being interpreted as a “…punishment for a disorderly and useless science” (Hewitt 1983:9). Disorder can be understood as the limits to knowledge and power, which risks challenging the dominant power structures. According to Hewitt (1983) the dominant view protects and maintains itself by mystifying the true relationship between society and natural hazards (Hewitt 1983:29). Disasters are, according to the dominant view, so apart from normal life that only advanced science and technology can cure society from the threat of this disorderly otherness (Hewitt 1983:10). Therefore the dominant view upholds a discourse based on the otherness of a disaster:
In hazards work one can see how language is used to maintain a sense of discontinuity and otherness, which servers these problems from the rest of man-environment relations and social life. That is most obvious in the recurrent use of words stressing the “un”-ness of the problem. Disasters are unmanaged phenomena. They are the unexpected, the unprecedented. They derive from natural processes or events that are highly uncertain. Unawareness and uneasiness are said to typify the condition of their human victims. Event the common use of the word (disaster) “event” can reinforce the idea of a discrete unit in time and space (Hewitt 1983:10, author’s italics).
Within the dominant view disasters are caused by Nature, not by God, and certainly not by Man himself. According to Hewitt (1983) it is only rational for the dominant view, scientific and utilitarian as it is, not to include “Acts of God” in the concept of disaster. He does, however, argue that disregarding
“Acts of Man” to have an influence on disasters is a rather problematic point of view, as human action constitutes the very domain of management and planning. Or in other words: why can Man by taking action prevent or mitigate disasters, if Man cannot take actions that lead to disasters? He emphasizes this as the conceptual flaw/contradiction in the dominant view, however, he also argues that the dominant view convincingly hides the contradiction by ways of associating harmful human action with the concept of “accident”:
Thus, action is comfortably spoken of in the exploitation of natural resources or government response to an actual disaster. But the utilitarian assumptions of the dominant view cannot contemplate human action as leading to destruction, to the collapse of institutions or disorganization of the space economy. Materialism assumes that human activity derives from “self-interest”, whose first rule is “survival”, or at least belongs to the underlying principle of adaption. An activity that directly invites catastrophe would not be wilfully put in place, except “by accident.” To orchestrate devastation in a rational, materialist world is to be a criminal or mad (Hewitt 1983:17, author’s italics).
Following this line of argument a disaster is once again cut of from the social and more specifically from human action. Hence, human action might attribute to disasters, but only by “accident” as all human action per se is rational. Therefore it is perceived by the dominant view that no individual will undertake actions that could risk harming himself. Thus it is not a meaningful exercise to include human actions as explanatory factors in a disaster research framework.
According to Hewitt (1983), the problem with this approach does not lie in its wish to predict natural hazards or mitigate disasters, but in that the dominant view has understood the whole disaster phenomenon back-to-front. It has turned cause and effect up-side-down, which is evident in the disaster concept the dominant view reproduces, namely that disasters derive from the natural environment and are cut off from the social environment “The problem is with the way the source of the uncertainties involved is described; with that, the kind of prediction championed, and hence the severance of the interpretation of disaster from the rest of material life through these devices” (Hewitt 1983:21). Furthermore, in the dominant view’s concept of disaster lays an implicit claim; that if all hazards could just be predicted and thereby managed via forecasting the social level would automatically follow these adjustments. Thereby the dominant view implicitly argues that everyday social life is a frictionless process with no power struggles or cultural individuality, but a process that can be moulded according to whatever new knowledge about the prediction of hazards and whatever new technology is poured into the process. He argues that this tech-fix solution model of the dominant view is covert environmental determinism (Hewitt 1983:23). What he calls for is for social scientists to engage in to interrelated objectives:
- To pursue a “truer” concept of disaster
- To create a counter discourse to the dominant view
This new concept of disaster should focus on the social environment instead of the dominant views preoccupation with the natural environment. Hewitt (1983) argues that most hazards would never even lead to disasters if it was not a fact that certain societies or segment of societies were vulnerable to disasters due to an array of human developments. Human actions are based in the social realm therefore the causes of disasters should be sought there and not in the natural realm per se. If science refuses to integrate the social in its concept of disaster, then it will keep reproducing the dominant view and thereby keep reproducing a concept of disaster that has intentionally (in order to control the disorderliness of disaster that has the potential of challenging the dominant power structures) mistaken what is cause and effect in a disaster process. If the dominant view is not contested it will never be possible to truly solve theoretical and applied problems relating to disasters worldwide.
Among the most influential works that adopted and developed Hewitt’s (1983) approach to disaster research is Blaikie et al. (1994). They developed an interdisciplinary applied approach to disaster research, a conceptual tool, and to some extent a method that was aimed at social scientists and disaster practitioner’s alike (Blaikie et al. 1994:7:8). Blaikie et al. (1994) follow Hewitt’s (1983) notion that disasters are not accidents, and that the cause of disasters are to be found in the social realm and not in the natural environment per se:
The crucial point about understanding why disasters occur is that it is not only natural events that cause them. They are also the product of the social, political, and economic environment (as distinct from the natural environment) because of the way it structure the lives of different groups of people. There is a danger in treating disasters as something peculiar, as events, which deserve their own special focus. By being separated from the social frameworks that influence how hazards affect people, too much emphasis in doing something about disasters is put on the natural hazards themselves, and not nearly enough on the social environment and its processes… In “natural” disasters, a geophysical or biological event is clearly implicated in some way in causing it. Yet, even where such natural hazards appear to be directly linked to the loss of life and damage to property, the social, economic, and political origins of the disaster remain as the root causes. People’s vulnerability is generated by social, economic, and political processes that influence how hazards affect people in varying ways and different intensities (Blaikie et al. 1994:3:4:5).
Though Blaikie et al. (1994) in line with Hewitt (1983) place the cause of disasters more within the social realm than within the natural realm, they take a more comparative stance as they propose that it is possible to talk about a spectrum of causation. Some disasters are placed in the natural end and some in the social end of the spectrum depending on the context of each specific disaster process. As examples of two opposites on the causation spectrum, they refer to the 1986 disaster in Cameroon where a carbon dioxide gas cloud erupting from Lake Nyos killed 1700 people. The cloud killed rich and poor alike and there was no social component to the disaster other than the fact that humans were in the wrong place at the wrong time (Blaikie et al. 1994:6). On the other end of the spectrum they place the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala not as an earthquake, but rather as a class quake, where it was only among the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population that the earthquake became disastrous. They argue that it was not just a case of bad housing materials, living on dangerous slopes, and little access to relief aid that made the poor segments vulnerable during and after the impact, but rather centuries of historic processes that lead to a deeply-rooted vulnerability (Blaikie et al. 1994:6). Here they also defer from Hewitt’s (1983) approach as they more explicitly draws on the concept of history as an explanatory factor to unwrap the root causes of people’s vulnerability and thereby of disasters (Blaikie et al.1994:6:21).
The great strength in Blaikie et al.’s (1994) approach compared to Hewitt’s (1983) approach is that they are very careful in defining the concepts they apply and in showing how these concepts relate. Whereas Hewitt (1983) tended to use for example the concepts of hazard, disaster, and catastrophe as interchangeable concepts, which in turn led to a rather flawed conceptual base for further theory building. Blaikie et al. (1994) appear to have mended those conceptual flaws in their approach to disaster research in form of some rather explicit definitions:
Disaster: A disaster consists of three interrelated factors; hazard (H), vulnerability (V), and risk (R). These three factors relate to each other via the equation R = H + V, which is the definition of a disaster.
Hazard: A hazard is the physical agent in a disaster. A hazard can be forecasted via probability studies. However, the statistical likelihood of a given hazard to occur says very little of the actual level of risk a given society or segment of a population is subjected to (Blaikie et al. 1994:21)
Risk: The risk concept is somewhat more problematic as it is hard to separate it analytically from the concept of disaster as ” risk is a compound function of this complex (but knowable) natural hazard and the number of people characterised by their varying degrees of vulnerability who occupies the space and time of exposure to extreme events” (Blaikie et al 1994:21).
Vulnerability: People’s vulnerability, which is perceived to derive from a spectrum of historical processes, was already invented as a concept in relation to disaster research during the late 1970s, and it focuses on the various ways in which social systems operate to generate disasters by means of making people vulnerable (Blaikie et al 1994:11). The vulnerability concept was introduced via political economy and political ecology, but even though these approaches focused on the social realm they did so in a manner that has later been criticised for focusing more on systems and global structures, than on people’s actions against or within those structures. In turn that approach led to/represented a rather deterministic view on how people become vulnerable (Blaikie et al. 1994:12). They attempt to reintroduce the human factor into disaster research and into the vulnerability concept by avoiding deterministic explanatory notions “of vulnerability that do no more than identify it with poverty in general or some specific characteristic such as crowded conditions, unstable hillside agriculture, or traditional rain-fed farming technology” (Blaikie et al. 1994:12). According to Blaikie et al. (1994:19) it is people who cope with disasters not disembodied systems. Therefore they reject notions of vulnerability that focus on studying social systems ability to cope with risk and loss. Because such approaches suffers from an explanatory lack, as they cannot account for how societies get from widespread conditions, such as poverty, to very particular vulnerabilities that link political economy and the actual hazards that people face (Blaikie et al. 1994:12).
With vantage point in their definition of disaster and their specification off the three interrelated factors hazard, vulnerability, and risk they have developed a conceptual tools that can be used both for descriptive analyses of disasters, as explanatory model, and as research framework (Blaikie et al. 1994:22:59). The model is called the Pressure and Release Model (PAR-model). It consists of a series of vulnerability creating processes on one side and natural or man made hazards on the other side of the model:
The basis for the pressure and release model (PAR) idea is that a disaster is the intersection of two opposing forces: those processes generating vulnerability on one side, and physical exposure to a hazard on the other. The image resembles a nutcracker, with increasing pressure on people arising from either side – from the vulnerability and from the impact (and severity) of the hazard on those people at different degrees of vulnerability. The “release” idea is incorporated to conceptualise the reduction of disaster: to relieve the pressure, vulnerability has to be reduced (Blaikie et al. 1994:22).
The model works as a “nutcracker”; in case of induced pressures on either side of the model the risk of a disaster increases. Blaikie et al. (1994) divide the three vulnerability-creating processes into three interrelated and causal phases, which they define as the progression of vulnerability. The three phases are:
- Root Causes
- Dynamic Pressures
- Unsafe Conditions
On the hazard side of the PAR-model various hazards with significance for a particular geographical area is listed such as:
- Pest attack
- Human modification of the rivers
A full outline of the factors addressed in the model can be found in the figure below:
PAR-model after Blaikie et al. p. 23.
According to Blaikie et al. (1994), disasters arise from some form of root causes. Those causes are historically and structurally embedded in the cultural fabric of any given society. The root causes included in the PAR-model are: limited access to power structures, resources, and ideologies that maintain political and economic systems. Each of the three phases of the progression of vulnerability are in addition divided into specific topics and issues that Blaikie et al. (1994) find of most importance to the creation of vulnerability and disasters. They emphasise that it is also these topics that should be addressed in regard to applied disaster practices, as “release” from pressure is included in the model conceptually. The applied practitioner can thus make explicit, which factors that leads to increased vulnerability, and thereby target those factors in order to reduce vulnerability (Blaikie et al. 1994:7:8). Thus theoretically the model also provides a tool for “curing” disasters. Meaning; that if these factors are properly addressed not only will the scholar/practitioner be able to find the “true” cause/causes of disaster, he will also via this extensive analysis be able to undertake the right kind of actions towards decreasing vulnerability and thereby the risk of future disasters. Therefore the model is of interest to both scholars and applied practitioners (Blaikie et al. 1994:7:8).
The Current Trends within Anthropological Disaster Research
To my knowledge the PAR-model has not been applied directly in anthropological disaster research, although some scholars have changed some of its components and used it in their framework (Bolin and Stanford 1999). However, the assumptions enclosed in the PAR-model and the underlying disaster concept developed by Blaikie et al. (1994) has influenced current anthropological disaster research so significantly that the current anthropological approach is almost identical to the definition developed by Blaikie et al. (1994). Because though the anthropological approach lacks a set definition there is a general consensus within the field of anthropological disaster research that a disaster consists of a physical or man made hazard combined with a historically produced vulnerable population:
The anthropological study of disaster has to date been conducted by a small group of researchers. Despite various approaches to the study of disasters, all are more or less united in their outlook on the problem. Disaster is seen as a process leading to an event that involves a combination of a potentially destructive agent from the natural or technological sphere and a population in a socially produced condition of vulnerability (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999:4).
When the two factors collide an event occurs that somehow results in the disruption of the “customary relative satisfaction of individual or social needs…” (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:4). Disaster anthropologists are thus clearly inspired by Blaikie et al.’s (1994) broad and holistic approach to disaster research. However, little research has turned up that embraces more than a fragment of the factors explicated in their PAR-model, which constitutes the underlying assumptions for the approach<href=”#N_3_”> (3). On the contrary, scholars appear to be studying whatever object of interest they might have that for some reason is perceived to be situated directly within a disaster context, or is perceived to be somehow related to this phenomenon. Therefore the current tendency is, that disaster anthropologists implicitly use a concept of disaster very close to the one formulated by Blaikie et al. (1994). – But they do so without regard for the entire set of assumptions that forms the premises of this approach as they study different objects perceived to be disaster-related, and they do so from different methodological and theoretical standpoints:
When hazards threaten and disasters occur, they both reveal and become an expression of the complex interactions of physical, biological, and socio-cultural systems. Hazards not only manifest the interconnections of these three factors but also expose their operations in the material and cultural worlds… Few contexts provide the social science with more opportunity for theoretical synthesis of its various concerns than does the study of disaster provide anthropology. Within disaster research, anthropology finds an opportunity to amalgamate past and current cultural, ecological, and political-economic investigations, along with archaeological, historical, demographic, and certain biological and medical concerns (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001:5:6).
It is thus not possible to speak of a single unified theoretical approach to current anthropological disaster research, but more relevant to regard the current tendencies as trends. Trends that despite their different foci areas and methodological approaches are all interrelated via the underlying PAR-approach to the concept of disaster (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999:4). I argue that the PAR-model can be understood as constituting a current “state of the art” model for how to understand, explain, and analyze a given disaster event. With “state of the art” I mean that it is the most explicit and holistic approach to disaster research that currently exists. The current trends are just to be perceived as variations over the PAR-theme. According to Hoffman and Oliver-Smith (1999:4:12) four trends currently exist:
The Archaeological/Historical Approach
This approach has had great success in creating knowledge about the physical and social processes that lead to disaster events and of the subsequent adjustments and adaptive factors involved in cultural survival or demise (e.g. Garcia Acosta 2001; Moseley 1999; Oliver-Smith 1999c; Bolin and Stanford 1999).
The Political Ecology Approach
This approach derives from a combination of cultural ecology and political economy and focuses on the human use of the natural environment as it relates to and is revealed by disaster, and how human societies are adapted to their natural environments. Though this approach focus on the material basis of man/environment relationship, it does so by analysing the economic structures, policies, forces, and overall ideologies that influence and shape the human use of the environment (e.g. McCabe 2001; Moseley 1999; Smuck-Widmann 1996).
The Applied/Practicing Approach
Prediction, mitigation, and prevention of humanitarian disasters is the overall goal of this approach, and it focuses on warning systems, traditional adaption to the natural environment, local technical knowledge, relief efforts, the actual relief work and situation, and the political and practical implications of relief aid. With background in this approach anthropologists have attempted to aid the development of better relief practices and policies, as research has made evident that relief aid carried out in post disaster areas often becomes a part of the problem instead of a solution to it (e.g. McCabe 2001; Dyer 2001; Moseley 2001; Rajan 2001; Hendrie 1997; Haug 2002).
Some of the anthropologist trying to do a lot of work in this sector. They also have done a tremendous work in this approach.
e.g. Hoffman 1999a; Oliver-Smith 1999b; Rashid and Michaud 2000; Dyer and McGoodwin 1999).
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