Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster

Advanced Seminar

October 19–23, 1997

The latter half of the 20th century has witnessed an increase in frequency and intensity of disasters of both natural and technological origin. This disturbing trend is due in large part to the increasing conditions of vulnerability in which ever larger numbers of people live. In addition, human societies have generated new forms of hazard and disaster agents. As the world becomes increasingly integrated by expanding global systems of communication and commerce, technological or environmental changes in one locale may trigger radical events or changes producing disasters half a world away.

Coincident with the increase in number and severity of disasters and the growing vulnerability of human populations, the field of anthropology has experienced a major intensification of interest concerning the issues that surround both hazards and disasters. Disasters are totalizing events. Like crystals focusing all rays into one intense beam, disasters illuminate the complex interactions of physical, biological and sociocultural systems. The holistic perspective and methodologies of anthropology ideally equip the field to address the multidimensionality of disasters expressed in the complex interactions of ecological, political economic, and sociocultural contexts that unfold when catastrophic events and processes occur.

The advanced seminar which co-chairs Tony Oliver-Smith of the University of Florida and Susanna Hoffman, an independent anthropologist, convened at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe in October of 1997 explored the dual potentials of establishing common ground among the ecological, political economic, and sociocultural forms of disaster analysis and, by doing so, developing a coherent theoretical and methodological framework for the anthropology of disaster. Participants included anthropologists working in the fields of archaeology, cultural ecology, political economy, cultural studies, and history. Foci spanned a broad array of naturally, technologically, and socially generated hazards and disasters, and areas of research included all continents.

The broad theoretical, methodological, and thematic diversity represented by the participants highlighted the difficulties embodied in harmonizing the various approaches. The different epistemologies of the natural and social sciences are both required for complete analysis of disasters, which are both physical events and culturally constructed processes. However, the diversity of approaches represented in the seminar also generated dynamic discussions and pointed the way toward a synthesis of crosscutting themes.

“A lot of disaster research has been purely physical or purely sociological and ahistorical. We had a real array here—hard-core materialists to postmodernists—and each participant had a unique perspective on disaster. The idea was to find areas of commonality,” said Oliver-Smith. Hoffman added, “We began and ended with definitional problems: What is a disaster? What are risk, danger, and hazard? Each of us also tends to enter this research from a personal experience with disaster. People left saying the seminar met and exceeded every expectation.”

The themes that were addressed included hazards, environment, and culture over time, in order to underscore the necessity of a deep temporal context to disaster; the cultural construction of catastrophe as expressed through the articulation among ecology, social organization, and ideology; pre-disaster sociocultural conditions and their effect on the ways cultures respond to catastrophe, including the reemergence of traditional culture, cultural change, and cultural survival; and especially how disaster exposes the adaptability of culture to stress and altered circumstance.

Issues confronted in the discussion entailed the vast differences in disaster causality and in time and scope represented by such varying phenomena as droughts, earthquakes, tornados, toxic exposure, and nuclear accident. Matters of safety, value, and cost; the acute disaster versus the chronic; and the flow of danger into risk and hazard into calamity also arose. The concept of vulnerability as a socially grounded set of conditions, culturally and economically generated, materially experienced, and politically framed also challenged participants.

“The need for an understanding of disaster has urgency,” stated Oliver-Smith. “In the framework of current rapid change, some disasters are playing the role of the canary in the mine in our global society. Human interventions have brought about a reduction of functional diversity in human communities along with increased spatial homogeneity, magnifying the complexity of disasters, generating new forms of hazards, and often compromising our ability to adapt and react.”

“A synthesis of disaster knowledge can contribute significantly to efforts to aid disaster victims and prevent disaster from occurring to at-risk populations,” noted Hoffman. “Our purpose in the seminar was explicitly theoretical, but it is both appropriate and necessary that this theoretical project be linked to policy and practice.”

Susanna M. Hoffman, Chair The Monster and the Mother: The Symbolism of Disaster
Anthony Oliver-Smith, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power, and Culture
Gregory V. Button School of Public Health, University of Michigan The Construction and Reconstruction of a Disaster in Narrative Form
Christopher L. Dyer Department of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island Punctuated Entropy as Culture Induced Change: The Case of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Virginia Garcia-Acosta Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social, Mexico Historical Disaster Research
J. Terrence McCabe Department of Anthropology, and Environment and Behavior Program, University of Colorado Impact and Response to Drought Among Turkana Pastoralists: Implications for Anthropological Theory and the Design of Hazards Resilient Communities
Michael E. Moseley Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Drought, Collateral Natural Disaster, and Punctuated Change in Andean Evolution
Robert Paine Department of Anthropology, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada The Social Theory of Risk and the Case of Israel
S. Ravi Rajan Department of Environmental Studies, UC Santa Cruz
Sharon Stephens Department of Anthropology and School of Social Research, University of Michigan Bounding Uncertainty: The Post-Chernobyl Culture of Radiation Protection Experts

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