The Role of Social Networks in Disaster Recovery in Mexico, Ecuador, and the U.S.

Research Team Seminar

April 10–11, 2012

The Role of Social Networks in Disaster Recovery in Mexico, Ecuador, and the U.S.The Role of Social Networks in Disaster Recovery in Mexico, Ecuador, and the U.S.Research Team Seminar Co-chaired by Eric C. Jones, Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and Linda Whiteford, Office of the Provost, University of South Florida, April 10–11, 2012.The Role of Social Networks in Disaster Recovery in Mexico, Ecuador, and the U.S.Research Team Seminar Co-chaired by Eric C. Jones, Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and Linda Whiteford, Office of the Provost, University of South Florida, April 10–11, 2012.

This research team seminar on the importance of social networks in how people respond to natural or human-created disasters brought together four principal investigators from two universities and a critically important consultant from a third university. With data from two countries and several years of research, the team faced the difficulty of how best to move forward with continued data analysis and publication. “To build on the published articles and the more than twenty conference presentations we have made based on this research, as well as our more practical presentations to the Ministry of Risk Mitigation in Ecuador and to the Center for the Prevention of Disasters at the University of Puebla, Mexico, the aim of the short seminar was for the team to create a road map of our next steps,” Whiteford explained.

During the past five years in Mexico and Ecuador, the team has surveyed more than 500 people in eight communities regarding economic status, physical health, mental health, personal networks, and social support. They also have interviewed 150 people in focus groups. “Given the amount and complexity of the data, we spent the evening before the seminar reviewing what we had accomplished so far and further detailing our set of objectives for the two days at SAR,” said Jones.

To assess their data, seminar participants focused on the relationship between personal networks and several post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) symptoms to understand the relationship between well-being and risk perception in a variety of settings. In addition, participants compared relocated and nonrelocated communities in terms of the association between social network structure and composition and mental health issues, specifically post-traumatic stress and depression. The team discovered that concern about past disasters is associated with giving and receiving help, while concern about living where it could happen again is associated with different forms of support—suggesting that perception of the past is reinforced by networks in relocated settings, while concern about the present is more context-dependent.

“We are deeply grateful for the opportunity SAR afforded us to be able to work in a lovely setting, to be fed and cared for in a remarkable way, and indeed, to be allowed to focus on the research and analysis. We hope the results of our work will be commensurate with the intellectual excitement the days generated and the pleasure we found in working together in an outstanding team.”—Linda Whiteford and Eric C. Jones

The team also found that the structure of networks is important in some contexts. Dense networks are those in which an individual knows many people, who also know each other, whereas community cohesion does not measure a person’s individual network, but is rather an indication of how many dense individual networks there are in a community. For example, in the Mexican community of San Pedro Benito Juárez, networks that are more dense increase a person’s perception of the impact of disaster but decrease his or her expectation that it will happen again. In contrast, in the cohesive community of Pillate, Ecuador, the more interlinking between different parts of an individual’s social network with other networks, the lower his or her concerns about both past and present.

The data suggest that networks of particular social structures and compositions are associated with specific constellations of the symptoms that compose PTSS. In investigating the epidemiology of risk perception, the relationship between well-being and risk perception, and finally the relationship between social networks and risk perception, the data showed a relationship between social networks and risk perception, patterns in the effects of social networks that can explain the heightened risk perception, and a range of effects of social networks. These results suggest that no one type of social network is the solution for all disaster situations, but rather that they are responses to cultural and geophysical context and experiential history.

The research team’s findings are both statistically significant and practically meaningful to researchers and policymakers in the arena of disaster and recovery. In addition to data analysis and discussion, the participants dedicated some time during the seminar to mapping out ideas for several manuscripts that will share their results with a wide audience of scholars and practitioners.

Eric C. Jones, Chair Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Linda M. Whiteford, Chair Office of the Provost, University of South Florida
Christopher McCarty Bureau Director, Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida
Arthur D. Murphy Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Graham A. Tobin Professor, Department of Geography, Environment and Planning, University of South Florida

Sponsored by National Science Foundation

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