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Catastrophe & Culture

The Anthropology of Disaster

Edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith

At a time of increasing globalization and worldwide vulnerability, the study of disasters has become an important focus for anthropological research-one where the four fields of anthropology are synthesized to address the multidimensionality of the effects to a community’s social structures and relationship to the environment. Using a variety of natural and technological disasters-including Mexican earthquakes, drought in the Andes and in Africa, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Oakland firestorm, and the Bhopal gas disaster-the authors of this volume explore the potentials of disaster for ecological, political-economic, and cultural approaches to anthropology along with the perspectives of archaeology and history. They also discuss the connection between theory and practice and what anthropology can do for disaster management.

2002. 328 pp., 10 black-and-white illustrations, 2 tables, notes, references, index, 6 x 9

Contributors: Gregory V. Button, Christopher L. Dyer, Virginia Garcia-Acosta, Susanna M. Hoffman, J. Terrence McCabe, Michael E. Moseley, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Robert Paine, S. Ravi Rajan, Sharon Stephens

Download an excerpt.

Catastrophe & Culture is a strong plea for the importance of anthropology. The papers demonstrate that it is not one blow that is likely to be devastating for a society, but rather a recurrent set of blows and problems caused by attempted interventions. The book moves forward the discussion of the interplay between human action and natural forces that turns hazards into disasters and provides tools for analysis. Catastrophe & Culture goes beyond what was done in The Angry Earth and moves into new terrain with its discussion of vulnerability.”
—Dr. Elizabeth Colson, Emerita, University of California, Berkeley

“…a visceral rendering of tragedy, an indictment of bureaucratic incompetence and negligence, and an exploration of policy implications….”
—Dr. Carole Crumley, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“[Hoffman and Oliver-Smith] offer a spacious and compelling outline of what is needed of research on….the responses to catastrophes….”
—Dr. Robert McC. Adams, Science

“These important essays concern both the value of disasters for anthropologists and scholars interested in analyzing cultures and the important insights that an anthropological perspective can offer to the academic study of disaster and to policy makers.”
—Choice, vol. 40, no. 5, January 2003

“Referring to a variety of natural and technological disasters―Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez―the ten essays examine the potential for anthropological investigations in this realm, as well as possibilities for how anthropology can contribute to disaster management.”
—Reference & Research Book News, Inc. August 2002

“The contributors to Catastrophe and Culture clearly indicate that the study of disasters by social scientists … is a fertile area for development, both to tackle the immense human problems they entail, and as a window on aspects of sociality which are normally hidden.”
—Dr. Peter Hinton, Australian Journal of Anthropology Vol. 15, no. 3 (2004)

“[T]he contributors to this volume provide a comprehensive account of the nature of disasters, their complex mix of the physical, biological, and socio-cultural, and their use in the elucidation and reconstitution of social life which are the goals of the mining anthropologist… This volume comes out of the School of American Research seminars. This means it is particularly well integrated and interwoven… The end product, then, is a most coherent and interesting read which will resonate with academics and citizens as this brave new millennium of ours continues to present us with new and increasingly complex disasters.”
—Jonathan Skinner, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 10, no. 4 (December 2004)


  1. Introduction: Why Anthropologists Should Study Disasters
    Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman
  2. Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power, and Culture
    Anthony Oliver-Smith
  3. Historical Disaster Research
    Virginia Garcia-Acosta
  4. Danger and the No-Risk Thesis
    Robert Paine
  5. Bounding Uncertainty: The Post-Chernobyl Culture of Radiation Protection Experts
    Sharon Stephens
  6. The Monster and the Mother: The Symbolism of Disaster
    Susanna M. Hoffman
  7. Popular Media Reframing of Man-Made Disasters: A Cautionary Tale
    Gregory V. Button
  8. Punctuated Entropy as Culture-Induced Change: The Case of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
    Christopher L. Dyer
  9. Modeling Protracted Drought, Collateral Natural Disaster, and Human Responses in the Andes
    Michael E. Moseley
  10. Impact of and Response to Drought Among Turkana Pastoralists: Implications for Anthropological Theory and Hazards Research
    J. Terrence McCage
  11. Missing Expertise, Categorical Politics, and Chronic Disasters: The Case of Bhopal
    S. Ravi Rajan
There are no working papers for this book at the present time.