EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Resilience, disaster, and anthropological knowledge [DICAN]
Location U6-35
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Seumas Bates (University of Glasgow) email
  • Susann Baez Ullberg (Uppsala University) email
  • Kristoffer Albris (University of Copenhagen) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Kristoffer Albris and Seumas Bates
Discussant Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart

Short Abstract

The use of 'resilience' in disaster studies has recently become almost ubiquitous, but what this largely systemic term means for contemporary anthropology is less clear. We invite critical engagement of 'resilience' to provoke discussion of its future within anthropological disaster studies.

Long Abstract

The concept of 'resilience' has been increasingly central to disaster studies scholarship and global policy in recent years. It is a concept, however, with a long history, and was used in rural and development anthropology since at least the 1970s. Understood either as local agency and empowerment or a neoliberal technology of governance, the concept is ubiquitous at present in discussions of climate change adaptation, crisis management, and sustainable development, amongst others. In disaster studies, resilience is if not replacing, then at least accompanying the more established concept of 'vulnerability', and we contend that anthropology can contribute critically to the ongoing discussion of what resilience is and how it can aid our understanding of people's ways of dealing with risks and disaster. Most importantly perhaps, resilience is in need of a critical rethinking, as it is essentially a systemic concept, owing its origins to the ecological and material sciences. This perhaps clashes with anthropology's contention that societies and cultures are not stable, static, and predictable, but rather sui generis, dynamic, and transformative. These questions make resilience a concept in need of critical analysis, and it seems timely to centre this DICAN session on the concept so as to provoke fruitful perspectives for the future relevance of disaster resilience in relation to the anthropological production of knowledge. We therefor invite papers that focus ethnographically, historically, methodologically, theoretically and/or epistemologically on resilience from an anthropological standpoint in relation to disasters, crisis, and emergencies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The scope and importance of anthropological knowledge in disaster and the problematics with the concept of resilience

Author: Susanna Hoffman (International Commission on Risk and Disaster)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropology and culture have been identified as the essential the understanding of disaster, the construction of vulnerability, successful recovery, and disaster risk reduction. This paper discusses why and how, and also in the light of anthropology why the concept of resilience is severely problematic.

Long Abstract

Given the rising numbers of people both vulnerable to and affected by disaster worldwide, the importance of utilizing the understandings of anthropology to the study of calamities has become increasingly clear. In this paper, I detail the some of the reasons why discussing in particular the crucial importance of anthropology's core concept, culture. Culture has been identified as the essential underpinning in the construction of vulnerability, successful or unsuccessful disaster recovery, preparation, mitigation, and risk reduction. Everything about human life rest upon culture, including all the factors that go into calamities. Detailed will be the four environments in which people live and their intersection with physical adaptation and how culture determines the ways people perceive danger, create vulnerability, defines the organization of space, time, along with ideologies and symbols of nature and more that effect disaster construction, experience, and recovery. and provides the world views that convey models of and models for disaster that a people hold. Also covered will be place attachment as well as such factors as social structure, class, ethnicity, and gender. The paper will go on to review why, in the light of anthropological and cultural understanding, the concept of resilience is severely problematic.

Historicizing vulnerability ad resilience: place-names, disasters, risk and memory: the contribution of toponymy

Author: Elisabetta Dall'Ò (Università degli studi Milano-Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

This paper describes the preliminary results of a place-name based research conducted in the Alps concerning the relation between vulnerability, resilience, history, risk, disasters, and environment. It aims to demonstrate how social vulnerability and resilience are embedded in the landscapes

Long Abstract

This paper describes the preliminary results of a place-name based research being conducted in Aosta Valley, a French-speaking region in the Alps, concerning the relation between human vulnerability, resilience, history, risk, disasters, and environment. It aims to demonstrate how social vulnerability and resilience are embedded in the landscapes, in its history, and in its memory-scapes.

Is well-known that the act of naming places is an act of controlling space and infusing it with particular values and belief-systems. The particular context of place-naming came to be understood as a basic human undertaking to signify social or cultural meaning in experiences of the world, and place-names came to be appreciated as matrices of language and the various cultural elements (including landscape) which compose a society's way of life. Place-names have the potential to transform the sheerly physical and geographical into something historically and socially experienced. Toponyms, therefore, identify the knowledge that past generations have assigned to such places. For that, toponymic information can be used to complement scientific understandings of "natural phenomena". Some ancient place-names have maintained a significance related to "natural risks" (potential disasters) or already happened disasters. This ancient local place-names served to connect people to the land, maintaining "rapport" with ecology, fauna, flora and material culture, but now this link has mostly been lost. People are re-building and re-inhabiting the same "risk places", building their futures forgetting their past. Historicizing vulnerability and resilience means renegotiating the collective memory and the socio-spatial identities, and allows to connect past and future in a dialogical perspective

Resilient against what? Thinking about the management of a potential pandemic future in London

Author: Meike Wolf (Goethe University Frankfurt)  email

Short Abstract

Cities such as London are currently portrayed as being specifically prone to outbreak events. By drawing upon the example of pandemic influenza preparedness in London, this papers looks at how resilience is enacted as a set of technologies and practices that aim to regulate urban environments.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the management of a potential crisis: that of an influenza pandemic. Pandemics are currently represented as a threat to health, and to economic and political wellbeing on a global scale. They seem to be not only of biomedical importance, but pandemic fears are drawn into the sociotechnical domains of resilience planning, surveillance systems, and into globalised expert networks. Within these rationales, a state of risk is made the rule rather than the exception. Countries like the UK have adopted the need to prepare for potential outbreak events by designing preparedness and resilience planning systems.

With urban environments being portrayed as specifically prone to outbreak events, they are a good starting point to reflect upon resilience as an apparatus of security. London, in particular, has accepted its assumed vulnerability as mobility hub, business location, and tourist destination by implementing a thorough planning framework in which a range of things, people, technologies, and information are assembled to make the city resilient. This paper looks at what Adey and Anderson call the life of an apparatus of security (2012: 99), so instead of arguing about the need for resilience, it focuses on how to understand the sociomaterial contingencies of resilience management.

The paper draws upon ethnographic fieldwork among health professionals, resilience planners, and local authorities in London and Frankfurt to answer the following questions: how is resilience enacted as a set of technologies and practices that aim to regulate urban environments? And what are its goals and underlying rationales?

The 'big' earthquake in Nepal: discourses on fatalism and resilience

Author: Mallika Shakya (South Asian University, Delhi)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reviews the discourses on fatalism and resilience that emerged following the earthquake in Nepal. An ethnography of a border town probing perceptions about bureaucratic lethargy and local volunteerism will be situated against the media stories emerging from global and local reportage.

Long Abstract

Nepal underwent a continuous shift in mood, intensity and introspection in the months following the earthquake that hit its central hill region in April 2015. This paper makes sense of the emerging dialectic of fatalism-verses-resilience attributed to the Nepali society and nation in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. I draw on three sets of inspections. First is a critical review of the coverage in global media, which sprung into action immediately after the rupture to report facts from the ground as well as to offer sleek (if stereotypical) interpretations of local behavior. It took few days for the local newspapers and television channels to resume full operations and for social media to react to the foreign media's depiction of the earthquake and its aftermath. The global-local media discord including but not limited to a twitter hashtag campaign #IndianMediaGoHome constitutes the second set of my inspection. The third set involves an ethnographic fieldwork I did on a Nepal-India border town probing the two dominant rhetoric about "bureaucratic lethargy" and "local youth volunteerism" in facilitating through the customs point the logistical flow of relief goods destined for the earthquake-hit hills. My argument is that anthropologists must develop an especially strong appetite for nuance to be able to peel through layers of meaning to overcome the inherent biases of culturalism and developmentalism while comprehending notions about aid, rescue, rehabilitation and trauma.

The ethnographic matter of resilience

Author: Katherine Browne (Colorado State University)  email

Short Abstract

Eight years of post-Katrina ethnographic research with a large African American family from St. Bernard Parish suggests a new, culturally informed way to think about resilience in the context of recovery from disaster.

Long Abstract

Ethnographic work offers a new frontier for resilience studies in the context of disaster.

In my post-Katrina research with an African American family of 300 people from bayou communities in St. Bernard Parish, I documented the interdependence of the group and the strength and comfort they drew from their cultural system. This system of collective self-reliance had, for generations, provided family members with a way to meet crises. Their system had also buffered them against the shifting terms of racism in their home parish. But after Katrina devastated the entire parish and wrecked the homes of every member of the family, outsiders took control. These authorities brought a recovery culture that disregarded the needs of the wounded, alienating people from their own cultural resources and depriving them of a sense of agency. In this paper, I will draw on data from my eight years of fieldwork to suggest a new, culturally informed way to think about resilience in the context of recovery from disaster.

The E.V.A. project exploring resilience in its making

Author: Enrico Marcorè (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

What if we were asked to comprehend resilience while focusing on rupture instead of continuity and on innovation rather than conservation? In this paper I wish to critically discuss the understanding of spatial and temporal linearity which is embedded in the concept of resilience.

Long Abstract

Social scientists who investigate preparedness always cite resilience - a concept inspired by material physics and systems theory (Alexander 2013) - in order to affirm that a social system could contain the key strength and flexibility for responding to unexpected shocks.

As anthropologists who study disasters in terms of socio-environmental phenomena, we need a dynamic and dialogical perspective before beginning to describe systems. Moreover, it is suggested that we conceive resilience, like the disaster itself, not as an outcome but as a process (Manyena 2006).

With this viewpoint, resilience should be considered not as a pre-existing and discrete conservative quality, but rather as a competence gained from exchanges within a regenerative context.

In this paper I suggest that resilience emerges not from inside a stable system, but rather from the interaction between environmental affordances (Gibson 1979) and human activities - rooted in the local unstable "taskscape" (Ingold 1993).

This different approach to resilience challenges the a priori spatial and temporal continuity, which is not always self-evident when human beings are suddenly plunged into new and unknown environments. Therefore, can we find resilience while focusing on rupture instead of continuity and on innovation rather than conservation?

I will pay attention to the construction of a new Ecovillage from straw bales (the E.V.A. project) during period of reconstruction following the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. In this context I wish to describe the development of a community's resilience, via a strategic and creative recombining of heterogeneous social, cultural, historical, economical, political and environmental agents.

Exploring disaster response to Italian earthquakes: finding the traces of community resilience by analyzing anthropological artefacts after the disasters

Author: Barbara Lucini (Catholic University)  email

Short Abstract

Italy has always suffered from earthquakes, causing severe injuries and deaths among the population affected by them.

The anthropological artefacts produced after the disasters such as oral and written online accounts are traces of community resilience supporting the disaster management.

Long Abstract

Italy has historically been prone to earthquakes causing severe damage, injuries and deaths to the population affected by them.

Over the past decade the earthquakes in Umbria and Marche (1997), Molise (2002) and Abruzzo (2009) made the lack of emergency resilience and the need for inclusive and participative disaster management and response more evident.

From an anthropological perspective, resilience becomes a "relational" concept that is able to create traces and signs of community resilience in the face of disasters through oral and written online accounts.

Specifically, oral and written accounts, such as those from video interviews, monitoring units, and blogs are considered for resilient narratives of the disasters themselves.

This approach should not be considered a "virtual ethnography", rather a "narrative approach" aimed at studying the community resilience both on the virtual level and the real one.

The preliminary findings of these researches shows the importance of the traces and signs of the online community resilience and the impact that these virtual artefacts have on the real societal life, the disaster relief and the response.

For instance, during the aftermath of the Abruzzo and L'Aquila earthquake it was possible to identify two diverse but linked anthropological productions of knowledge: the online production of blogs and social movements criticizing the reconstruction process.

The identification of resilience as a relational and narrative concept allows the experts and the population to rethink the emergency management and the disaster response, considering the double anthropological insights of the virtual and real domains.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.