EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W124)

Politics of disasters (EN)

Location V315
Date and Start Time 13 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Martin Sökefeld (Munich University) email
Edward Simpson (SOAS) email
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Short Abstract

The workshop invites papers based on empirical research that address various aspects of the interrelation between ("natural") disasters and politics.

Long Abstract

Breaking the routine of daily life, disasters like floods, storms or earthquakes create spaces of uncertainty and anxiety. Although most "natural" disasters appear to originate beyond human responsibility, they are in fact not simply "natural". They take place in social and political spaces and catastrophic effects are often produced by particular social and political configurations. Beside destruction, disasters create space for human action. Uncertainty has to be overcome. While media reports often portray "victims" of disasters as fatalistic and passive, research shows them to be actively coping with their situation.

This workshop looks at the political dimension of disasters. Political action may be related to disasters in manifold ways. More often than not, a disaster is not simply perceived as a blow of fate but government or other institutions are held responsible for its consequences, as in the case of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Disasters are often politicised as welcome opportunities that enable a government to show its benevolence or its opponents to take the authorities to task for neglect and mismanagement or indifference. Protest in the wake of disasters may present an opportunity for political actors to recruit support. In conflict situations disasters often contribute to particular dynamics of contention. Also post-disaster humanitarian interventions for relief and reconstruction are by no means non-political but are closely related to local, national and global political contexts.

The workshop invites contributions based on empirical research that address different aspects of the "politics of disasters".

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Local responses to politics of post-disaster reconstruction in India and Nicaragua

Authors: Esther Leemann (University of Lucerne)  email
Jennifer Duyne Barenstein (University of Applied Sciences of Southern Switzerland)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper focuses on local responses to post-disaster reconstruction policies in India and Nicaragua. It will be shown that communities are neither passive nor homogeneous recipients of external aid. The unequal distribution of power and resources allows different actors to adapt policies to their preferences, which may reinforce pre-disaster vulnerabilities.

Long Abstract

Over the last decade policies following large-scale disasters have been characterized by slogans such as 'building back better'. The aspiration to enhance the resilience of disaster-affected communities, however, is not necessarily based on an understanding of their livelihoods, social organization, and power structure, and on how these relate to their vulnerability to so-called 'natural' disasters. As a result reconstruction policies are often socio-culturally insensitive and may even reinforce pre-disasters vulnerabilities and exclusion.

Based on multi-sited ethnographic case studies focusing on responses to some of the most severe disasters in recent decades (the 1998 hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat and the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu) the paper examines two closely interconnected domains of recovery: housing reconstruction and restoration of livelihoods. The paper compares the diverse and complex socio-economic and cultural changes that were triggered by post-disaster recovery processes in different disaster contexts by examining the responses of various national, international, governmental and non-governmental agencies. It will be shown that even when governments -like in the case of India—have a strong role in defining reconstruction policies, organizations and communities involved in reconstruction often have a large margin of freedom and an active role in responding to disasters. The paper will thus focus on how communities deal with external interventions and on how they choose, when given a chance, between different post-disaster reconstruction strategies.

Disaster bureaucracy, "the state" and "hidden" forms of resistance

Author: Pascale Schild (Munich University)  email
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Short Abstract

I draw from fieldwork on lower class households' interactions with state officials in the context of reconstruction projects in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, to examine how "the state" is imagined and contested through these encounters and "everyday forms of resistance" such as gossip and rumour.

Long Abstract

In the wake of any disaster the affected population is exposed to state activities providing for relief and reconstruction. These interventions entail an extension of the state's bureaucracy, most frequently, with the help of international organisations and donors' financial support. This emerging "disaster bureaucracy" increasingly confronts people with "the state". Disasters thus qualify for "ethnographies of the state" (Gupta 1995) and a study of how people encounter "the state", its policies and officials in the everyday of reconstruction and how these encounters, in turn, shape the ways in which "the state" comes to be imagined and contested.

In this paper I refer to my fieldwork among lower (and lower-middle) class households in Muzaffarabad, a small city which was badly affected by the Pakistani earthquake of 2005. In analysing several case studies of interactions between beneficiaries and state officials in the context of reconstruction/development projects I examine how "the state" thereby is instantiated in people's daily lives. This process, as I demonstrate, is shaped by gossip about "the corrupt state", rumours of projects which contradict official versions, shunning visiting officials and underreporting in surveys conducted by them. I analyse these practices as "hidden forms of resistance" (Scott 1990) to the state's reconstruction "from above". Since public political activism, directed against the states failure in providing for reconstruction of the city, is mainly confined to Muzaffarabad's middle and upper classes I also attempt at explaining why it is that the political opportunity of open resistance is closed to most of the population.

Politics at state and street levels: the 2006 Central Java earthquake

Authors: Jens Seeberg (Aarhus University)  email
Retna Siwi Padmawati (Faculty of Medicine, Universitas Gadjah Mada)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores politics from the state to the street levels in the aftermath of the earthquake in Central Java 27 May 2006.

Long Abstract

Understood as a totalizing event of potentially massive social disruption, disaster poses important theoretical and methodological challenges for anthropology. At the same time, anthropology may contribute important insights to the knowledge of disaster. On the backdrop of a critique of culturalist and, to a lesser degree, constructionist anthropology , this paper analyzes events following the earthquake in Central Java on 27 May 2006. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, we explore the politically contested causative explanations of the event, where the earthquake may be understood locally as questioning the legitimacy for the current Sultan of Yogyakarta. We briefly discuss the early disaster relief phase and the articulation of 'traditional' Javanese values such as gotong royong (mutual cooperation), followed by a more detailed discussion of the process of house reconstruction, where we make use of Hacking's distinction between natural and human kinds and the notion of 'looping effects'. In contrast to the notions of Javanese harmony and consensus that are key elements of Indonesian cultural politics, we find intense negotiations and contesting claims at the local level of two neighborhoods. These processes are contextualized in terms of pre- and post 1998 administrative arrangements. The analysis highlights the processes of local distribution of reconstruction resources provided by the state and NGO's.

Imagining Aceh: social change and emerging political subjectivities in post-tsunami Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Author: Annemarie Samuels (University of Amsterdam)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores how new political subjectivities emerged in the complex arena of social actors in post-tsunami Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Long Abstract

The Indian Ocean tsunami of the 26th of December 2004 caused death and destruction in the Indonesian province of Aceh. It has been argued that the tsunami also accelerated ongoing social changes; influencing both negotiations about peace in Aceh's violent conflict that ended in August 2005 and accelerating the implementation of Islamic law in the province. It also effected more subtle social and political changes, building on long-term ideas as well as fostering new imaginations of identity and citizenship. It did so through the complex arena of social actors that emerged in the reconstruction process and that will be the focus of this paper. In this paper, which is based on more than 12 months of fieldwork in Banda Aceh, I will ask how political subjectivities were created in the reconstruction process and how they continue to influence the post-reconstruction social and political landscape.

I will look at the ways in which people who adopted the label of 'tsunami victim' defined their relationships with the state (predominantly as one of entitlement and accountability) and humanitarian agencies (predominantly as a gift relationship), how many humanitarian agencies ensured their visibility in their 'gifts' through omnipresent logos, and how the national reconstruction agency through its "building back better" rhetoric not only continuously emphasized a successful reconstruction story, but also silenced past grief and grievances. After reconstruction had formally ended in 2009, changing ideas of 'Aceh' and its place in the Indonesian nation and the world kept influencing local politics and citizens' subjectivities.

Hurricanes, the revolutionary state and moral debates in contemporary Cuba

Author: Marian Viorel Anastasoaie (University College, London)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper analyses how ordinary Cubans evaluated governmental actions during the exceptional hurricane season of 2008. Based on fieldwork in a rural municipality and media analysis this paper shows how these “natural” disasters could symbolically reinforced the image of the Cuban Revolution.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on my fieldwork in a tobacco-growing municipality in western Cuba in 2008. That summer's strong hurricanes proved to be an extraordinary occasion to see how people prepare and live during a hurricane and how they evaluate the governmental action pre- and post-hurricanes. I observed the direct impact in their everyday life such as electric blackouts, temporary food shortage and higher food prices.

At the same time, in the post-hurricane immediate period, the government adopted a harsher line against black market activities, especially dealing with agricultural products. This provoked serious problems of accessibility of agricultural products in the cities. All these governmental measures provoked intensive debates among Cubans that displayed moral evaluations of state actions and contradictory visions regarding the achievements of the Cuban Revolution. Thus, my aim is to analyse these hurricanes as political and social events that mobilise state and citizens and unleash debates about state's actions, revolutionary ethics and solidarity and international aid.

Besides, both the state official media and daily ordinarily debates made the comparison with the US governmental failure in the case of hurricane Katrina a constant remainder of the ideological significance of the revolutionary capacity of dealing with major crises. Hence, I shall argue that, contrary to the interpretation that would see hurricanes as a threat to the stability of the Revolution, we can see them as opportunities for the Cuban state to display its capacity of dealing with external major crises, hence reinforcing the official vision of the Revolution's invincibility.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.