ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Anthropology and disaster studies: a symbiotic relationship (DICAN - EASA Disaster and Crisis Anthropology Network)
Location Room 1
Date and Start Time 15 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 2


  • Seumas Bates (University of Glasgow) email
  • Andrea Butcher (University of Exeter) email

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Discussant Allen Abramson (UCL)

Short Abstract

Disaster Studies has always been multi-disciplinary, and recent anthropological engagement with 'disaster' has demonstrated the potential anthropology has to contribute more widely to the field, its respective disciplines, and wider institutions. This panel hopes to explore these relationships.

Long Abstract

Until fairly recently, anthropology had not made a significant impact on disaster studies, a field dominated instead by scholars of geography, politics, and sociology. The emergence of a vibrant anthropological canon exploring disaster, however, offers an exciting opportunity to discuss the anthropology of disaster as part of a wider interdisciplinary disaster studies. As disaster anthropologists Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2001: 6) have observed: "Few contexts provide a social science with more opportunity for theoretical synthesis of its various concerns than does the study of disaster provide anthropology." This theoretical synthesis extends to an examination of the symbiotic relationships and collaborations anthropology has with its disciplinary and institutional "others".

Whether focusing upon application of anthropology at the time of disaster response, the ethnographies produced to document these responses, or scholarship that interrogates related or peripheral consequences and impacts of disaster and catastrophe, we seek to expose the ways that disaster anthropology is produced through such symbiotic collaborations. This panel is thus open to anthropologists and those in related disciplines wishing to present work that engages with disaster and catastrophe, both as part of our broader participation with wider disaster studies, and separate from it, as part of wider anthropology. As such, we encourage submissions which directly engage with the symbioses between anthropology and disaster studies either historically or more recently, as well as examples of contemporary anthropological research into disaster and catastrophe, including (but not limited too) disaster management and planning, recovery, evacuation and migration, and cultural impact.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Lost in translations: thinking and doing anthropology in an inter-disciplinary and inter-national disaster centre

Author: Sebastien Boret Penmellen (Tohoku University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the challenges and the opportunities presented to anthropologists working in disaster research centres. Bordering reflexive ethnography, the author examines his own experience in an interdisciplinary and international disaster institute born out of the Great East Japan Disaster.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the challenges and opportunities presented to anthropologists working within the context of disaster studies and practices. Anthropology is by nature a self-reflexive discipline (Goodman 2000). Since the 1970s, social anthropologists are often asked by their peers to reflect upon their personal and cultural background to understand better their own bias. Confessional and reflexive anthropologies are two of the genres that came out of this trends. However, this exercise is executed often within the confinement of and for anthropology itself. In contrast, this paper discusses the opportunities and the hurdles faced by anthropologists working outside the discipline. The author examines his own experience as a researcher of an interdisciplinary and international disaster research centre born out of the Great East Japan Disaster. Furthermore, possibly due to the fact that the centre results from the specific socio-cultural and historical context of the Great East Japan Disaster, its research activities and its researchers are primarily devoted towards the prevention of the impact of natural disasters minimising human and material loss. Attempting to respond to this demand through interdisciplinary and international collaborations, the anthropologist often becomes 'lost in translations'. Looking at both the positive and negative outcomes of these tensions, this paper reflects on the possible to the field contributions of anthropology to disaster studies and vice-versa as well as their future engagements.

What I learned about development from a disaster

Author: Andrea Butcher (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses how participation in the aftermath of a disaster produces ethnographically-informed insights that can assist the wider policy worlds of development and aid intervention that include livelihood protection, conservation, natural resource management, and disaster mitigation.

Long Abstract

In 1992, J. Davis undertook the task of uniting the "the comfortable anthropology of social organization, and the painful anthropology of disruption and despair" (1992: 149). With the seemingly increasing frequency and severity of climate related disaster, drug-resistant pathogens, and instances of violent armed conflict, it seems all anthropology has the potential to be painful, particularly if the ethnographer is present at the time disaster strikes. And as disaster anthropology already recognises, painful anthropology and unpredictable events are moments when the vulnerability, resilience or sustainability of the affected society become acutely exposed.

I was in the fieldwork phase of my doctoral research, examining the encounter between externally-driven development intervention and local Buddhist practice in Ladakh, North-West India, when the region was exposed to a series of cloudbursts and flash floods on a scale previously unrecalled by local memory. What this disaster taught me about development was how non-human beings can participate as political actors, how ceremonial and ritual governance combine with the mundane in attempts to manipulate the successes of development, and to be observant of smaller instances of misfortune or technological rejection and their interpretation. The paper thus highlights how the experience of "being there" (Roncoli et al 2009), in this case participating in aftermath of a disaster, stimulates ethnographically-informed knowledge production that can support decisions taken in the wider policy worlds of development and aid intervention, conservation strategies and climate adaptation, livelihood risk and protection, and disaster mitigation.

The impact of natural hazards on African American religious/spiritual culture in New Orleans - coping strategies and interpretations

Author: Maria Elisabeth Thiele  email

Short Abstract

Social vulnerability is one of the major causes for experiencing social disasters following extreme natural events. This paper presents coping strategies from within the most vulnerable (African American religious/spiritual) communities in New Orleans at their present state and in the aftermath of Katrina.

Long Abstract

The expression ‘natural disaster’ is paradox. Nature can provide a trigger for a disaster, but society is – at least to a great extent – responsible for the consequences. Most works (for example Mitchell 2006 or Warner 2007) come to the conclusion that social disadvantage/vulnerability is one of the major causes for a higher risk factor, especially in modern and urban areas. Numerous research projects about the coping with social disasters following extreme natural events were and are undertaken, almost all of which have their focus on institutionalized resilience building, which means the work by government and non-government organizations. We learn a lot about external support, but very little about internal strategies from within the parts of the society who are the most vulnerable and most exposed to disasters.

Relevance of a symbiotic approach to defining a situation as disaster - a case study in Romania

Author: Cosmina-Maria Berindei (Romanian Academy)  email

Short Abstract

Our paper aims to analyze the multiple valences of the concept of disaster in the case of mining waste management at a copper mine in Romania and emphasizing the importance of collaboration with other sciences to determine if this can be defined as a disaster or not.

Long Abstract

The research question that overarches our paper is if the case of the copper mine from Rosia Poieni, situated in north-western part of Romania, can be defined as a disaster. Our approach uses qualitative data obtained during research fieldwork in the village of Valea Sesii and in the surrounding area, online comments and debates, as well as the positioning of local and central authorities regarding this situation.

We'll underline the role of converging sciences in clarifying if this case can be considered a disaster by also observing the people's uncertainty, mistrust and apprehension revealed by fieldwork based qualitative data.

Disaster, viewed as a spatial and temporal reality, produces unexpected environmental and human life changes, damaging the inhabitants' welfare and diminishing the quality of life immediately.

The Rosia Poieni copper exploitation in an open pit started in the late 1970s and till present experts' plans concerning the mining project unfolded without major incidents. However, over time several impactful changes have occurred: (1) a village with its houses, church and cemetery deliberately flooded by mining waste, (2) a community in continuous change with families leaving the area, one by one, sooner or later, directly linked to the increasing levels of flotation pulp nearing their households, (3) traditional orchards decimated over decades, and increased sensitivity of several plants and trees in the bigger area, (4) an online community articulated during the last years, experiencing deep emotions and speaking about this situation as about Hell and proclaiming it a disaster.

When is a disaster not a disaster? The construction of the Aral Sea disaster

Author: William Wheeler (Goldsmiths)  email

Short Abstract

While the desiccation of the Aral Sea has been seen at regional and global levels as a disaster, locally it does not tend to be conceptualised as such. I look at the discursive and visual construction of the disaster, what it achieves, and why the label is resisted locally.

Long Abstract

The desiccation of the Aral Sea, notorious within the USSR by the late 80s, achieved global attention in the 1990s as one of the most serious ecological disasters of the twentieth century. Yet today in the town of Aralsk (Kazakhstan), once a major port on the sea, the label disaster is largely rejected, and many inhabitants insist on the normality of the region. I will thus argue that the 'Aral Sea disaster' is constituted not only by physical impacts but also by its discursive and visual construction. In examining the disjuncture between local and global constructions, I will draw out the double-edged power of disaster discourse. On the one hand the disaster label mobilises external actors and funds - evidenced by the vast number of projects and committees which have sought to save the sea, or ameliorate the effects of its desiccation. Most significantly, a recent World Bank project has restored the northern part of the sea, with beneficial results for fishing villages around Aralsk. On the other hand, the disaster label is locally felt to be stigmatising, hence resistance to it. Furthermore, the sea's desiccation is felt to be marginal to the town's general economic malaise, which inhabitants relate to the closure of factories after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the town's peripheral location within contemporary Kazakhstan. The sea's return has had little effect on employment levels in the town. Thus, for inhabitants of the town, discourse about ecological disaster is a distraction from more pressing economic issues.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.