Cultures and Disasters

Date: July 5 - 6, 2011
Convenors: Greg Bankoff (Hull), Terry Cannon (Brighton), Fred Krueger (Erlangen), Lisa Schipper (Davis, CA)


Does culture play any part in disasters? Or more to the point, what role does culture have in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and why is the cultural dimension often missing in DRR and Disaster and Risk Studies? These were the central questions that guided the discussions in a recent conference convened at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung) at Bielefeld University. The shift in recent years to giving greater priority to the social construction of risk has had a significant impact on DRR and led to a widespread acceptance of the need to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience at the local level. It has also given rise to a greater appreciation of how people experience and prioritize hazards in their own lives. That is to say, people's cultural responses to risk – how they perceive, experience and respond to disasters – can facilitate more meaningful DRR interventions.

The conference held over two days in early July focused on how perceptions, attitudes and responses to disasters are embedded into societies as day-to-day social practices, and on how risk-related discourses are shaped, transformed and communicated through cultural influences. The main goal of the conference was to bring to the analysis of DRR the experience and conceptual understanding of different disciplinary perceptions and approaches that have looked at the experience of risk in other contexts or that have conceptual frameworks which might help frame culture in this context. As such, it was very much a preliminary, almost pioneering venture to sketch out the broad parameters of this new field and to establish what should be the main research questions that need answering.

The conference brought together 26 leading scholars spanning a wide variety of disciplines including anthropologists, development specialists, geographers, historians, public safety experts and sociologists from Europe and as far afield as Mozambique and New Zealand to discuss these matters. A keynote presentation was given by Anthony Oliver-Smith on how best to culturally frame disaster processes. The rest of the presenters were divided into three groups and each given an aspect of cultures and disasters to address, namely: How does “culture” affect people’s experience and behaviour in disasters? In what ways do people’s experiences and responses to natural hazards inter-relate with DRR? How effective are the key scientific frameworks for understanding the role of culture in DRR? It was quickly evident, however, that these questions were not necessarily the right ones to ask. Instead several key themes about how best to pursue this line of research emerged strongly in discussions. Among the most pertinent observations made were the need to respect local culture and values, to appreciate that the whole idea of DRR is culturally bounded, to be aware that culture may have variable influences at different phases of the disaster cycle, and to remember that culture is a two-edged sword whose impact can be both beneficial to a community as well as cause it harm. Some participants felt, too, that the best and, perhaps, the only way to study cultures were through cross-cultural comparisons, while others were reluctant to accept this approach as it would mean that one could distinguish where one culture ends and the other begins. This related to the recurring question about whose culture should be the reference point for any study on culture and disaster risk.
After two short introductory presentations by Greg Bankoff and Terry Cannon on the importance of cultures to understanding disasters and how best to approach the topic, the first two sessions of the conference turned to the first question of why “culture” is important to understanding natural hazards and (potential) disasters. Presenters and discussants came to the (preliminary) conclusion that cultural aspects are part of a long list of influencing factors related to the social field of hazards and DRR. It became evident, however, that notions of “culture” include a set of more or less appropriate habits, customs, rationales or routines to deal with threats and outcomes, and comprise a huge array of explanations why a disaster occurs and how it should be tackled. Including culture as a factor in the analysis and management of disasters renders DRR complicated (Andrew Collins). There is no common understanding of what culture is or how to categorize disaster-related habits and actions into “good” vs. “bad” (Necati Dedeoglu) or even “contra-productive” (James Lewis). In any event, its effects are always power-related (Mark Healey). DRR thus becomes a conflict-laden process which simply cannot be understood if cultural aspects are ignored. Moreover, it is one people are very often ill-equipped to manage as they lack the appropriate "toolbox" (Wolf Dombrowsky). Conflicts in the understanding of disasters and DRR often occur through a binary of interests and actions of so-called “experts” vs. ”laymen”, through divergent opinions about the appropriateness of reactions and interventions, and through disagreements about whose culture counts or should count.

In short, culture cannot be interpreted as a given set of social factors but as a constantly changing and shifting configuration of social practices or subcultures and an array of discourses on different scales from the individual to the global, and permanently being negotiated on these different scales (Kate Donovan). Different cultures are lived and lived-in at the same time, along parallel trajectories and based on parallel histories (Gerritt Schenk). All this is further complicated by climate risk and how people respond to it (Julie Karami). Culture, as one participant put it, is “messy” and thus adds to the “messiness” of disasters and DRR. If culture is left out of the analysis of disaster and risk (the latter anyways a social construction and therefore always “cultural”), then the extent and importance of hazards, DRR and related issues of adaptation, coping, intervention, knowledge and power relations cannot be fully grasped.

The next two sessions focused on how people "operationalise" culture in their day to day risk reduction practices. Here the focus was very much on what constitutes a resilient culture or a culture of resilience with the emphasis on the genius loci or spirit of the place (David Alexander). It was recognised that there were big differences within one culture, even within so-called wealthy societies like the Netherlands (Ira Helsloot). The emphasis, however, was mainly on non-Western societies with the other speakers drawing examples from the Philippines, Thailand, India, Mozambique and Bolivia. This unfortunate regional neglect of western societies was partly due to the unavoidable absence of several presenters but also, perhaps, the result of a misplaced belief that disasters mainly occur in the developing world. The vulnerability of minority groups within the dominant culture was debated, not only on the grounds of ethnicity or religion but also by reason of their sexuality. At the same time, though, these groups were not seen as purely disadvantaged victims but as having notable capacities that conferred on them greater resilience that made them proactive in their own interests and even leaders within the wider society (Jean-Christophe Gaillard). Much was made of the fact that culture or belief systems were never static but evolving ways of making sense out of the world and the hazards that threatened people’s lives and livelihoods. It is only natural for people to seek refuge in tried and trusted methods of explanation and mitigation. How to introduce these coping strategies into DRR, therefore posed the really challenging question (Andrew Crabtree). In particular, making sense of why people affected by flooding refused to evacuate or returned early to their homes in the Zambesi Delta only made sense by understanding the role that culture played in their decision-making (Luis Artur). That is, people can settle in extremely hazardous environments such as on the mountainous outcrops surrounding La Paz, the Bolivian capital, by appropriating the risk and incorporated in it into local culture (Fabien Nathan). All this, of course, poses challenges for those carrying out such research and underlines the complexity of including culture-specific knowledge when considering people’s vulnerability and the need for integrative trans-disciplinary approaches (Martin Voss).

The keynote presentation was delivered by Anthony Oliver-Smith at the start of the second day of the workshop. Entitling his talk "Conversations in Catastrophe: The Cultural Framing of Disaster Processes", he dwelt on how culture plays a role in framing disasters, in distributing risk, and in post-disaster recovery drawing examples from his extensive research on Yungay, the small city in Peru almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1970. He pointed out how culture could be both a resource and an obstacle. The last two sessions examined the effectiveness of the key scientific frameworks for understanding the role of culture in DRR. While there was some overlap with points raised by previous speakers, some particular issues came to the fore. Gender was one of these, especially in the context of how women's issues were generally regarded as cultural rather than political, with a focus on vulnerabilities rather than capacities. Doubt was expressed whether gender was a framework at all (Maureen Fordham). Much was also made about the significance of local knowledge and how scientific thinking was not the sole property of Western culture. This was particularly the case in "isolated" environments such as small island states or in the Arctic where there were many "strong voices" whose people's science was in danger of being lost (Ilan Kelman). Culture needs to be integrated into more technical systems including the views of religious leaders whose influence is often important in determining people’s decisions in hazardous situations and whether they should evacuate (Joern Birkmann). Climate change and its associated "uncertainty" made acknowledging the significance of culture all the more pressing. At the same time, the two-way nature of this process was recognised and thought given to how best to disseminate global "travelling ideas" about adaptation to local peoples (Detlef Müller-Mahn). "Risk buffers", it was argued, came in many shapes and forms and strengthening resilience in a heavily populated country like India might simply be a matter of ensuring adequate food distribution (Christoph Dittrich). In the end, though, it was all a question of how to observe and understand culture that might best be affected through the potentials of second order observation. DRR includes a wide range of norms and second order observation may help determine what cultures other than our own are all about (Heike Egner).

The conference concluded in the afternoon of the second day with participants breaking into discussion groups to consider what had been presented and to raise new issues. After an hour, everybody returned for a final summary session and open discussion. The importance of culture was affirmed but also the limitations of what had been achieved in a two-day discussion were acknowledged. In particular, areas that were important to understanding culture but that had not been discussed were identified. Finally, Fred Krüger and Lisa Schipper then tried to make sense of everything that have been said and brought the workshop to a conclusion. All were resolved to pursue the questions raised and left unanswered further.



David Alexander (Davos Platz)
Luis Artur (Maputo)
Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld)
Jörn Birkmann (Bonn)
Michael Bründl (Davos Dorf)
Andrew Collins (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
Andrew Crabtree (Frederiksberg)
Necati Dedeoğlu (Antalya)
Christoph Dittrich (Göttingen)
Wolf Dombrowsky (Berlin)
Katherine Donovan (Oxford)
Heike Egner (Klagenfurt)
Carsten Felgentreff (Osnabrück)
Maureen Fordham (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
J. C. Gaillard (Auckland)
Katie Harris (Brighton)
Mark Healey (Storrs)
Ira Helsloot (Amsterdam)
Jürgen Jensen (Siegen)
Stefan Kaufmann (Freiburg)
Julie Karami (Genf)
Ilan Kelman (Oslo)
James Lewis (Marshfield)
Detlef Müller-Mahn (Bayreuth)
Fabien Nathan (Echirolles)
Anthony Oliver-Smith (Gainesville)
Jörg Potthast (Berlin)
Johannes Sautter (Stuttgart)
Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Darmstadt)
Harry Schindler (München)
Marén Schorch (Bielefeld)
Leif Seibert (Bielefeld)
Avaré Stewart (Hannover)
Martin Voss (Kiel)
Volker Wulf (Siegen)





For further questions, please contact the research group assistant:

Marén Schorch
Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)

Tel.: +49 (0)521 106-2776

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