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Disaster Anthropology :
‘How People Cope’ and ‘How People Hope’

(Stewart / Strathern Series Editors for The Palgrave Studies in Disaster Anthropology books)

Disaster Anthropology is the name we have given to a new focus of studies in Anthropology, which we are developing as a sub-discipline within general Anthropology.  Disaster Anthropology focuses on people’s responses to disasters, primarily those seen as having natural causes.  In analyzing these responses we have divided them into two parts, which we call ‘How People Cope’ and ‘How People Hope’.  People have initially to cope with the most immediate causes of stress from disasters: losses of life and property, destruction of home places and landscape, threats to health and access to food or medicines, disruption of livelihood and community relations.  Government authorities, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), NPOs (Non-Profit Organizations), and local community organizations may all be active in dealing with this initial situation of stress, and most of the emphasis in news reports tends to be placed on these efforts.  It is important, however, to take a longer term view, in two ways.  The first is to understand that the historical background prior to the disaster is relevant for understanding the event itself.  The second is that recovery from disaster takes time and may continue indefinitely as a process.  The recovery phase is greatly influenced by the hopes that the people can muster for their own future.  Coping therefore has to be followed by hoping and both phases have to be buttressed by a great deal of effort.  Overall recovery, of course, may benefit from the inputs of multi-disciplinary research and practical aid.  Our approach from within anthropology stresses the importance of the regeneration of social, economic, and cultural life and the significance of empowerment for the people themselves.  From a global scientific viewpoint we also situate the study of such processes in the context of climatic change and turbulence, whether caused by human actions or not.  An obvious example is the processes of warming that can give rise to higher sea levels and threats to low-lying land masses, but disasters have been a recurrent long-term feature of human prehistory and history, with floods, droughts, and earthquakes crucially affecting the fates of communities and regions – as well as, of course, epidemics of disease that may result from disasters of this kind.

We have been studying this topic and seeking to develop it in comparative and theoretical, as well as ethnographic and cross-cultural terms since 1996, when we visited Kobe in the Kansai area in central Japan not long after the tsunami of 1995 had destroyed dwelling areas nearest to the coastline.  In 1998 a tsunami hit the Sissano lagoon area on the north coast of Papua New Guinea attracting media attention and a research project run by Japanese scholars (among others) in which our colleague Professor Isao Hayashi was prominently involved.  Rumors and cosmological explanations as to why the tsunami had happened abounded and spread widely throughout Papua New Guinea, even as far as the central highland areas where we were based for our own research.  Our interest in disaster research thus blended with our general field experiences and our focus on rumors in social life generally.

We have carried out detailed longitudinal research subsequently among Paiwan speakers in southern Taiwan on problems resulting from the destruction of habitats by Typhoon Morakot in 2009.  We have also studied responses to tsunami damage in Western Samoa’s Upolu Island that happened in 2009.  These field experiences have led us to build on them by seeking to cultivate networks of scholars working on related topics and to make disaster studies a major new focus of our work, along with our established concentration on peace and conflict studies.  Indeed these two foci come together because disasters often provoke or reveal conflicts within communities and the stresses of environmental disruptions are increased by the need to handle such conflicts.  Disaster studies and peace and conflict studies therefore overlap and complement each other in this way.

Image of Chief’s house upended in riverbed, disaster area, village south of Taitung, Taiwan, January 5, 2010 (© P.J. Stewart & A.J. Strathern Archive) Image of House with windows blown out and left uninhabitable after a strong storm in Western Samoa, 2012 (© P.J. Stewart & A.J. Strathern Archive) Image of a Road with storm debris blockage in Western Samoa, 2012 (© P.J. Stewart & A.J. Strathern Archive)

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