Methodologies used in Anthropological Disaster Research

Archeology, an anthropological method, provides an in-depth historical account by rebuilding the event through scientific reconstruction of the material culture. Through such material, social structure, political economic vulnerabilities, terrain, habitat, mortuary, and belief systems can be reconstructed through evidence left by the people. Material evidence sheds much light on how the group coped or met their demise. Chronicles and archives also bring to light how segments of the society compromised, coped, and evolved. These documents may reveal in minute detail how societies interpreted the meaning of these disruptive events.

Ethnography is the major anthropological research method used in disaster studies. Researching a society's pre-disaster conditions as well as its post-disaster ones has been part of ethnographic research, and although most disasters by their very nature are unpredicted, there are examples of data collected prior to a disaster that are used within the ethnography. Some of the known examples of pre-disaster ethnographic data are the Doughtys' long involvement and research in the Andes prior to the 1970 500-year earthquake (Doughty & the Doughty, 1968). And, another is Sheets' (1979) study of the volcanic activity prior to the eruption of Ilopango Volcano in 1987 or his other experiences in Mexico's volcanic regions in 1992 (Sheets, 1987, 1992). Glittenberg's study of fertility in Guatemala became the pre-disaster study upon which the level of living data were used to measure change following the 1976 earthquake in the highlands of Guatemala (Glittenberg, 1976). Ethnography as a research method is diachronic and holistic. The social life of a cultural group is documented by extensive fieldwork gained from living with the people and studying their patterns of coping, and expressions of meaning. Glittenberg documents in her 1994 ethnography some of the myths and legends that appeared following the 1976 earthquake as examples of peoples' interpretations of and meanings given to these events (Glittenberg, 1994).

Decontextualizing the narratives gained from ethnographic interviews is another source of data in the study of disasters. Hoffman's vivid picture of her own experience of being a victim of a firestorm that swept the hills where she resided in Oakland, California, on October 20, 1991, is an emic view that adds interpretation to the phases of individual coping and recovery. Her sensitivity to the conflicts and frustrations encountered by victims contributes a unique model for understanding cross-culturally and by gender the phases of coping with a catastrophic event (Hoffman, 1999b).

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