Perspectives from Anthropology

Anthropology as a holistic discipline includes several important concepts in its perspective on disasters, such as: (1) diachronicity, adaptation, and evolution; (2) the comparative nature of affected units including both micro and macro levels; and (3) the vulnerability and resilience of individuals and groups that are affected. Also, it is important to acknowledge that it is the groups' ethos that shapes the ways in which people respond to crises.

When under conditions of stress, it is the culture of a group that overrides individual reactions, as it builds group alliances in order to avert overwhelming stress. Hoffman (1999a) points out that disasters are instigators of essential change. She concludes that through anthropological research it is possible to gain a greater understanding of the basic sociocultural structure of a group in crisis, as deep cultural values and norms are exposed and made explicit.

Diachronicity, adaptation, and evolution are concepts that reveal conditions and processes adopted by populations to manipulate and use physical and social surroundings for their benefit. Making shelter, developing subsistence methods, evolving social institutions, and use of power are some processes that develop slowly over time in ways that have an adaptive ecological "fit." However, a rapid shift in conditions, such as in a flood or earthquake, can quickly destroy those adaptive environments, so that immediate change is critical for survival. Long-held mores or beliefs may no longer be adaptive, and resistance to change can prove harmful or fatal. On the other hand, dangerous, shifting conditions may go unheeded by the people as they continue in their longstanding cultural, non-adaptive ways until the processes are so out of balance that dire conditions exist. Global warming is such a process that has been predicted by many scientists to be potentially harmful and perhaps fatal, yet the condition manifests itself so subtly on a daily basis that few seem to feel the need to alter their ways of using the environment.

Comparative nature of anthropological research is an important perspective as the nature and scale of physical events and sociocultural disruptions vary at the micro and macro levels of different social groups. Understanding the social forces at these levels can aid in understanding differential responses to catastrophe. The holistic nature of anthropology allows for comparison, analysis, and explanation of variation in response to a similar disastrous event. A good example of such a comparison is the Glittenberg study from 1977 to 1987 of four squatter settlements of about 15,000 inhabitants in each, following the 1976 Guatemala earthquake. Glittenberg (1987) found variation over the 10-year period in the lives of very poor, marginalized people who were all uprooted by the earthquake and needed to start new existences in squatter settlements. One highly energized, chaotic settlement leaped forward, raising their level of living to a new high, while another languished in anomie until outside assistance was received. Another settlement suffered further demise as a new river (a result of the shifting land from the earthquake) further destroyed roads and agricultural land. The fourth settlement had mixed starts and stops depending upon the whims of unreliable leadership. Glittenberg concludes in this comparative study that a higher level of living, harmony, and balance were due to social forces including: democratic leadership, access to economic opportunity, and outside aid assistance (Glittenberg, 1989).

Vulnerability and resilience are characteristics that are key to understanding the consequences of disasters. These characteristics can be identified at the individual, household, and community levels, and the factors that contribute to these states of being include physical, cultural, political, and economic conditions. As Zaman (1999) points out, the vulnerability of a social system to natural disaster is determined by complex socioeconomic characteristics of a population that are not merely the physical or natural factors alone (p. 208). Glittenberg uses both the concepts of vulnerability and resilience in determining the protective and non-protective sociocultu-ral factors in a small Mexican-American town, a center of drug-trafficking and violence. In exploring these concepts further, she urges sociohistorical forces that shape and create such communities be investigated. As a discipline, anthropology is at the forefront in studying such at-risk populations. For example, Glittenberg found that ethnic minorities, elders, female-headed households, refugees, and new immigrants, were all at-risk households (Glittenberg, 2001). The economic differences between classes are increasing and put the poorest class as the most vulnerable. Recent changes in corporate holdings, take-overs, and neoliberal economic policies have further increased the income gap between the poor and the rich in the United States. Oliver-Smith (1999, p. 91) notes, "It is well-documented that in the U.S. environmental risks and disasters' effects are distributed unequally by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and age."

Glittenberg found interesting patterns among the resilient households in the 1997-2001 National Institute on Drug Abuse funded study, noting that resilient households are not more economically wealthy but rather they have more sociocultural support, as they are not among the migrating, undocumented people who live within the shadows of their uncertain shelters, looking for ways to counter their catastrophic displacement and fears of deportation. These vulnerable people are easy targets for the drug lords who are trafficking their own disasters. (Glittenberg, 2001., p. 2)

Such a description fits the definition of a disaster by Bates and Pelanda (1994, p. 149) who state, "Disasters occur when the limits of vulnerability of a system are exceeded." Thus, the perspective of anthropology in viewing the patterns of society that promote vulnerability is important as it permits finding ways to resolve the disaster by countering vulnerability and/or building resilience. It is the sociocultural process/event that when combined with conditions of vulnerability in a social group can result in a disruption that is viewed as a catastrophe or disaster. A society that continues to perpetuate vulnerability is indeed a target for disaster and this persistence may be seen as a condition of a society's total adaptational capability (Oliver-Smith, 1998b).

Aptekar (1994) in his monumental global perspective on disasters raises numerous moral issues related to bringing international relief to the most vulnerable states, the developing countries. As he notes, there are insufficient resources to reduce vulnerability in developing countries, and decisions are based on political factors regarding which disasters will receive relief. Aptekar claims there are 15 deaths related to disasters in developing countries to every one death in a developed country. For instance, a single flood killed almost 4 million people who lived on the Yellow River in China. This dangerous abode, he notes, was not occupied because the people were ignorant of the danger, but because the river was a source of their livelihood (Aptekar, 1994, p. 159).

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