The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective

Oliver-Smith, Anthony and Susanna M. Hoffman. 1999. The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective. New York: Routledge.

reading notes

By their very constitution, disasters spring from the nexus where environment, society, and technology come together – the point where place, people, and human construction of both the material and nonmaterial meet. It is from the interplay of these three planes that disasters emanate, and in their unfolding, they reimplicate every vector of their causal interface. (1)

The introduction of social factors in causation made it clear that disasters further involved diachronicity. Calamities emanated from processes that developed over long periods of time as much as from sudden crises. Conditions that spawned or eventually terminated in what people then viewed as dire, harmful, and often horrific emergency had in fact accrued manifestly or latently under their noses. The processes involved ranged from people’s adaptations to their physical underpinnings, to the human manipulation and elaboration of physical surroundings, to the construction of sociocultural institutions, beliefs, and ethos. (2)

Archaeology also indicates which segments of society reemerge after disaster, which, how, and why some disappear, and what mixture of strategies a culture might have compiled to face or inadvertently provoke repetitive catastrophe. The revelatory documents may not particularly concern disaster; often they focus on political and economic matters, especially demographic shifts and food production. Even so, they disclose the creation of vulnerable social segments, the policies, prejudices, and actions that comprise the disaster conundrum, and the minute and sometimes surprising ways in which societies recover. Long-term fieldwork further adds to the time-depth perspective and background comprehension. Understanding pre-disaster conditions goes far to clarify the specific nature of risk, duress, and limitations. (5)

If environment is a test to which constructed social and physical worlds are the answer and continued survival the aim, from the purview of political ecology, disasters serve as one template through which societies show their score. (6)

Studies emanating from disaster research have already provided anthropologists opportunity to take to task our discipline’s adherence to models derived from a Western point of view and to critique the concept ^societies and cultures always operate with fixed or “normal” patterns of behavior. Catastrophes have demonstrated that some societies constantly adjust to ironically shifting contingencies, and in some contexts the nonroutine is routine. Disaster research not only hones theories of sociocultural change, methodologically it underscores the uses and values of qualitative data and quantitative. (11-12)

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