Book Review: Responses to Disasters and Climate Change; Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience

Review of Responses to Disasters and Climate Change: Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience (2016), by Michele Companion and Miriam S. Chaiken (Eds.). CRC Press. Hardcover is $96.

Reviewed By Simone Domingue, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder, Graduate Research Assistant, Natural Hazards Center.

In this book editors Michele Companion and Miriam S. Chaiken bring together a range of empirical work that speaks to vulnerability and resilience as social processes. Companion, a sociologist, and Chaiken, a cultural anthropologist, aim to identify factors that reduce suffering caused by hazards and disasters. To this end, they bring together authors in this volume to explore susceptibility to harm and to document best practices in social programming. Taken as a whole, this volume serves as an important resource for scholars and practitioners alike who seek to reduce hazard and disaster losses in a world where risks are unequally shared.

The volume is designed to contribute to the study of “the relationship between humans and the natural, built, and social environment” (p. xxviii).   It includes 23 chapters, representing case studies from 17 countries around the globe. These chapters are written by individuals from various disciplines who use a range of approaches to study vulnerability and community resilience. Authors represent the fields of anthropology, sociology, environmental studies, development studies, emergency management, public policy, political science, planning, and public health. The chapters also employ mixed research methods, but mostly favor qualitative data collection and analyses. The volume also welcomes an expanded definition of “disaster,” as chapters are concerned with chronic environmental stresses, genocide, or other social catastrophes that fall outside of the term’s traditionally defined parameters.

The chapters are organized into three main sections that focus on the following themes: best practices of resilience building programs, factors that contribute to vulnerability and resilience, and the emergence of community level action related to resilience.  The first section of the book contains chapters that emphasize the importance of meaningful engagement for the formulation of context specific risk reduction and adaption measures. The first few chapters in this section highlight how resilience building programs could be more socially inclusive, especially through the privileging of local knowledge. Chapters in this section also provide a critical analyses of policies that manifest in heightened vulnerabilities.   For example, in Chapter 8, the Canadian government’s regulatory apparatus comes under scrutiny for failing to incorporate First Nation knowledge into crude oil transportation development proposals. The second section of the volume focuses on conditions that contribute to food insecurity and the erosion of secure livelihoods. The first chapters deal primarily with determinants of vulnerability and with adaptive strategies, and the following chapters take up the role of gender in reproducing social and environmental inequalities.

The final section features chapters that discuss community scale processes and their contributions to resilience. For instance, Chapter 21 introduces the concept of “guerilla governance,” referring to emergent social groups that operate outside of formal government structures to address unmet community needs following disasters.

By presenting work at the intersection of vulnerability and resiliency, the volume succeeds in not replicating an overly simplistic narrative about “victims” in disasters. This approach to understanding disaster loss often ignores the sets of capacities that communities and individuals hold, and furthermore, ignores the social determinants of vulnerability. For example, Chapter 14 illustrates the complex relation between resilience, vulnerability, and capabilities in a vivid description of displaced migrants in Malawi. The author describes how these individuals regain control of their identity through craft making ventures, concluding that “the production of material goods is a form of control over identity that can be asserted (agency) to countermand negative identifiers that are externally imposed (migrant, refugee, unwanted, intruder, etc.)” (Companion, 2016, p.157). Certainly, the treatment of vulnerability and resilience as dynamic and multidimensional concepts- contingent upon the intersection of numerous forces- is a strength of the volume. For instance, in Chapter 16, the authors examine the complex role gender played following a disaster in a politically and religiously conservative town in Texas. The chapter highlighted the support roles women play in community recovery from wildfire, while also describing how gender roles constrain men’s ability to recover.

Another facet of the volume that should be appreciated is that the selection of articles brings climate change researchers and disaster researchers into dialogue with one another. Perhaps, if readers are fortunate, there will be a second addition of this volume that incorporates additional insights from climate justice literature. This literature also contributes to our understanding of social  vulnerability and equitable resilience building, but has yet to gain traction in hazards and disaster research. Nevertheless, when considered as a whole, the chapters underscore the continued threat global environment change and extreme weather events poses to already precarious livelihoods.

Overall, this volume provides many novel insights for those working to understand and ultimately reduce vulnerabilities in a range of settings. The global reach of the contributions is noteworthy in and of itself, as the insights from each chapter advance understanding of vulnerability across a range of population groups and places. The volume is a timely and welcome addition the literature. For these reasons, the volume should be considered a part of the toolkit of academics and practitioners.  The volume would be especially useful as a text for advanced undergraduates and graduate students in applied programs, and in fields such as emergency management, development studies, humanitarian response, environmental studies, anthropology and applied sociology.


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