Book Review: Disaster Upon Disaster: Exploring the Gap Between Knowledge, Policy, and Practice

Review of Disaster Upon Disaster; Exploring the Gap Between Knowledge, Policy, and Practice; edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Roberto E. Barrios. Published by Berghahn Books. Paperback is $35.

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph E. Trainor,  Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, and the Disaster Research Center at the University of DE.

I was happy to have been asked to provide a review for Disaster Upon Disaster: Exploring the Gap Between Knowledge, Policy & Practice edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Roberto E. Barrios both of whom are well-known and respected disaster anthropologists.  I was drawn to the volume because, over the past few years, I have devoted an increasing portion of my time to considering how research, policy, and practice do and do not work together.  I have written about it, thought about it, and have been increasingly engaged in consulting and collaboration with governmental and private sector partners to do something about it.  I have also volunteered many hours to helping develop Impact360 a start-up non-profit organization working to develop strong points of connection, enable inclusive problem solving, and champion integrative approaches to reducing the impacts of natural hazards and disasters.  Because of that work, I immediately was interested in the premise of a book focused on intersections between knowledge, policy, and practice.  I wanted to know more about how others are thinking about and doing the work of connecting science with society.  Below is my assessment of the volume.

As the editors suggest in the introduction, the various chapters in this book take different approaches to understanding and overcoming the divides between expert and local knowledge and/or the powerful rule setters of society.  Although the book includes scholars from several academic disciplines and practitioners as well, it is mostly framed through the anthropological version of the global Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) perspective. While typical in most of the international community, the DRR approach is a comparatively less common framing of disaster within the US context. Even so, it shares many similarities with other theoretical ideas and empirical results focused on vulnerability and inequity.  It is important to mention this because the DRR approach adopts a distinct perspective on disaster research and practice. One might even go so far as to say the perspective is itself a political movement that aggressively challenges the social, historical, and political drivers of risk with an acute focus on the notions that 1) disasters are created by society rather than act on society and  2) power relationships create differential exposure to risk  at all scales.  The authors of chapter 12 summarize the anthropological version of that approach well in saying that it is “distinct from other social science traditions in that it grounds disaster vulnerability, response, and risk in colonial and postcolonial histories and contemporary neoliberal political-economic traditions.”  As a sociologist, the posture echoes the inequity and conflict perspectives within my discipline and is particularly resonant with those using qualitative methods to do that work.  The most important variant, I would argue is that anthropology approaches those issues in a purposively more situationally and historically contextualized way. Rather than thinking of the context as a way to learn about a concept, anthropology looks at how concepts are expressed differently in each context. The general approach of almost every chapter in the book is to mount challenges to the ways current social systems at all scales create and distribute risk, rather than reduce it.  Owing to the anthropological tradition, the book also provides ethnographic cases that are used to develop and/or illustrate broader concepts.  The approach is by and large critical of disaster response, of international institutions, of non-governmental organizations, and to some extent even the scientific community for failing to fully recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of communities around the globe that live in disastrous conditions and experience their consequences.  Reading the volume as a set of chapters provides a deep level of immersion in this perspective and allowed this reader to reflect on those ideas as applied across a breadth of topics and settings.

As an overview, the book is an edited volume that includes thirteen chapters by many well-known and eminent scholars in the disasters/hazards/DRR community. The first five chapters are grouped into a section titled” Illuminating the Fissures: Suppositions, Execution, Agenda’s and Reality”.  The session focuses on the experiences of those engaged in Risk Reduction Programs and addresses the intersection of political culture, development policy, material culture, and expert knowledge.  They all focus on the definition of Disaster Risk Reduction and Disaster Risk Management, the limits of international advocacy, and critical features of disaster risk management.  These themes are explored in a variety of countries and varied contexts including the built environment, international institutions, local governments, response, and recovery. In so doing, they illustrate that active work is required to bring these groups together and that most of these authors judge such efforts as insufficient. There is not sufficient space to describe the depth and nuance of the chapters in this section.   While they all offer a similar meta-narrative they provide incredible depth of insight on how these more general processes play out across the globe.

The second section is entitled: “Situations and Expositions: Power, Plight, Problems, and Quandaries.” This portion focuses on how the processes of culture and society described in the first section create differential experiences of disaster risks for specific groups.  One chapter explores slow-onset risks such as climate and how they create less opportunity for helping those affected by them. The next does a deep dive on how gendered differences create an incredible diversity of uneven risks and inequitable outcomes for women.  This is followed by a conversation on how governmental relocation efforts often fail to consider the connections between people, place, life, and livelihood. Next, is a quite unique chapter on how managing the notion of nuclear safety in Japan post-Fukushima is experienced by locals and non-locals.  The last chapter in the section explores the ways that the US approach to Haiti disenfranchised local community voices.

The final section is titled “Revamping Apparatus and Outcome.”  While the prior chapters were informative these final three were the highlight of the book in my opinion in that they focus on summarizing how the issues expressed in prior chapters may be addressed.  The first chapter in this section provides an accessible summary of the concept of culture as used by anthropologists. I found it incredibly helpful in that it breaks down many dimensions of the concept and its application in the Disaster Risk Reduction area.  The second chapter was written by members of the Culture and Disaster Action Network (CADAN) and provides a set of very clear, science-based ideas in a convenient bullet-point form around three questions. 1) What do we know about the causes and management of disasters? 2) What do we know about the differences between academic work on disasters and practitioners’ work? and 3) What recommendations can help academics and practitioners bridge gaps? I found so much to like in this chapter. In particular, the latter two sections resonate on almost every level with findings from my own work. The authors suggest that there is a great opportunity for those willing to work through what they call “the groan zone.” I agree and hope more scholars and practitioners take their advice.  The final chapter focuses on how societies might exercise their agency to create a more equitable future. It suggests that the past need not be the only future.

While I have read works from a number of the authors in this volume, and have been exposed to the general approach, I found the depth of exposure that came from reading a complete volume framed through this perspective useful.  From my very first course in sociology, I was asked to access my sociological imagination and try hard to envisions the world through others’ eyes, experiences, and frameworks.  As a result, I am always looking for approaches to DRR, Emergency, Management, and/or Disaster Science that expand my perspective. This book took me on a journey that I must admit was not always comfortable.  It challenged me to think more locally. It approached practice with far greater a degree of critique than I typically apply in my daily work.  In some places, I felt it was heavy-handed in its critiques and grand in terms of expectation, but it also reminded me that sometimes I am too soft in my critiques and incremental in my expectations. I might not agree with it in every way, but It did what every good academic volume should it made me think more deeply.  Thanks to those who were involved in making it.




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