Imagining the future of disaster studies

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

There is a puzzling paradox in disaster studies. Many, if not most of its proponents, us, claim that disasters are social constructs. However, we, in our vast majority, resort to concepts, methodologies and broader epistemologies that we take for universal. For instance, we use and apply concepts such as disaster, vulnerability, resilience, risk, etc., which share a Latin etymology, in all sort of contexts around the world, assuming that they will help us understand how people across very diverse cultures and societies make sense of what we call natural hazards. This is antithetical.

This tension between, on the one hand, what we want to achieve, and, on the other hand, the approach we deploy to achieve this goal reflects the hegemony of Western, Eurocentric discourses on disaster. So hegemonic that they have become common sense in Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) lingo. As feminist scholar Kathy Ferguson (1993, p. 7) once said, ‘the questions we can ask about the world are enabled, and other questions disabled, by the frame that orders the questioning. When we are busy arguing about the questions that appear within a certain frame, the frame itself becomes invisible; we become enframed within it’. In disaster studies, this frame is Western and reflects a scholarly legacy that dates back to the Enlightenment and its project to free people from the hazards of nature.

The study of gender in disaster is no exception. It is predominantly framed through the dialectical lens of the categories of man and woman. It is associated with concepts such as vulnerability and resilience which relevance is similarly considered ubiquitous. In fact, the very dominant view that both gender and vulnerability are intertwined social constructs is at odds with the near-universal prominence given to biological dimorphism in underpinning gender identities. It then becomes hard to disagree with Nigerian gender scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyĕwùmí that ‘if gender is socially constructed, then gender cannot behave in the same way across time and space. (…) From a cross-cultural perspective, the significance of this observation is that one cannot assume the social organization of one culture (the dominant West included) as universal or the interpretations of the experiences of one culture as explaining another one’.

The hegemony of such Western discourses on both gender and disaster results from unequal power relationships between researchers around the world; a legacy of centuries of colonialism and imperialism on the side of Europe. Disaster studies is indeed dominated by scholars from the West, for whom advantageous political and material conditions make its easy to conduct field work in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. A privilege seldom returned to scholars from these regions. It is through this colonial and imperialist agenda that Western worldviews and ways of knowing have been imposed as common sense, including in both the studies of gender and disaster. Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000, p. 28) once stated that ‘“they” [Western historians] produce their work in relative ignorance of non-Western histories, and this does not seem to affect the quality of their work. This is a gesture, however, that “we” [Indian historians] cannot return. We cannot even afford an equality or symmetry of ignorance at this level without taking the risk of appearing "old-fashioned" or "outdated’. This holds true for the study of gender in disaster and of disaster in general.

This needs to change. This needs to change so that there is enough space for non-Western perspectives to emerge. These alternative perspectives are absolutely crucial to not only reflect the realities of millions of people around the world, including Fa’afafine, Hijra and Berdache whose identity does not conform to the man-woman binary, but also to better support their own desires and address their unique concerns. This agenda does not mean throwing Western concepts, categories, theories and methodologies out of the window. It rather means limiting their application to contexts where they make sense, which is, simply, the places where they emerged. As disaster pioneer scholar Ben Wisner (2021, p. 6) recently argued, it is about taking ‘a holiday from the research protocols, methods, tools – the bag of tricks that disasterologists carry’. In fact, gender is probably a very good ‘place’ to start in view of reconsidering our broader approach to studying disaster. Gender scholars such as Monique Wittig (1992), Judith Butler (1993) and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyĕwùmí (1997) have long unveiled how gender should be seen independently from biology and sex; a perspective that seems promising for the study of gender in disaster away from Western discourses.

Youth who do not identify within the male/man-female/woman binary reflecting upon their experience of typhoons in Masantol, Philippines, in December 2011 (© JC Gaillard)

This is exactly the path that the disaster studies manifesto Power, Prestige and Forgotten Values encourages us to take. One that fosters grounded, relevant, fair and genuine research on disaster. One that requires local researchers and/or those who are deeply grounded in the places they study to take the lead in initiating, framing, conducting, and sharing research. One that builds upon local ontologies and epistemologies and maximise local resources.

This radical turn in the way we study disaster is not to exclude outside researchers, including those from the West. In today’s research landscape, Western researchers are often those who have access to resources. They can also help leveraging power relations with other stakeholders of disaster risk reduction. The agenda we suggest in our manifesto is therefore one of dialogue. It builds upon trust and rapport. Chakrabarty (1995, p. 756) reminds us that ‘a dialogue can be genuinely open only under one condition: that no party puts itself in a position where it can unilaterally decide the final outcomes of the conversation’. It seems to be exactly what the GRRIPP project is doing.

JC Gaillard is a Professor of Geography at the School of Environment, The University of Auckland in New Zealand, and Extraordinary Professor at the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management, North-West University, South Africa.

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