Societies in past and present are regularly confronted with major hazards, which sometimes have disastrous effects. While some societies are successful in preventing these effects and buffering threats, or they recover quickly, others prove highly vulnerable. Why is this? Increasingly it is clear that disasters are not merely natural events, and also that wealth and technology alone are not adequate to prevent them. Rather, hazards and disasters are social occurrences as well, and they form a tough test for the organizational capacities of a society, both in mitigation and recovery. Our research targets a main element of this capacity, namely: the way societies have organized the exchange, allocation and use of resources. It aims to explain why some societies do well in preventing or remedying disasters through these institutional arrangements and others not.
The role of institutions
Institutions are the formal and informal frameworks for human interaction, such as laws, customs, networks, organisations, etc. These institutions play an important part both in protecting societies from hazards and encouraging (or hindering) recovery after disaster struck. Until recent years disaster literature focused on official disaster management organisations, set up after the event. Nowadays, research has been broadened to also include the role of “non-direct” institutions: that is, those institutions that function in societies, regardless of the presence of hazards or not. Responses to disasters always take form within a broader context of institutions, many of which have nothing to do with the hazards, nor are they oriented towards enhancing societal resilience, but it is clear that their arrangement influences the coping capacity of societies and affects long-term recovery. Rather than focussing on protective measures being ‘imposed’ from above or outside, there is a strong emphasis on local community-level, collective risk-reduction measures with high levels of participation down the social hierarchy. As well as this kind of cohesion from the bottom-up, we must also note that trust can also be fostered in the perception of the efficiency and legitimacy of political institutions operating from above. Our research is focussed on the institutions specifically needed to organise the exchange, allocation and use of essential resources which were not formed as the automatic and logical response of societies to threats.
A historical perspective
Focusing exclusively on contemporary disasters only reveals information about initial impact and mitigation and can turn disaster planning into nothing more than symptomatic treatment. A true understanding of causes and effects of hazards and shocks is needed to understand why some societies are highly resilient and others are not. The basic richness of the historical record enables us to make a long-term reconstruction of the social, economic and cultural impact of disasters that is simply not possible in contemporary disaster studies. History also enables us to move away from comparing disasters per se by the ability to compare different societies’ experience with one shock – in the process limiting the number of independent variables to a high degree. That is why the historical perspective is most advantageous for studying societal resilience at its core.