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Chapter 3 introduces a range of multidisciplinary data sources available to study disasters and history and outlines some of the methodologies through which we can interpret and analyze these sources. The underpinning argument is that we can use history as a laboratory to better understand disasters – testing hypotheses rather than merely describing conspicuous phenomena, albeit with a recognition of what this also demands of us as historians. In particular, we discuss the production of suitable measures and methods to understand hazards and their effects, whilst also keeping in mind the limitations of the historical record and the need for a critical approach to sources. We consider, therefore, state-of-the-art challenges in historical disaster research such as how we can compensate for lacunae in the historical record by incorporating rapidly increasing volumes of data from the natural sciences, and the opportunities and pitfalls of historical ‘big data’. The chapter concludes by arguing for the importance of systematic comparative methodologies in moving beyond the descriptive and towards the analytical, which requires that we pay particular attention to scale and context.
Chapter 7 explores the links between disasters past and present. It first examines disaster history in the ‘Anthropocene’, considering how human–environment interactions – and hence the study of disasters – differ from the past. It then takes a twofold perspective, exploring the potential of historical research for better understanding disasters and, on the flipside, the potential of disasters for historical research. We review historical approaches that seek to improve our understanding of disaster management in the present – recognizing that most approaches have so far come from outside of the discipline of history. We then explore three areas where historical research can contribute: first, in analyzing the historical roots or path-dependent forces shaping present-day disasters; second, in analyzing the evolution and functioning of institutions within certain social contexts; and third, in asking whether history can teach us how to ‘escape’ from disaster. The section on the potential of disasters for historical research considers how disasters – as tests at the extreme margin of society – can act as a window into aspects of society that may otherwise escape the eye. The chapter concludes by suggesting where disaster history may go in the coming years.
Within the field of disaster studies there has always been the need to classify and label disasters. Researchers have distinguished between different types of disasters in terms of causes, outcomes, the element of surprise, scale, or scope. Chapter 2 discusses the pros and cons of the different classification systems, and also poses the question of whether it makes sense, in view of the large diversity of disasters, to study and compare these different types. Is it possible to move beyond the specificity of earthquakes or pandemics? We believe it does make sense. As historians, we can take a higher level of abstraction, revealing the similarities between different types of disasters. In order to understand why some societies coped more effectively with hazards and which characteristics were decisive in this, we can make use of various key concepts, namely disaster management, vulnerability, resilience, and risk. Overall, it is clear that hazards and disasters are not natural events but social processes.
Disasters break with normal routines and so the responses to disasters often require exceptional policies and unusual mobilization of people, know-how, capital, and goods. However, even exceptional interventions and measures are still conditioned by the institutional, social, and cultural layout of the society in question. Moreover, disaster responses are often – though not always – inspired by the memory of reacting to similar challenges in the past. Chapter 5 opens with a discussion of the coordination of disaster responses, with a particular emphasis on the role of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ and the importance of learning from disaster. Subsequently, the question is raised as to why responses were not always as effective as they could have been, and why societies do not automatically adapt their infrastructure or organization in appropriate ways to prevent the recurrence of disaster. In explaining the differing directions of disaster responses, we highlight two crucial variables revealed by history: social inequality and institutional rigidity.
Chapter 1 introduces the broad objective of the book. This is to show how history can be used to understand why biophysical shocks and hazards, sometimes leading to disasters, push societies in different directions – creating a diversity of possible social and economic outcomes. In order to understand this diversity, we need to look not only at institutional responses but also at the social actors behind these responses, who may have very different goals, not always equivalent to the ‘common good’. We illustrate how shocks and hazards, and the disasters that sometimes ensued, could thus have very diverse consequences not only between societies, but also within the same societies, between social groups, and across wealth, ethnic, and gender lines. In discussing these issues, the book goes back in time further than the modern period. Although the Industrial Revolution and associated new technologies brought momentous changes, these did not create a fundamental rift between the period before and after the Industrial Revolution, and we argue that the underlying mechanisms remained similar. After the outline of the intentions of this book, the chapter concludes with a survey of the fields of disaster studies, disaster history, and the relevant interpretative frameworks in historical research.
Hazards and disasters do not occur in a vacuum: they are guided by different preconditions and pressures, which can in turn shape responses in the immediate aftermath and over the long term. These pre-existing conditions and pressures may be basic environmental features of a region, well-established structural features of social organization or culture, or simply short-term processes occurring just before a hazard such as social revolt or migration. Chapter 4 makes an explicit distinction between pre-existing pressures connected to climate, environment, technology, and the economy and those connected to society such as institutions, poverty and inequality, and cultural values. Overall, we suggest that the diversity in pre-existing conditions and pressures seen across time and space played a significant role not only in the likelihood of hazards occurring throughout history, but also in the differing likelihood of hazards turning into disasters.
Chapter 6 discusses the effects of disasters. It distinguishes between effects in the immediate aftermath of the disaster – mortality and demographic recovery; land loss and capital destruction; economic crisis; and blame, scapegoating, and social unrest – and longer-term structural consequences – societal collapse; economic reconstruction; long-term demographic change; reconstruction, reform, and social changes; and redistribution of resources. This chapter argues that disasters, even similar ones, did not always produce homogeneous outcomes. Furthermore, rather than being totally damaging or even controversially regarded as a ‘force for good’, the effects of disasters are best assessed by making a basic distinction between the aggregate level and the distributive level: disasters could be instrumentalized to benefit a certain segment of a given population over others.
Disasters and History offers the first comprehensive historical overview of hazards and disasters. Drawing on a range of case studies, including the Black Death, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the Fukushima disaster, the authors examine how societies dealt with shocks and hazards and their potentially disastrous outcomes. They reveal the ways in which the consequences and outcomes of these disasters varied widely not only between societies but also within the same societies according to social groups, ethnicity and gender. They also demonstrate how studying past disasters, including earthquakes, droughts, floods and epidemics, can provide a lens through which to understand the social, economic and political functioning of past societies and reveal features of a society which may otherwise remain hidden from view. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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