Time is of the Essence: Disasters, Vulnerability and History

November 2004 (VOL. 22, NO. 3)

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As an historian whose interests lie in both contemporary disaster practice as well the historical roots of vulnerability, I have become increasingly intrigued by the manner in which the proponents of these two ‘fields’ approach the question of time in relation to disasters. Needless to say these actors regard it very differently. Social scientists (and here I include mainly sociologists, anthropologists and human geographers) largely pay lip service to its importance, at best mentioning its relevance en passant but giving historical analysis and specific historical example little real consideration in the greater scheme of things. At the same time, though, they place inordinate emphasis on the importance of ‘process’ as the basis upon which their understanding of what turns a natural hazard into a disaster depends. The concept of vulnerability is proposed as the key to understanding how social systems generate unequal exposure to risk by making some people more prone to disaster than others, a condition that is largely a function of the power relations operative in each society (Cannon 1994:14-15, 19; Wisner 1993:131-133). Vulnerability to historians, on the other hand, is not even really a conceptual term and, when used at all, usually indicates a state of being not a condition derivative of historical processes. Above all, disasters are primarily ‘events’ caused by a combination of seismological, meteorological or epidemiological agents (occasionally war is seen in this context as well) that have certain detrimental physical and socioeconomic consequences. At their most extreme, they may even cause the downfall of societies. However, they are rarely integrated into any wider theoretical perspective (Ambraseys 1971; Landsberg 1980). Though both social scientists and historians may talk about disasters, they are not necessarily talking about the same thing: the one sees disasters as primarily a historical processes (or processes set within recent temporal parameters), the other as non-sequential historical events. This is unfortunate because primarily disasters are both historical processes and sequential events. If this assertion sounds rather convoluted, I trust the following discussion will make the distinction somewhat clearer though no amount of clarification is really sufficient to adequately address this question. Instead, I intend what I say more as ‘a line of thinking in progress’ than ‘a work in progress’.