I recently heard a talk by Daniel Aldrich (Purdue). He has been pursuing a handful of projects over the last 5-6 years looking at how local social capital (at the neighborhood or zip code or prefecture) predicts more resilient disaster recovery. Aldrich points out that people are far more likely to be hit by a disaster in their life than be the victim of a terrorist attack and asserts that the number of disasters is increasing in recent years.
Aldrich has studied 4 different disasters (1923 Tokyo earthquake; 1995 Kobe earthquake; 2005 Katrina disaster; 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami). I think he is currently doing some work on the recovery from the recent Japanese tsunami (early thoughts by him here). Aldrich measures social capital with local measures like: voting and participation in rallies (1923 Tokyo); non-profit organizations per capita (1995 Kobe); number of funerals attended in past year (Indian Tsunami); and voter turnout (Katrina). His outcome variables for economic recovery are things like population growth (1923 Tokyo; Kobe) in an area or amount of aid received (Indian Tsunami) or ability to keep FEMA trailers out of an area (Katrina). [It wasn't clear to me that this last measure is a measure of disaster recovery as much as NIMBY-ism, a topic that Aldrich has also written about.]
At one level, Aldrich’s findings are not surprising since places with low social capital tend to wait for the state to repair devastation and places with high social capital take more immediate self-action to repair. This is reflected in Emily Chamlee-Wright’s recent book “The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a post-disaster environment” and Robert Putnam observed this about Italian recovery from earthquakes: in places with high social capital one was unaware there had been an earthquake there several years later, whereas in low social capital places, the results of an earthquake were apparent 30-40 years later and residents were still blaming government for not adequately responding.
Aldrich’s work is very interesting and will appear next year as a U. Chicago press book “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery”. [Brief presentation of his work here.] I would find his work even more interesting if he examined whether it is only the more political forms of social capital (like voting or protesting) that help in disaster recovery or whether it extends to “schmoozing” type variables at well (e.g., number of close friends, or knowing neighbors). He might also be able to use volunteering data gathered by the CPS since 2002 to test that as a predictor or use datasets gathered by Rick Weil on social capital in New Orleans. He also talks about the various types of social capital (bridging, bonding, linking) but his work doesn’t help sort out whether one type of social capital is more important than another for disaster recovery. Also, given that social capital always rises after disasters and then most typically rapidly tails off, it would be useful if he tracked local social capital by neighborhood after a disaster since the shape of this drop-off in social capital need not be the same across communities; one might have more of a sustained burst of social capital than another.
His case study work does suggest that social capital is more important in disaster recovery than physical capital, physical infrastructure, or financial capital and more important than the conventional explanations that experts claim predict disaster recovery: amount of aid (positively predicting recovery); governance (stronger governance increases recovery); amount of devastation (less predicts greater recovery); wealth (positively predicting recovery); and population density (negatively predicting recovery). He controls for these factors in his model and finds consistent and robust effects of social capital on post-disaster recovery.
Aldrich’s colleagues have also done some experiments of paying people to participate in focus groups, of giving people local “scrip” if they volunteer (which can be spent locally at farmers’ markets) and found that these built social capital and helped partially “inoculate” communities from the effects of disasters. He didn’t present in any detail the methods or the results of these mini experiments. He also recommends that post-disaster if we need to move survivors, we do them conscious of the clustering in their social networks, so that they minimize the hit they take to their social capital.
Against this good news for social capital, there are three studies that find negative findings in the short-term, after disasters on outcomes like stress, health, etc. [I should note that Aldrich in his book addresses some negative outcomes of social capital in recoveries, for example, groups blocking certain castes from getting aid, or the Japanese promoting vicious attacks on Koreans after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake or ostracizing mercury victims in Minamata Bay from the late 1950s onward.] Basically the story of these other scholars is either that greater commitment to a community or greater social ties lead to worse ST outcomes, either because you feel it is really costly to leave or you are besieged by social and financial requests from other victims, which puts great strain on you unless you are wealthy. The Rhodes et. al paper finds over longer term, people with more social capital do better, so this is a short-term finding only. Weil and Lee, to my knowledge, have not looked at longer-term impacts.
See Jean Rhodes, Christian Chan, Christina Paxson, Cecelia Rouse, Mary C. Waters and Elizabeth Fussell. (2010) “The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Mental and Physical Health of Low-Income Parents in New Orleans.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 80(2):233-243. Not sure that their longer-term findings have been published. See also manuscript from their project by Lowe, S. R., Chan, C. S., & Rhodes, J. E. “Pre-disaster social support protects against psychological distress: A longitudinal analysis of Hurricane Katrina survivors.”
“Community Attachment and Negative Affective States in the Context of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster” by Matthew Lee and Troy Blanchard (LSU @ Baton Rouge) American Behavioral Scientist 55(12). October 3, 2011
Weil, Frederick, Shihadeh, Edward, and Lee, Matthew. “The Burdens of Social Capital: How Socially-Involved People Dealt with Stress after Hurricane Katrina” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, 2006.