Research of the Disaster Studies Group

Disaster Studies Wageningen studies how disasters and conflicts affect people and transform societies, and in turn, how disasters and conflicts are socially and historically produced. Special attention is given to the role and perspectives of the actors involved, whether at the local or the global level, and the analysis of intervention policy and practice.

Natural disasters and violent conflicts affect the lives of a great number of people across the world, especially in developing and unstable countries. The impact of conflicts and disasters on people’s security, livelihood and future prospects is often dramatic, and disproportionally hits those that are already poor and marginalized. Despite efforts to address these problems, these are likely to continue to mark global development in the decades to come. Disasters have become more frequent and intense, due to a combination of increasing social vulnerability (for instance through the formation of slum areas on steep slopes), environmental degradation and human-induced climate change. The spread and intensity of violent conflict has belied post cold-war optimism. Since the end of the Cold War, civil wars in post-colonial and transition countries and the global ‘war on terror’ have involved the uprooting and killing of large numbers of civilians.

Disaster Studies Wageningen studies how disasters and conflicts affect people and transform societies, and in turn, how disasters and conflicts are socially and historically produced. Special attention is given to the role and perspectives of the actors involved, whether at the local or the global level, and the analysis of intervention policy and practice.

Disasters and conflicts force us to rethink the nature of planned development. Technological and institutional progress is proving insufficient to prevent emergencies and guarantee people’s security. Indeed, well-meaning development efforts might be part of the problem and cause or exacerbate crises. Disaster Studies analyses the complex ways in which development processes and the dynamics of conflict and disaster feed into each other.Causes, effects and responses to disaster and conflict stretch over large spans of time and space and are increasingly global concerns. This makes conflict and disaster fields with a high density of external interventions. Such interventions, ranging from aid to diplomatic and military measures and comprising emergency assistance, development aid, peace-building and human rights advocacy, are intertwined with the political realities of conflict and disaster. Disaster Studies is concerned with the organization and impact of these interventions, and especially how these interventions are shaped by the different actors involved, international and non-governmental organisations as well as governments, militaries, and last but not least the directly affected people. One of our principal approaches to intervention is that of critical policy analysis which includes questioning the discourses and intervention models guiding policy, as well as looking at the unintended consequences of interventions.

Disaster Studies’ research into conflict, disaster and intervention privileges the perceptions, responses, interests and rights of the people directly affected and involved. Our research is underpinned by the theory and methodology of actor-oriented approaches that focus on the social practices of heterogeneous actors. Our analysis brings out not only the suffering and vulnerability of affected populations, such as disaster victims and refugees, but also their knowledge and capacities in finding solutions and ways to cope. Similarly, we examine the role of local and international organisations and governments. Much of our research concerns the interface between directly affected actors and such intervening actors. To capture the practices and processes at these interfaces, ethnographic fieldwork is at the core of our research programme. This is complemented with other qualitative, quantitative and participatory research techniques.

The complex challenges posed by understanding and responding to conflict and disasters bring out the importance for partnerships in research. Interdisciplinarity is an important aspect of our work. In research at Disaster Studies, sociology and anthropology meet with law and political science as well as with water and forest management, amongst others. With our research we look for ways to contribute to policy discussions and strengthen local and international responses to disaster and conflict by better informed policies and well-designed, context-responsive practice. Our research is interactive in nature and builds on dialogue with policy-makers and people in the field.

The research of Disaster Studies is embedded in the Research School WASS (Wageningen School of Social Sciences), which is accredited by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.The research of Disaster Studies consists of programmes, projects, and PhD research. Research is done in five interrelated areas:

  1.     Vulnerability and disaster response

  2.     Disruption, displacement and processes of re-ordering

  3.     Principles and praxis of humanitarian aid

  4.     Politics and policies in conflict management, peace building and reconstruction

  5.     Methodologies for research on disaster and conflict


1. Vulnerability and disaster response

Floods, droughts, high winds, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other disasters caused by natural hazards result from social processes that render areas susceptible to natural hazards and people vulnerable to their impact. Disasters increase due to growing vulnerability, environmental degradation and climate change. Responses to disasters interweave dimensions of time and space and emerge from the values and interactions of a multitude of actors and institutions. Disaster response varies from reactive, ad-hoc, externally driven and technocratic to responses that are community-based, pro-active, institutional and geared towards structural risk reduction. Community-based disaster response has proven its worth among others in Bangladesh where the death toll of hurricanes today is a fraction compared to 15 years ago. We find it important to underline that men and women that are affected by disaster are the main agents in their own and each other’s survival and coping and have crucial capacities in this regard. Disaster response is intertwined with social and power processes in society, hence the adagio that understanding disaster and disaster response requires understanding society.

This research theme explores how vulnerability is socially and historically produced and how disaster responses come about in the interplay between national and international government agents, disaster management and aid agencies and local communities, each with their own values and interests.
Starting from the premise that different approaches to disaster risk reduction need to be integrated according to specific situations and must be based on inclusion of different actors, the research aims to unravel the processes that render people vulnerable to disaster, understand the everyday dynamics of disaster response, and contribute to discussions on how to turn disaster response more effective. Research is also concerned with the gender dimension of vulnerability, conflict-related vulnerability and coping, and policy approaches to vulnerability.

2. Disruption, displacement and processes of re-ordering

We conceptualise conflicts and disasters as breakpoints of social order, at which social transformation intensifies and moves into new directions. Disaster and conflict imply a considerable degree of chaos and disruption, as they often involve the breakdown of existing institutions, massive displacement of people, and a disintegration of social networks. Such contexts, however, not only involve the disruption of order but are also marked by processes of re-ordering, of the creation of new institutions and linkages. These can take different forms and show different degrees of formality and institutionalisation, from the emergence of social and economic networks in refugee camps to the creation of alternative or parallel structures of government and services such as education and healthcare in disputed regions. In contexts of disaster and conflict, the state often fails to provide services and security to the population which creates room for a multiplicity of other actors to institute order and seek legitimacy. including rebel groups, social movements, local communities, international NGOs and intergovernmental agencies (UN, etc). This may give rise to situations of multiple and competing efforts to, and layers of, ordering in which any authority is contested. Part of this re-ordering expresses itself in the domain of identities. Conflict and the associated emerging discourses often lead to the construction and reconstruction of particularistic identities, be these of a religious, ‘ethnic’, regional or other nature, and a re-shaping of the interaction between different identity groups.

This research theme studies these processes of re-ordering in and after crisis situations. It looks at how people craft new institutions and (re-)build networks, linkages and identities, and how in this process previous and re-invented institutions are drawn on, and new capacities and notions are incorporated (e.g. granting women rights they previously did not enjoy). Attention is given to gender and generational differentiation. The theme includes the ways in which people practically and discursively deal with past and present violence and how violence can be used by different actors as a device in these ordering processes. It also addresses questions of the practical organisation and legitimation of alternative and parallel governance structures.

3. Principles and praxis of humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is characterized by its principled approach and centres on the key values of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Since 1994, the principles of humanitarian aid have, however, increasingly become subject to debate with agencies taking different positions along an axis ranging from minimalist (saving lives) to maximalist (enabling peace and development) approaches. Humanitarian aid is otherwise under scrutiny because it risks being used for foreign policy and military interests, as has become especially apparent during the Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq wars and more generally as a consequence of the global war on terror. The aid is organized in complex organizational figurations, linking international and local institutions, within highly unpredictable environments, and has become an important multi-billion dollar business.

The research theme concerns dilemmas following from the politics of humanitarianism and issues of quality and accountability of humanitarian aid. It is concerned with the everyday practice of aid and its impact on governability and livelihood in areas on the receiving end of the aid chain, and studies the relationships between the various forms of interventions, such as humanitarian aid, military interventions, disaster control and peace-building. An important issue is how the aid is valued from the viewpoint of the population. The research theme aims to analyse the praxis of humanitarian aid, including the management of refugees and internally displaced people as well as the interface between food aid and food security. It wants to highlight the values, organization and implementing practices of humanitarians in disaster-affected areas. It is questioned how humanitarian values differ in different religious and cultural traditions, and how Asian, Latin and African humanitarians interact with international humanitarian discourses and implementation.

4. Politics and policies in conflict management, peacebuilding and reconstruction

In response to violent conflict, external actors (governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental) undertake action to contain violence and build peace. This may include military responses, diplomatic and negotiated attempts at conflict management, but also interventions aimed at transforming the economics, politics and culture of the society at war by promoting sustainable development, democratic institutions and respect for cultural diversity. Such interventions reach deep into the conflict-affected society, affecting the distribution of resources, entitlements, livelihood options, the legitimisation of specific social and cultural practices, discourses and institutions, as well as social and ethnic dividing lines. These interventions draw on particular understandings of the causes of conflict and possible solutions and in turn reinforce particular discourses of conflict and peace.

This research theme studies how particular policies come into being and discusses the specific policy dilemmas of (post) conflict interventions and the challenges of creating a sustainable, peaceful society. It critically examines the premises and discourses of such policies, the political and symbolic meanings attached, and the web of dependencies that is created. A particular interest is to explore the relationship between conflict and development at the conceptual and practical levels. The research theme also addresses questions on the praxis of intervention, studying how interventions are being shaped in the local dynamics of conflict and become part of these. A particular research interest is the way ‘local’ and ‘external’ actors relate: how ‘external’ actors act upon local institutions and cultures, and how local actors give meaning to, position themselves in and engage with intervention. Part of these studies are based on policy-related studies carried out for or in close collaboration with agencies involved in actual conflict management and post conflict rehabilitation.

5. Methodologies for research on disaster and conflict

Research on disaster and conflict poses specific challenges of a practical, ethical and conceptual nature. Much of our work relies on ethnographic methods requiring a presence of the researcher in areas affected by, or prone to, crises. The instability and violence present in these regions make the security of the researcher and the people he or she works with a primary concern which conditions the field research. Fieldwork often takes place in politicized environments in which the presence of the researcher as well as the research findings acquires political meaning. Research under these conditions requires maneuvering between different interests, viewpoints and political positions, between identification and analytical distance, and between openness and confidentiality. Much of the research implies some form of collaboration with local or international non-governmental organizations. Disaster Studies works on several interactive research projects on disaster preparedness and peace building in which the research process is shaped in dialogue with such organizations and, in some cases, the intervention practice of these organizations is part of the research question.

Disaster Studies fosters a reflexive research practice in which the choices and the positioning of the researcher are taken up in the analysis. Such reflection often includes revisiting central issues in anthropology such as the social construction of knowledge, power, and dealing with fragmented and multiple realities. The experiences with interactive research are being documented and critically examined with a view to further developing this methodology. Important questions relate to the coordination of the agendas of researchers and organizations and the convergences and divergences that may occur as the process evolves, the organization of ownership and accountability, and the experiences of the researchers in moving between the discourses and requirements of the academic environment, on the one hand, and NGOs, local populations and other stakeholders, on the other.