Complementary concepts? ‘Social memory’ and ‘time stories’

The term social memory seems to be taking hold in the resilience and disaster fields but I came across a new term today that I thought was interesting.  Fincher et al (2014) in a paper in Geoforum use the term ‘time stories’ which they define as ‘narratives connecting pasts, presents and futures’

There were two aspects of this paper that I found interesting.  Firstly the authors describe four ways that geographers consider linked aspects of ‘time and place that range from the daily aspects of ‘lived experiences’ to imaginings of the future.  I thought that social memory, as we consider it in this blog, links best with their understanding:

The third part of our understanding of time is that the time periods of past, present and future—those imagined,  remembered and experienced times—form a central organising mechanism for thoughts and actions. Time stories are central to when people make sense of events and predictions. Philosophers have focused on elucidating the relationship between past, present and future, those three phases of time that are unable really to be demarcated empirically because of the human habit of forming ‘‘an extended present’’ from them (Shipman and Baert, 2000, p. 317).

Secondly, I thought one key finding of the paper – that for community members it is the continuities that are very important – was interesting given our blog’s focus on disasters.  Because we know that continuities can abruptly and rapidly become discontinuities.  So I wonder how ‘time stories’ would play out in a community that has experienced a natural disaster?

Do people link flooding to climate change?

From Talking Climate’s newsletter 7 July:

One recent academic paper showed an association between perceptions of changes in weather (especially flooding) and beliefs about climate change. However, the study couldn’t establish causation: people who were already concerned about climate change may have simply been more likely to notice changes and attribute them to climate change.

The perception of links between extreme weather and climate change is a burgeoning field of research. Another question, though not the focus of this study (Taylor et al. 2014), is whether the beliefs of people who are already sceptical about climate change are influenced by extreme weather. In our analysis of media coverage of the Brisbane flood in 2011, Anne Leitch and I found that narratives reflecting a denial of climate change seemed to be reinforced by the flood and other extreme weather events. That is, by situating the flood in the historical record and current political context, a case is built to deny the existence of climate change.

One reader wrote in a letter to the editor that: “There were a lot more floods in the 19th century and I don’t think they had much in the way of global warming or rising CO2 levels back then.”

Another wrote: ‘‘carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had nothing to do with the recent severe flooding in Australia. Making exaggerated claims regarding CO2 only shows the lengths people will go to in order to score political points for the introduction of a big new (carbon) tax on everything.”

 

 

 

Resilience 2014 Recap

It’s already been a month since the Resilience 2014 conference, so timely to share the summary that the conference organisers asked us to put together from our session: “Knowledge for disaster resilience: Exploring memory, governance and resilience in practice”

What overarching question was your session about?

  • How can social-ecological systems, communities and societies be more resilient to natural disasters?

Specifically, the presentations addressed:

  1. Social memory and media representations of natural disasters in Australia (Anne Leitch, James Cook University, Australia)
  2. Ecosystem-based management and social governance capacity in Eden, South Africa (Patrick O’Farrell, CSIR, South Africa)
  3. Governance during different phases and types of crises, using the example of the Montserrat volcano (Emily Wilkinson, Overseas Development Institute, UK)
  4. Practitioners’ views of resilience and its usefulness as a concept in disaster risk management practice in Queensland, Australia (John Handmer, RMIT, Australia)

What were the main insights, in relation to the conference theme (resilience and development: mobilizing for transformation) from the session?

  • Media discourse has an important opportunity to create and sustain social memory. There are examples where it does this (i.e. catalyzing community response after a disaster, marking anniversaries of events) but more often it fails to do this, because the news cycle focuses on ‘events’ more than the quiet periods in between when learning from past events should be informing preparedness for future events.
  • Interacting social and ecological drivers of change are creating conditions that lead to natural disasters and in many cases are eroding community resilience
  • Demographic change (people with long term knowledge leaving an area, new people moving in) means that social memory is lost, and attitudes towards risk are changed
  • Governance structures are undermining resilience, in some cases (South Africa) through centralization, poorly resourced local governments, and a widening disconnect between authorities and individuals, and in others (Australia), by subsidizing complacency through indiscriminate handouts
  • Policymakers / practitioners are intentionally vague in their usage of resilience to ensure that all stakeholders buy into it
  • Resilience is defined mainly as self-reliance, but there is a paradox: in a low risk disaster situation, individuals can help themselves, and emergency services can too. In a high risk disaster, individuals cannot help themselves and neither can emergency services.
  • Practitioners can identify complex problems, but not appropriate solutions.
  • Crises can lead to institutional learning (even triple loop learning, where local ideas of risk converge on scientific ideas)
  • Crises can lead to governance shifts, joint processes of institutional learning that align risk

Did the science/practice/policy dialogue bring out any added values in your session?

  • Highlighted the need to clarify what is meant by community resilience which often is construed as ‘bouncing back’ but in a post-disaster context the prior state is usually untenable. This is in contrast to social-ecological resilience and its emphasis on adaptive or transformative change.
  • Resilience discourse is being used to further particular political agendas – politicians ‘brand’ communities as resilient to absolve governments of providing support
  • Are there examples of social memory actually informing responses to disasters? Andrew Fox of Plymouth University asked this question, and later (in a comment on this site) pointed me to a UK project he’s been involved in called Sustainable Flood Memories. 

Can social memory increase resilience? Can it decrease resilience? How?

Junko Edahiro from Japan for Sustainability told us a wonderful story today at the Resilience 2014 off-site session on “Coastal Vulnerability and Resilience facing climate change”. “The ‘Miracle of Kamaishi': How 3,000 Students Survived March 11” emphasizes the importance of generating new learning in an unprecedented event, but also the need for individuals (in this case children) to self-organize and take initiative to save their own lives.

 

How is disaster resilience influenced by culture?

How does cultural context matter for creating and retaining social memory, and for responding to disasters?

Is social memory transferable across places and contexts?

"She'll be right," Courier Mail, 5-6 Feb 2011

This is one of our favourite pictures from our collection of media images for the message it conveys about responding to disasters. It appeared in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail a few days after Cyclone Yasi, which struck North Queensland in February 2011. At the time we were analysing Australian newspaper reporting on natural disasters over a five-year period to understand how the word ‘resilience’ was being used in relation to disaster events (Leitch and Bohensky 2014).

A recurrent metaphor was of the tough North Queenslander, a ‘hardy breed,’ well versed in extreme weather and accustomed to coping in times of hardship (as exemplified by our laid-back mate in the photo). Similar descriptions were applied to other ‘country’ or rural populations. In fact, such an image is deeply engrained in the Australian psyche and has a historical basis in the development of Australian identity in the colonial days, when self-reliance, together with mateship, were keys to survival.

One attribute of resilience is the ability to self-organise. Self-organisation, in the context of community response to disasters, means the organisation of support and resources for community preparation, response or recovery. The more that the community can provide and resource this support  itself, and the less that it has to rely on aid or assistance from elsewhere, the more resilient it will probably be. Of course, natural disasters are, by definition, situations that overwhelm a community’s capacity to get back on its feet without some form of external aid (Etkin and Dore 2003). The question is how much assistance should be provided, how long, and by whom?

Certainly the media depicted many examples of people helping others, of whole communities rising up: Brisbane’s Mud Army after the Southeast Queensland floods became one such feel-good story.

Yet in examining how concepts of self-organisation were expressed in the media discourse related to disasters, we found references to another dimension of Australian cultural identity. Entitlement, expectation and complacency in some cases seemed to be undermining the ability–and incentive– to self-organise and therefore be resilient:

“‘While most people are resilient and are prepared for the worst, we still find a number who would not even sandbag or move their gear upstairs before floods,’ said one man who did not want to be named. ‘They were hoping to get new furnishings or a handout so they didn’t bother. It does make you wonder if we offer too much.’” (anonymous, Cairns Post, 20 October 2010, referring to the 2010-11 cyclone season)

Culture can define attitudes and responses to disasters. But culture changes. Even the culture of entitlement can change, it seems, when governments stop doling out disaster assistance payments, or insurers refuse to cover homes in areas that have been repeatedly hard hit.

How has culture affected responses to extreme events elsewhere? Can cultures learn from one another’s experience?

What theories best support understanding of resilience to disasters?

The adaptive cycle, the central heuristic of resilience theory. From Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002.

The adaptive cycle, a central heuristic of resilience theory. From Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002.

Does resilience science have what it takes?

Resilience is – or should be – an integrative concept, bringing together different scientific disciplines, knowledge systems, and consequently scales of analysis, from individual to globe.

Extreme weather events and natural disasters are also integrating phenomena. However, disaster management has traditionally been informed by a fairly limited set of knowledge domains.

For example, we have seen how memory, at different levels, is so central to responding to extreme events and yet is often addressed only superficially in disaster studies, if at all (see Colten and Sumpter 2009). And for good reason, perhaps: a great challenge is for memory to scale up from individuals to larger social groups, institutions and whole social-ecological systems so that it can be harnessed in times of need.

To tackle these problems, do we need to look beyond the disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ of resilience science?

For example, anthropology recognises knowledge as fluid and embedded in social and cultural practice, rather than a static repository of past responses to disturbances without historical context. Cognitive psychology approaches appreciate that memory includes the subjective experience of remembering and that memory is prone to distortions.

Psychologist and integralist Rich Pfeiffer explains that recent neuroscience sees memory as being ‘achieved’ in different ways:

One is via the limbic system which is quite automatic and connected to an actual pain experience, for example. This is a primitive brain function which entails a raw emotion.

Other ways memory is achieved is via the mirror and mentalizing systems (not as automatic) and requires engagement of some context (information, explanation, education, etc). This is a more evolved brain function which entails a more complex (higher level) human emotion.

The take away message, for us I think, is that we need to provide context – information, explanation, and education – in order to enhance social (and individual) memory.

This emphasis on contextualisation is something we note again and again – but how is that best pursued?

What theories and bodies of knowledge do you use in your research on disasters and how societies and ecosystems respond to them?

Is learning enhanced if experience is closer in time or place?

This weekend the region of far North Queensland in Australia is experiencing Cyclone Ita, a tropical cyclone that has already wreaked havoc in the Solomon Islands.

Observing the electronic media coverage of how communities were preparing for the cyclone it seemed like there were themes of “learning” being discussed.  I heard talk in radio interviews of how, having experienced two damaging cyclones over the past decade, the Cairns community had learned what was needed to prepare.  However the smaller settlement of Cooktown further north had dodged the previous two cyclones.  Yet its Mayor felt they could use the experience of this extreme weather system in the Solomon Islands and so were reasonably well prepared.

This discussion – albeit limited – I found interesting as in a recent publication, Framing the flood: a media analysis of themes of resilience in the 2011 Brisbane flood, Erin and I noted a lack of learning themes in the media discussion.  We said that:

Even where previous flood experience exists, it may not result in learning. When there is not much information available, memories of previous events have diminished or other actors, such as government are perceived to be taking responsibility, learning is reduced as the community tends to be less prepared (p. 486).

So, given there has been such a short interval between cyclones perhaps we will see more discussion of learning in the media washup of this event?

A comparison of previous cyclones in the north Australia: Cyclone Ita compared to Tracy, Larry and Yasi

“Knowledge for disaster resilience” at Resilience 2014 Conference

We’ll be chairing a session at Resilience 2014: Resilience and Development: Mobilizing for Transformation: http://www.resilience2014.org/ called “Knowledge for disaster resilience: Exploring memory, governance and resilience in practice”.

Local, place-based knowledge about social-ecological systems is thought to build resilience to uncertainty and rapid change, such as that posed by natural disasters. Learning from such knowledge is considered critical for societies living in disaster-prone areas such as coastlines, floodplains and peri-urban bushland. While disaster management and risk reduction are expanding to encompass the role of human agency and behaviour, these domains can benefit further from the various scholarly traditions on knowledge and how they relate to resilience. Less widely appreciated are the processes by which knowledge is harnessed to respond to disasters and how knowledge scales up from individuals to larger social groups and social-ecological systems and is harnessed in times of need. Among these is social memory—“the long-term communal understanding of the dynamics of environmental change, and the transmission of the pertinent experience (McIntosh 2000:24)”—that becomes salient as societies anticipate and recover from disaster events. Governance structures and processes too are critical for enabling knowledge for social learning and collective action to address the various phases of disasters. Lastly, the discourse that both shapes and reflects disaster knowledge and with which disaster management practitioners interact is key for the application of knowledge.

This session will explore questions of memory, governance and practice through studies of different types of disasters around the globe.

Over the next few weeks we will post a series of questions, which presenters in this session are asked to address from theoretical and practical perspectives. We also welcome contributions from the broader community interested in resilience and disaster studies. If useful we’ll continue these discussions following the conference too. Our goal for the blog in the short term will be to incorporate responses into our presentation at the conference, and in the long term could lead to collaborative papers, new projects, etc.

Each week we will pose a different question related to the session topic:

Week 1.    What theories best support understanding of social memory, disasters and social-ecological resilience?

Week 2.     How does cultural context matter? Is social memory transferable across places and contexts?

Weeks 3 & 4.     Can social memory increase resilience? Can it decrease resilience? If so, how?