Comment: Sandrine Revet's ‘“A small world”: ethnography of a natural disaster simulation in Lima, Peru’
Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
© 2013 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 54–56, February 2013
How to Cite
Atlani-Duault, L. (2013), Comment: Sandrine Revet's ‘“A small world”: ethnography of a natural disaster simulation in Lima, Peru’. Social Anthropology, 21: 54–56. doi: 10.1111/1469-8676.12009
- Issue published online: 6 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
While the ways that different societies deal with different types of natural disaster – from hurricanes and tsunamis to earthquakes and mudslides – have been a topic of anthropological study since at least the 1970s, attention has been especially pronounced in the past decade. The heterogeneity of the events covered is mirrored by the richness of the research that has been produced. I am thinking particularly of work by Anthony Oliver-Smith (1986), Susanna Hoffman on the fire that ravaged California's Oakland area in the early 1990s (2002), as well Julien Langumier's work on flooding in France (2008), Gregory Button on environmental catastrophes in the US (2010), Sandrine Revet on mudslides in Venezuela (2007), Sarah Le Menestrel and Jacques Henry on Hurricane Katrina in the United States (2010), and Mara Benadusi on the Asian tsunami (2011). (For a review of the literature, see Susannah Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith 2002.) These reveal catastrophes to be collective constructs in which the operational (rescue, lifesaving, reconstruction), the discursive (qualification, explication), and the symbolic (commemoration, construction of heroes, assignment of guilt, demands for reparation) are all at play – and interplay.
Some of these studies, particularly ethnographic research conducted among affected populations, offer striking insights into the political, economic and social strategies adopted by populations to cope with the multitude of upheavals that accompany the physical event. Others focus on how external social actors (experts and technical specialists, members of NGOs, officials, etc.) take charge of responses to certain catastrophic events. Revet's ‘“A small world”: ethnography of a natural disaster simulation in Lima, Peru’ is one of these, and presents an original perspective at two levels.
First, while most studies of the ‘small world’ of natural disaster experts concentrate on the dynamics that emerge following a disaster, Revet turns her gaze to a pre-event simulation – in other words, to an ex-ante scripted scenario that is translated into (simulated) action. Her detailed first-person article moves from her first tentative contacts and negotiations with UN disaster relief officials to her observation of the 3-day simulation as it unfurled in the streets of Lima: a large-scale rehearsal for responding to a magnitude 8 earthquake (i.e. a major and relatively rare seismic event). A wealth of detail and anthropological insight is provided on the backgrounds, roles and inter-relationships of large numbers of actors, from situation room planning sessions to evacuation exercises and simulated searches for bodies in collapsed buildings. I was particularly struck by her description of what might seem a relatively trivial scene: a ‘thank-you dinner’ given by the organisers in a 4-star hotel, where a large contingent of international participants is seated in one section of the dining room: ‘From one table to the next, people called out greetings to one another, asking for news of so-and-so encountered during a “workshop” in one country in the region or someone else with whom they had jointly participated in an evaluation.’ She learns that some of the people had ‘done’ Haiti or Chile together in 2010, or had known eachother for years.
This leads us to the second level at which Revet provides an original perspective: her empirical study sheds light on an interesting dynamic that Beck has explored elsewhere: the emergence of ‘new cosmopolitan affiliations of risk’ (Beck 2011). Through her investigation of the ‘small world’ of globe-trotting natural disaster experts and the ‘developmentalist configuration’ (to quote Olivier de Sardan 1995) in which they are embedded, Revet's article shows the processes by which one of these new collectivities is formed and reproduces itself, and the extent to which the agencies and offices of the United Nations – in this case OCHA, UNDP and UNDAC – both drive and nourish this formation and reproduction. I can't help but be reminded of the creation of another cosmopolitan affiliation of risk beginning in the mid-1990s, when major humanitarian and development actors descended upon the old Soviet bloc countries. At that time, they were responding not to a natural disaster like the one Revet describes, but to a political one (the collapse of the Soviet Union) that the UN embedded matrioshka-style within a less politically sensitive disaster: AIDS. The political narrative was thus replaced with a putatively humanitarian one. All of a sudden, Central Asia and the Caucasus were awash in international HIV experts (who had ‘done’ Sub-Saharan Africa, the brothels of Thailand or the saunas of San Francisco) preparing the region for an impending AIDS epidemic according to their experiences in other, very different parts of the world (Atlani-Duault 2005, 2008). As Beck describes the process, which continues to operate in other places and contexts, ‘[In] the absence of a dominant narrative about the future, global risk frames structure how national experiences are informed by global expectations and how global experiences are shaping national expectations. Perceiving the future through the prism of risk perceptions reveals how representations of catastrophes of various kinds are challenging the ontological security once provided by the temporal narratives of nation-states’ (Beck and Levy forthcoming).
The type of simulation described by Revet is, fundamentally, all about this loss of ontological security, and the search for reassuring narratives. Quite apart from the real consequences of a ‘real-life’ earthquake, and the undoubted (if uneven) value of civil preparedness, the earthquake rehearsal in Peru is revealed as a strange, technocratic version of a Passion Play, bringing to centre stage an imagined response to an imagined disaster, based on a script in which science, reason, solidarity and fraternity are initially brought to their knees by unexpected misfortune but eventually win the day against the destructive forces of nature and politics.
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