Susan Cutter’s essay from the Council’s 2006 “Understanding Katrina” series examines the particular confluence of natural and social vulnerabilities that devastated New Orleans—a doomed convergence that has echoes throughout the recent 2017 hurricane season. In New Orleans and other cities, failures in social support systems most severely impact the poor, the elderly, the homeless, and other special needs populations. Though disasters will continue to happen, Cutter argues that we can lessen their impacts by reducing social vulnerability and increasing resilience.
From Our Archives
In this archive piece from the Council’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina,” Virginia R. Dominguez interrogates the portrayal of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans as “Third World.” Why are our conceptions of “America” equated with middle-class status and industrial prosperity, and why are we surprised when those notions are disrupted by images of poverty and non-whiteness? Dominguez argues that we need to learn to see things in new ways, as well as to question our own complicity in continuing patterns of inequality.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Neil Smith’s contribution to the SSRC’s 2006 series on “Understanding Katrina” is hauntingly relevant, particularly in conjunction with the ongoing “Just Environments” series. Arguing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, Smith instead suggests that every aspect of a disaster―from causes to vulnerability to results to reconstruction―is the product of a social calculus and human decision-making. Rather than flattening social differences, disasters exacerbate them―leading Smith to call for a radical, bottom-up approach to reconstruction.
In this archive piece, John F. Richards and David C. Major describe a project, a core component of the Council’s Global Environmental Change Program, to study the role of landed property rights in global environmental change. Grappling with theoretical issues related to location, scale, bundles of rights, and communities, the project sought to understand the relationship between culture, nature, and place. Moreover, it was structured around an interactive research process, one that fostered interdisciplinarity and a coherent dialogue among its participants.
In this archive piece Harold Jacobson and Edith Brown Weiss explain how the Council’s Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change led the way in researching how countries implement and comply with international environmental agreements. Jacobson and Brown Weiss lay out how the group defined implementation and compliance and ask multiple questions that are relevant today in terms of more comprehensive climate change accords. Though the project focused on what countries do when they are signatories to an accord, not what happens when they pull out—as the Trump administration did with the Paris Agreement—understanding state behavior on this topic, and how social scientists wrestled with it over 20 years ago, remains valuable.
Continuing our archival posts on the work of The Council's Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change, here Richard Rockwell provides a detailed account of the various ways in which the social sciences can contribute to a wide array of research puzzles at the intersection of human and social activity with the environment. Rockwell also argues that engaging with natural scientists on these questions will strengthen the social sciences more broadly.
Human Processes in Earth Transformation: A Proposed Council Program on the Social Sciences and Global Environmental Changeby Items Editors
In 1988, the Council embarked on an ambitious new initiative on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. In tandem with Items’s new series on “Just Environments,” we are publishing the first of a set of archival essays detailing the development and progress of this program. Anticipating a research agenda on what has come to be called the “anthropocene,” executive associate Richard Rockwell describes an initial planning conference at Brown University and presciently writes, “The time has surely come to incorporate social perspectives more adequately into research on humans as forces in nature.”
The Items archive contains a wide range of essays on the evolution of area studies in the United States. Here, Bryce Wood reports on a major 1953 conference at Princeton University that played a role the development of African studies, bringing together a wide range of actors soon to have major influence on the establishment of that interdisciplinary field. It was cosponsored by the National Research Council and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which now funds two of the SSRC’s most significant programs in Africa, albeit with a focus on social scientists in Africa—Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa and the African Peacebuilding Network.
Continuing our series of archival posts on the SSRC’s influential Committee on the Urban Underclass, Council staff associate Martha Gephart reports on efforts by the program to articulate a research agenda on what is now a major focal point in urban studies: neighborhood effects. Early committee discussions engaged not only on the effects of neighborhoods on the socioeconomic prospects of disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities, but also debates on how to define and delimit a “neighborhood” and on the broader social forces that both are channeled through local institutions and that change neighborhoods over time.
In the second in a series of essays from the Items archives on the SSRC’s Urban Underclass program, Robert Pearson provides an overview of key issues engaged by the program’s advisory committee. Focusing on the concentration and persistence of urban poverty in the United States, the group debated the impact of global economic changes, labor market transformations, the intended and unintended consequences of public policies, and the controversial place of “culture” in understanding the fragile social-economic status of many urban residents and communities.