Neighbors Helping Neighbors: An Examination of the Social Capital Mobilization Process for Community Resilience to Environmental Disasters

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  • of Applied Social Science online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/1936724412458483

    2012 6: 209Journal of Applied Social ScienceMary B. LaLone

    Process for Community Resilience to Environmental DisastersNeighbors Helping Neighbors: An Examination of the Social Capital Mobilization

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  • Journal of Applied Social Science6(2) 209 237

    The Author(s) 2012Reprints and permission: 10.1177/1936724412458483

    458483 JAX6210.1177/1936724412458483Journal of Applied Social ScienceLaLone2012

    1Radford University, Virginia, USA

    Corresponding Author:Mary B. LaLone, Department of Sociology and the Center for Social and Cultural Research, Radford University, Box 6948, East Main St., Radford, VA 24142, USAEmail:

    Neighbors Helping Neighbors: An Examination of the Social Capital Mobilization Process for Community Resilience to Environmental Disasters

    Mary B. LaLone1


    This article argues that planning for community resilience to environmental disasters needs to give greater consideration to the potentials for response and recovery contributions available through local-level, informal social capital networks, as well as from the more formal policy and planning channels. To demonstrate the potential for mobilizing social capital resources to aid disaster response and recovery, the article provides a microlevel examination of the social capital mobilization process that occurred after tornadoes unexpectedly struck a rural Appala-chian region in April 2011. It examines the mobilization process and types of labor and supply resources rapidly generated through community-level social networks in the first weeks of disaster response and recovery. The article situates this study in the context of social capital disaster literature, and considers its lessons and applications for disaster planning.


    environmental disasters, social capital, community-based research, community resilience, emergency disaster planning

    Local-level social capital resources and networks are a vital part of community resilience efforts for response and recovery to environmental disasters. Unfortunately, the potential roles and con-tributions of local-level social organizing are frequently overlooked, or devalued as insignificant, by planners and policymakers. This article argues for detailed study of community social capital mobilization processes, and especially for the application and incorporation of this research into environmental disaster planning programs. As an example of the power and potential of informal social capital mobilization for disaster relief, the article provides a microlevel examination of the rapid community-based process for mobilizing local resources that was pulled together day-by-day within the first weeks after tornadoes devastated sections of Pulaski County, Virginia, in April 2011. This study documents the process by which the region responded to rapidly mobilize a community-based effort for response and early recovery. I identify the methods, types of assis-tance, and social channels used for mobilizing social capital contributions, and also anticipate

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  • 210 Journal of Applied Social Science 6(2)

    limitations for longer term recovery, especially as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied federal assistance to Pulaski, leaving a rural region to handle recovery with dwindling state and social service funding sources.

    Community Resilience to Environmental Disasters and Social Capital ContributionsPublic and academic attention has been riveted on environmental disasters over the past decade as widespread media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and other devastating disasters across the world, has heightened public awareness and concern about the need for good disaster planning systems. Nigg and Mileti (2002) and Tierney (2007) trace the development of disaster research in environmental sociology, and the new directions in research and practice that have occurred as applied sociological research has intersected with the field of emergency disaster planning. Over the past decade, social science attention has especially focused around the topic of community resilience to environmental disasters, defining and developing the concept, and developing a mushrooming literature that explores the multifaceted dimensions of community resilience. The literature base is becoming too large to cite fully in this article, but noteworthy examples are com-ing out of Australia (e.g., Buckle, Marsh, and Smale 2001; Gow and Paton 2008; Paton and Johnston 2006), as well as the United States. From the United States, good examples include the publications of the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI; for example, Gunderson 2009; Plodinec 2009), the Natural Hazards Center (e.g., Natural Hazards Center 2001), and the National Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences (e.g., National Research Council 2006). And, of course, research and literature on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005 has added extensively to the study of the human dimen-sions of environmental disasters (e.g., Bates and Swan 2007; Brunsma, Overfelt, and Picou 2010; Daniels, Kettl, and Kunreuther 2006; Weil 20052011; see also Erikson and Peek 2010).

    Mayunga (2007) and Plodinec (2009) review definitions of the term resilience in ecological literature, and then apply that concept specifically to the context of community resilience in disaster situations. Mayunga (2007) defines community disaster resilience as the capacity or ability of a community to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and recover quickly from impacts of disasters (p. 2). Similarly, Plodinec (2009) in a CARRI report, defines community resilience as the capability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change (p. 7). Key aspects of resil-ience in both definitions are anticipation and preparation, as well as the ability to bounce back through response and recovery. My emphasis on anticipation and preparation for community environmental disasters will become clear when we move to the following sections of this arti-cle. Overall, the literature on community resilience to disasters is consistent in conceptualizing the issues and needs to be addressed as falling into three categories or stages: (a) vulnerability and disaster preparedness, to be addressed through predisaster planning and hazard mitigation efforts; (b) disaster response; and (c) disaster recovery (e.g., Gunderson 2009; Maguire and Cartwright 2008; Plodinec 2009; Tobin 1999). All three stages should be addressed in disaster planning whenever possible. Mitigation efforts are clearly advantageous when environmental hazards are known and advance action can be taken to mitigate their impacts, but unfortunately this is not always possible. In many real-life casessuch as in the region studiedenvironmental disasters may not be expected. In this situation, state emergency planning was in place for gen-eralized emergencies, but a tornado was not a weather event expected in the region. An interest-ing aspect of this study is that it allows us to view and analyze the formation of a social mobilization process that developed rapidly as a pure social reaction to an unexpected tornado

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    disaster, in large part as a grassroots-generated effort to help the region during the response and early recovery stages following the disaster.

    Recent literature on community resilience to disasters has increasingly incorporated a theme from the applied social sciences: that community disaster planning needs to take into account the potential for social capital contributions available through informal, local socio-economic networks, as well as the more formal policy and planning channels. Among the leading proponents of this perspective are Dynes (2002, 2005, 2006), followed by Murphy (2007; Murphy et al. 2005), Tierney (2006a), Mayunga (2007), and Ritchie and Gill (2011a, 2011b). In his seminal article on the inclusion of social capital in emergency management, Dynes (2006) emphasizes, While we calculate damage to physical and human capital, we usually ignore the social capital available within communities to deal with emergencies. Social capital is our most significant resource in responding to damage caused by natural and other hazards (p. 2). He points out that emergency disaster management has developed a com-mand-and-control approach, especially following the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. This approach links government agencies in an explicitly formalized top-down authority structure for communicating, handling, and efficiently controlling decisions and actions in a disaster situation (Dynes 2006). While quite efficient in channeling formalized emergency resources (like police, fire, hospital, and other first responders) to deal with disas-ter response, Dynes and the others cited above note that the weakness of a command-and-control approach is its assumption that civil society either breaks down or has insignificant contributions to make in disaster response and recovery. The result is the tendency to overlook or exclude social capital contributions from being factored into planning roles for disaster response and recovery. Further discussion of the types of social capital organization that can contribute to disaster recovery, as discussed by Dynes, Murphy, and others, will be integrated into later sections of this article.

    Social capital is a concept that sociologists and other social scientists know well. Social capital refers to the resources of support that are embedded within social networks, and that are cemented and reinforced through relationships of trust and social norms emphasizing reci-procity and mutual assistance. These resources can become available and mobilized when needed by actors through the various social networks in which they participate, including fam-ily, neighborhood, workplace, and other social networks. (This description derives from review of all the sources cited in this paragraph and the one above.) Many scholars have reviewed the development and debates of social capital theory (e.g., Field 2008; Flora 1998; Halpern 2005; Keefe 2009; Lin, Cook, and Burt 2001; Ritchie and Gill 2007, to name just a few). The inten-tion in this article is not to duplicate that effort here but, instead, to focus on applying the concept in two ways: (a) to discuss social capital as tailored to emergency disaster manage-ment contexts and (b) to provide an example that demonstrates how, when disaster struck a rural Appalachian region, social capital was mobilized using a mixture of long-standing social norms and networks along with twenty-first century modes of technology that extended, and perhaps speeded up, the mobilization process. So, as used in this article, social capital refers to the potential resources in goods, labor, and other forms of assistance, that are embedded in local-level social networks of family and neighbors, and other groups formed through place-based, work-based, and common interest-based bonds of interaction, trust, reciprocity, and support, that people can mobilize individually and collectively to use for community resilience in the face of disasters.

    The study that follows provides a microlevel analysis of disaster response in a rural Appalachian region of the United States. Halperin (1990), Beaver (1986), Keefe (2009), and LaLone (1995, 1996, 1997, 2008b) provide ample ethnographic research documenting the importance of social networks and patterns of generalized reciprocity in Appalachian commu-nities during the twentieth century. In Appalachia, family-based, church-based, place-based,

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    and employment-based social structures come into play as mutual support structures in times of risk, uncertainty, and hardship. In Southwest Virginia (the location of the tornadoes to be discussed), where coal mining and farming historically were the predominant occupations, research on mining families documents the underlying patterns of family and community reci-procity that were set in place as strong socioeconomic survival strategies to cope with the fluctuations and risks of employment in the mines from the 1930s to 1970s. When disasters or hard times struck, families in communities supported and helped one another as a regularized norm of behavior in Appalachian mining culture. That norm, and the socioeconomic pattern of generalized reciprocity, the exchange of goods and services without requiring an immediate return of value, is referred to in Appalachian Virginia as helping each other out (LaLone 1995, 1996, 1997, 2008b). Miners like Louis Henegar explained how these social patterns would be called into play whenever needed to provide community aid in times of disasters and other hardships:

    If you were destitute to the point that maybe you didnt have food in the house or some-thing like that, then I would be there to see that you had it. And the rest of the neighbors would be there to see that you had it . . . If you were sick, then everyone would come and offer assistance. If your husband had gotten hurt [in a mining disaster] and no income and no food, the neighbors would see that you didnt go hungry . . ....


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