Study to explore how natural disasters transform cultures

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In the future, climate scientists predict, not only will global warming accelerate, but there will be greater impacts from extreme events like droughts and floods — which in turn could lead to serious social consequences, such famine, displacement, and increased violence.

The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University is launching a study to determine how cultures may have adapted to unpredictable natural hazards in the past; the work is supported by a four-year interdisciplinary behavioral science research grant from the National Science Foundation.

Founded in 1949 as a financially independent research agency of Yale University, HRAF is a not-for-profit membership consortium of universities, colleges, and research institutions that aims to encourage and facilitate the cross-cultural study of human culture, society and behavior in the past and present.

The research team will address broad questions such as: How often do events have to occur for humans to plan for them? Do unpredictable hazards lead to different cultural transformations than do more predictable hazards? Under what conditions are contingency plans overwhelmed in the face of natural hazards that are more severe or more frequent than normal? 

Answers to these questions, the researchers say, may give insights into humans’ future engagement with climate change.

 “A major premise of the research is that climate-related disasters are not new and therefore it is imperative to understand how human societies in the past adapted to unpredictable environments,” explains Carol Ember, HRAF’s president and the principal investigator. “We expect to find that societies living in more unpredictable environments will have arrived at some common solutions, such as wider social networks, more diversification, and more cooperation, as compared with societies living in more predictable environments.”

She adds, “With our interdisciplinary team, we will be comparing ethnographically described societies, archaeological traditions going back 15,000 years to the recent past, and contemporary countries. We are looking at many different cultural domains, so for much of our research we will use eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology (two online databases developed by HRAF)to speed up finding the information we need.” 

The research team also includes cultural anthropologists Teferi Abate Adem and Ian Skoggard at HRAF, and Eric C. Jones at the University of Texas-Houston;  a cross-cultural psychologist, Michele Gelfand, from the University of Maryland;  an archaeologist, Peter N. Peregrine, from Lawrence University , and a climatologist, Benjamin Felzer, from Lehigh University.

Photo via Shutterstock

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