Scientific Competition and Political Action in a Transnational World

By Lydie Cabane, Sandrine Revet

This paper analyzes how competing networks of disaster studies emerged in different national settings, disciplinary contexts, and historical periods. It combines two different but interconnected qualitative and historical pieces of research on the transnationalization of disasters at various scales and places. It shows how seismology and American-centered disaster studies first shaped international understandings of disasters during the Cold War era, with hazard-oriented research projects focused on natural disasters. In the late 1970s, development studies and geography contested the former approaches. This criticism flourished in Latin America in the 1980s, where social scientists promoted notions of root causes and vulnerability. From the 1990s onwards, the social sciences increasingly shaped international disaster policies, rendering disasters less “natural” and more “social.” This, in turn, contributed to the development of disaster studies in other parts of the world, such as South Africa. This connected history of disaster studies reveals how disasters were interpreted differently by various disciplines. Furthermore, the comparison between regions enables changes to these configurations according to global political and scientific contexts. Taking into account different scales and places sheds light on the competition between sciences entangled in a conflict over the power to define disasters at different moments (the Cold War, developmentalism, and climate change).

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