Reviews of Works by Brenda D. Phillips

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Brenda D. Phillips is a senior researcher with the center for the study of disasters and extreme events at Oklahoma State University and she is also a professor in the Fire and Emergency Management at the same. She completed her Bachelors from Bluffton University on Sociology, History, minors Spanish, Social Work in 1980. Then she went on to do her masters in Sociology from The Ohio State University in 1982 and her Ph.D. in sociology from the same in 1985. She is the winner of various international awards like the Mary Fran Myers Award in 2010 from the gender and disaster network and the Blanchard Award for “academic excellence in emergency management education” which she received in 2012. She had been a guest lecturer, consultant and teacher in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, India, Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico and the People’s Republic of China. She was a key force in developing emergency management programs in Mexico, Canada and New Zealand. Currently she is serving as graduate Student Coordinator for the Fire and Emergency Management Program at the Oklahoma State University. Her work on vulnerable populations has been funded multiple times by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey and others. Her work has been published in numerous scholarly journals, refereed proceedings and books and has been posted on the FEMA Higher Education web site. She is the author of “Disaster Recovery” (May 2009), the lead editor of “Social Vulnerability to Disaster” (August 2009) and co-editor of “Women and Disasters” (2008) and many other books and articles. (

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Book Review

Understanding Social Vulnerability – Fordham, M., Lovekamp, W. E., Thomas, D. S., & Phillips, B. D. (2013). Understanding social vulnerability. Social vulnerability to disasters, 2, 1-29. Boca Raton, CRC Press. The well versed first chapter of the book Social Vulnerability to Disasters which is co-authored by Maureen Fordham, William E. Lovekamp, Deborah S. K. Thomas, and Brenda D. Phillips sheds a very strong light on what social vulnerability is and how it emerged. This chapter focuses on social vulnerability paradigm along with its distinct differences from the dominant paradigm. The social vulnerability paradigm has been given more importance in disaster management. The Dominant paradigm, which considers nature as the primary agent of a disaster, is criticized. We also at a comparative study among both the paradigms. The chapters bring in the emergence, development and frameworks of the social vulnerability paradigm and we are also introduced to the resilience perspective.

The chapter begins with an introduction which asks us to look at several aspects of the losses incurred by a population after a certain disaster. This introduction looks at the questions which arose after various disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Question like “Why were people in harm’s way? Why did some subpopulations experience greater effects of the disaster? What could have been done to prevent such loss of life? How could the tragedy have been prevented from happening? A few important questions are put in front of us regarding the people affected and their present conditions, including questions about their return to normal lives, return to their homes, psychological recovery, etc. The point which comes out is that despite social vulnerability being a much talked about subject, not much is being done to about it before a major event of destruction takes place. Then the authors provide a list of certain factors which represents social vulnerability, which are income disparity, class, race or ethnicity, gender, age, disability, health, literacy and families and households. Each factor has been defined as an influence on social vulnerability and is elaborated; some even with relevant examples of instances.

The theme is based on integrating the range of historically vulnerable to bring new ideas about risk reduction. Then the chapter moves on to define social vulnerability, in a systematic procession, it starts by defining vulnerability as physical vulnerability as an example of the various conceptualizations of the word. But it also states that disaster managers take both the physical and social approaches into account. We are further introduced to two paradigms to look at hazards; the dominant paradigm and the social vulnerability paradigm. We start by examining the dominant paradigm and how it understands nature, chance and time, science and technology, people and society. The dominant paradigm, as mentioned early, sees nature as the primary cause of a disaster to occur. It blames all the losses and impacts of a disaster on nature and says there is little that can be done to change the situation. The authors put forth a concept of disaster as break in the normal flow of time as an interpretation of how the dominant paradigm looks at time. Disasters are viewed as external events and are not something related to natural relations of society is mentioned.

The section ends with the authors saying that time ceases when a disaster occurs and since we view disasters as something external, time starts when all the effects of the disaster are neutralized in some sort. With this we move on to the way the dominant paradigm perceives science and technology, the line which sums up the view in a nutshell says science and technology are considered to be the only tools in mitigating a disaster. It takes several examples of seismic monitoring devices, wave detection systems, etc. applied after disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004). The engineering solution prescribed by the dominant paradigm is focused on in the chapter. Engineering solutions for natural, technological and conflict based disasters is the preferred solution by the dominant paradigm even to disasters which are not natural.

The authors criticize the dominant paradigm for this and says that there have been severe harsh consequences for following this solutions and still environmentally oriented proposed solutions are deemed too expensive in cases. It is then stated that these engineering and scientific solutions receive much more funding. Even now that people are coming with solutions like river restoration, re-naturalization projects, dam decommissioning, etc. as efforts of change is being questioned in the chapter as whether these are truly changes from the dominant paradigm or are greener techniques of engineering. We move on from this to how the dominant paradigm looks or understands people. This section says that human beings lack good decision making power in disasters according to this paradigm. It puts forth a term ‘bounded rationality’ which means that people lack sufficient information to make well-informed decisions regarding their risks. The chapter often intertwines the both paradigms together in a more comparable way. In this context it supports social vulnerability paradigm as it incorporates political, economic and social contextual barriers beyond individual knowledge.

The understanding of dominant paradigm further leads to its narrow outlook on society and It is very evident, according to the authors, that disaster according to the dominant paradigm is not a result of political, social or economic systems or the interactions of the same, only nature is at fault. Thus this paradigm subsequently reduces the capacity for response. The dominant paradigm only understands solutions with a change in social systems using science, technology and engineering solutions. This ends the understanding of the dominant paradigm. The chapter then takes us to the shortcomings of this paradigm. We were introduced to a number of shortcomings previously in this chapter, this part puts all of them together along with several other viewpoints on the shortcomings.

Firstly, it is mentioned that this paradigm doesn’t consider all the causal factors of a disaster, secondly, this paradigm focus on the physical aspects and is too involved in it ignoring the social aspects. The authors elaborates on the second shortcoming by claiming that disasters occur due to the lack of measures by the society to lessen the impact, measures including effective institutions, values, cultures, etc. as social structures. Here again we are presented with the vulnerability idea saying that vulnerability comes forth due to failures of social systems. We move on to the third criticism where the dominant paradigm is accused of ignoring the various consequences of a disaster apart from only death, injuries and property loss. The fourth criticism is that this paradigm looks more at preparedness and response rather than mitigation and adaptation. The fifth criticism that comes on is that the use of dominant paradigm advocates the ineffectiveness and failure to take advantage of all the solutions and measure to address risk. This paradigm looks only for after disaster management and not the other aspects like engaging possible partners to create risk free safer conditions.

Various aspects regarding poor people, women, etc. are taken into account in this segment. Before moving on to the social vulnerability paradigm, the shortcomings are summarized by saying that that the paradigm has a limited comprehension of causes and solutions in disaster and it fails in identifying the capabilities of the populations in disaster management. The next section focuses on the social vulnerability paradigm, the central character of the chapter and the book. It begins by stating that disasters have the roots of social vulnerability from long way back in history. The Chile and Haiti earthquakes are compared to inculcate the idea of social vulnerability in a disaster, where the Haiti earthquake being of far lesser magnitude than the Chile had a far higher death ratio of 35000:1 due to historical colonialism, ineffective government, higher poverty rates and weak infrastructure as mentioned by the authors. To illustrate further of how social vulnerability increases disaster risk, the authors put up interesting examples of Hurricane Fifi (1974) where displaced farmers were affected and the Hurricane Katrina (2005) where almost three quarters of the people who died were above the age of 65 (Sharkey, 2007).

Also, the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) where 80% deaths were of women and children (MacDonald, 2005) and Great East Japan earthquake (2011) where 56% deaths were of ages 65 and older (Ryall, 2012) are taken into account. We get a clear idea about how social vulnerability acts as the prime agent of death and loss in a disaster. The chapter is provided with a table comparing the impacts of Haiti and Chile earthquakes which makes the point of social vulnerability even clearer. In this table various aspects including the dimensions of the earthquake, GDP of the countries, deaths, damage, emergency management response and capabilities, post-impact social issues, etc. are taken into account.

The authors argue that poverty and disability makes us lose our capabilities to mitigate a disaster and prepare for it. Even illiteracy does the same, but society often ignores these cases. Social vulnerability increases directly with the increase in social inequality. The chapter further states that vulnerability which is deep-rooted in social relations is located in the center of human-environment intersection and the solutions to the risk therefore has to be social. We now move away in exactly the opposite direction from the dominant paradigm, as it is stated here that risk is socially produced and is not inherent to the hazard. Several instances are given in the overall chapter which takes about issues like poverty, disabilities, etc. in an attempt to show these leads to inequality. A poor child will have difficulty in climbing to a higher economic status, just like disabled people experiences lower income unlike able-bodied people. This is beyond the control of the individuals when they are exposed to the event. This prevents them from developing a good asset base. It is then suggested that by addressing vulnerability we can design solutions to lessen the consequences of a disaster. Another angle is taken into account saying the power relations segregates the economy, society and politics which brings inequality and marginalizes groups increasing risk, therefore the solution should be political as well as social. This section ends with an example of social vulnerability in the 9/11 terror attacks (2001).

The chapter then takes us on a journey from the early 1900’s to the present day to show us how social vulnerability emerged as a paradigm. Disaster management started as “civil defense” in the mid 1900’s to warn citizens about bomb raids, prepare drills, bomb shelters, etc. fearing nuclear attacks. This civil defense operated with a particular mindset predicting that people would follow chaos and anti-social behavior during disasters but this prediction was later proven wrong by the Disaster Research Center. The limitations of the dominant paradigm prompted the social vulnerability paradigm to be taken in research and practice. Several social and political movements raised questions about social vulnerability thus fueling the process. In 1960s and 70s there was an expressed concern over political, economic rights, health, education, etc. and various movements like the Latino rights movement, grassroots environmental movements, Gay rights efforts, and many else (Gutierrez, 2006). These organized movements advocated for inclusion and change and thus laid a foundation to criticize the dominant paradigm.

After this the authors state that disaster research started to relate race, class, age and gender discriminations and differentiations in various effects of disaster. In this period, several technological mitigation strategies failed in disasters like Hurricane Huge (1989), Hurricane Andrew (1992), etc. which further stated that technological means were insufficient. The authors state that during this time the FEMA, American Red Cross and various organizations faced criticism for not considering diversity in disasters. In the 1990s a major study involving over 100 scientists suggested the adoption of social vulnerability paradigm and in 1994 UN suggested that local knowledge of common people should be taken into account to study social vulnerability.

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