Syllabus Draft
Anthropology 74A Spring 2015
Catastrophes across Cultures: The Anthropology of Disaster
Instructor: Ryo Morimoto
[email protected]
Office and Office Hour (TBA):
Brown 220, M, 4:00 to 5:00pm and by appointment
Class Time and Location:
T, Th 5:00-6:20pm, Schwartz Hall 103
What is the relationship between disaster and human beings, and how has disaster influenced the
way we live in the world now? This course investigates various types of catastrophes (i.e., earthquakes,
tsunamis, hurricanes, oil and chemical spills, wars, nuclear disasters, etc.) around the world (Chernobyl,
England, India, Haiti, Japan, Lisbon, New Zealand, U.S., etc.) by mobilizing a variety of theoretical
frameworks and case studies in the social sciences. The course uses an anthropological perspective as its
principal lens to comparatively observe often forgotten historical disasters throughout the world. The
course is designed to explore the intersection between disaster and culture and how disaster can be a
window through which to critically analyze society and vice versa.
The course is also designed for students to participate actively in anticipating unforeseen risks in
our everyday life by examining topics such as: a disaster’s various impacts on people; ways through
which people have lived with and represented disasters; the politics of memory surrounding a disaster
commemoration; the role of technology in both alleviating and manufacturing disaster; and the definition
of disaster. In the context of this course, the key factor in examining these questions is the idea of
“between-disaster,” which considers that every society at any given point in time is at risk. Thus, we will
be thinking about the ways disasters can be anticipated and imagined by learning from the experiences of
The course is divided into two sections. First we will look at some existing perspectives in
various disciplines (anthropology, geography, geology, history, literature, media studies, philosophy,
political science, sociology) and review important concepts in the field of disaster studies. Through these
key texts, we will develop a theoretical foundation to investigate the nature of disaster in general, what it
could mean to human beings, and how disaster could serve as an opportunity to critically understand and
engage with society and/or build a community by engendering new connections and interactions. In the
second part of the course, we will examine the culture of disaster through case studies on different types
of disasters that have occurred in various societies. Readings will raise questions not only on the
importance of understanding historical disasters and struggles to make meaning(s) out of a disaster, but
also on the hidden risks in society as well as the politics of marking a disaster, the challenge of
transgenerational communication, the enigma of science and technology, and the intersection between
disaster, risk and culture.
Students will familiarize themselves with disasters around the world and develop diverse
theoretical frameworks and analytical toolkits with which to critically investigate these disasters.
Syllabus Draft
Students will exercise interdisciplinary thinking and transdisciplinary methods to engage with
social, political, and cultural issues.
Students will practice evaluating complex matrices of risks in society as well as anticipating and
examining disaster-related risks in their everyday life.
Student will challenge their assumptions about risk assessment and analyze objectively to what
extent associated concepts of “safety” and “security” are socially constructed and culturally
REQUIRED TEXTS (available at the bookstore and reserved desk at the library)
Blanchot, Maurice
1995 The Writing of the Disaster, Ann Smock (trans.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Kieffer. W, Susan
2013 The Dynamics of Disaster. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Oliver-Smith Anthony, and Susanna M. Hoffman
2002 Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. Santa Fe: School of American
Research Press.
Recommended text:
Ulrich, Beck
1992 Risk Society: Towards a New modernity. London: Sage Publications.
All the readings from the required textbooks are marked with asterisk. The other readings will be
available on LATTE.
1. Class participation @ 20%
You are expected to (1) attend each class and arrive on time; (2) have completed the assigned readings
in a timely manner (by the date listed in the syllabus); (3) make thoughtful contribution to class
discussions (those who have hard times speaking up in class may use LATTE to pre-post their ideas for
class discussions); and (4) show the best effort to maintain your focus in class (if the class seems boring,
it is up to you to enliven it!). You are allowed up to 2 excused absences during the semester. Any
unexcused absence will automatically result in the lowering of your participation grade. It is your own
responsibility to catch up with any missed class by contacting your classmate for notes etc., as chronic
absence will influence your overall performance in the course.
2. LATTE Postings: Writings of Disasters @ 15%
Syllabus Draft
Throughout the semester, you will write about disasters on LATTE. You can either write about a disaster
that has happened somewhere in the world you have read about, other such disaster-related news
(research, disaster-related events, debates, etc.), or the ones covered in class (so long as you do more than
reiterate the points discussed in class). As an alternative, you may select one of Maurice Blanchot’s
reflections (from *The Writing of the Disaster) as a prompt for writing your own reflection on disasters.
You are encouraged to use this text to critically analyze the other course readings. You are also
encouraged to use your fellow student’s entries as a prompt for your own writing, but it is expected that
you treat your classmates with respect. Quality work shows a thoughtful reflection on the chosen topic
and a compelling effort to connect it to the assigned readings, class discussions, and/or personal story by a
way of bolstering the key points and/or critiquing them. Throughout the semester, you will need to write
at least 10 entries on different disasters, related events and/or Blanchot’s entries. Each entry should be at
least a paragraph long to be counted as a gradable entry.
There is a possibility that your idea, concern, or point raised in a LATTE posting will become one of the
midterm exam questions (see below). In this event, the contributor will be rewarded with an extra point
added to his/her midterm grade. An entry that adheres to and articulates an interdisciplinary and crosscultural thinking has some chance to be selected.
3. Midterm Exam (4-6 pages) @ 15%
A take-home exam requires you to address a total of 3 questions (2 questions from 6 exam questions, and
1 mandatory question with which you will start constructing ideas for your final research essay). The
questions will be tied to course readings (from Section I), class discussions, LATTE postings, and current
disaster-related news. The exam questions will be handed in class and then posted on LATTE. It is due
one week from when the questions are handed out in class. The quality of your answers is evaluated based
on your ability to creatively (1) not only engage with different perspectives but also try to integrate them;
(2) challenge and question existing ideas and mind-sets; (3) provide a clear and original argument. If
content from a student’s LATTE posting is used to develop a midterm exam question, that student will be
awarded an extra point to their midterm grade.
4. Group Project (Hazard Map) and Presentation @ 25%
This experimental ethnographic project tasks students with investigating potential risks on campus and
evaluating risk awareness among the campus community. The class will be broken up into three groups.
Groups will be determined at the end of the shopping period. Each group will select an area of the
Brandeis campus and assess risks associated with that area by interviewing student residents, staff, and
professors and by conducting any other necessary research. Each group is expected to come up with a
disaster situation as well as a disaster mitigation plan by asking, for example, if there is a hurricane in
Waltham, how can Brandeis function as a temporary shelter? Which building can be used for this end and
what if it is winter and there is no electricity? Are people aware of where to evacuate? Who is in charge in
the event of an emergency and what are their expectations about a disaster? How much food and water is
stored? Based on this data, groups are to construct a hazard map, make a risk assessment and suggest a
hazard protocol (must be presented using PowerPoint). Presentations will be given at the end of the
semester and should be 20 minutes long. Every member in a group is expected to speak during the
5. Final research essay (6-8 pages) @ 25%
For the final research paper, you will theoretically investigate an aspect(s) of one disaster of your choice
in depth. You may choose which disaster to work on by referring to the course materials and/or a disaster
that is not covered by the course. This is your chance to integrate all your coursework and demonstrate
your position vis-à-vis disaster. This paper should be written for a layperson audience: you are required to
explain as well as describe your argument in such a manner that can it be read and understood by a non-
Syllabus Draft
academic audience. This means you will avoid using theoretical jargons in describing concepts and ideas
you learn in the course.
6. Extra Credit:
You may bolster your participation grade by visiting disaster-related sites, including but not limited to the
MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Tours (students interested in this need to inform the instructor by the
mid-semester for tour arrangement), the National 9/11 Memorial Museum, The New England Holocaust
Memorial, the Molasses Flood Plaque, and so on, and write a one-page reflection that explicitly engages
with at least two relevant readings from the course.
PAPERS: All written assignment (except LATTE posting) must:
Use 12-point Times New Roman font;
Be Double-spaced, with 1 inch margins;
Include your last name and page number in the header/footer of each page;
Be stapled together (the instructor is not responsible for loosing a page);
Cite all sources consistently with an academic format of your choice (e.g., MLA,
Chicago, APA, AAA).
Papers failing to meet these criteria will be handed back to you without comments/ungraded. Please
turn in a hard copy of all assignments in addition to posting them through LATTE.
LATE WORK: Assignments for each paper will be handed out well in advance of their due date and on
LATTE (see the course schedule). Papers are due at the beginning of the class and will be marked
down a grade for each day they are late (i.e., a B+ paper turned in a day late will receive a B).
THE WRITING CENTER: The University Writing Center provides 45-minute one-on-one sessions to
help with your essays. It is located on the first floor of Goldfarb Library (room 107). You are encouraged
to take advantage of this service. Please find more information and sign-up for a tutorial online
ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: You are expected to be familiar with and follow the University’s policies
on academic integrity (see Any suspected
instances of academic dishonesty will be referred to the Office of Student Development and Conduct and
may result in sanctions including but not limited to failure on the assignment in question, failure in the
course, suspension from the University and/or educational programs. Therefore, it is essential that all your
work for this course is original and that when you use outside sources you cite them properly. Please do
not hesitate to ask me if you have any questions.
ACCOMMODATIONS: If you are a student with a documented disability on record at Brandeis
University and wish to have reasonable accommodation made for you in class, please see me
immediately. Further information is available at the Disabilities Services and Support website
*The use of laptops and other electronic devices (including phones) is not allowed in class except
with special permission of the instructor.
*this reading list is tentative and may be subject to change in the course of the semester in order to better
reflect the students’ interests.
Syllabus Draft
Section I: Theories, Interpretations and Representations of Disaster
Week I: Theoretical Frameworks Part I
What is a disaster? Is there a purely “natural” disaster? Can a catastrophic event like war, terrorism,
and/or massacre be classified under the category of “disaster”? Is there one correct way to study a
disaster? What is it about studying a disaster that makes it particularly challenging and/or beneficial to a
Tuesday, January 13th
Thursday, January 15th
* In Oliver-Smith and Hoffman: Introduction, pp 3-22.
Lindell, K. Michael
2013 Disaster Studies. Current Sociology, 61(5-6): 797-825.
Week II: Theoretical Framework Part II
Tuesday, January 20th
Hannigan, John
2012 Disaster Politics Nexus. In Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of
Natural Disasters, pp. 6-17. Cambridge: Polity Press.
*Kiefer Ch. 1
Pelling, Mark
2003 Paradigms of Risk. In Mark Pelling, Natural Disasters and Development in a Globalizing
World, pp. 3-16. London & New York: Routledge.
Thursday, January 22nd
Erikson, Kai
1994 Epilogue: On Trauma. In A New Species of Trouble: The Human
Experience of Modern Disasters, pp. 226-242. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Oliver-Smith Anthony
1999 “What is a Disaster?”: Anthropological Perspectives on a Persistent Question. In OliverSmith Anthony., and Susanna M. Hoffman, The Angry Earth, pp. 18-34. NY: Routledge
Slater David
2013 Urgent Ethnography. In Tom Gill., Brigitte Steger., and David Slater (eds.), Japan Copes
with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011,
pp.25-50. Bern: Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers.
Week III: Interpretations of Disaster
Syllabus Draft
What causes a disaster? How is a disaster experienced? Whose perspective is to be taken? What
similarities and differences are there among the different frameworks above in terms of a habit of
interpretation? Does the way in which someone perceives a disaster influence how it is experienced?
*Last Day to Add Classes
Tuesday, January 27th
BBC News
Why does God allow natural disasters?
Dyson, E. Mark
2006 Supernatural Disasters? Theodicy and Prophetic Faith. In Come Hell or High Water:
Hurricane Katrina and The Color of Disaster, pp. 178-201. New York: Basic Civitas.
2000 The Lisbon Earthquake: Rousseau versus Voltaire. In David Wooton (trans), Voltaire
Candide and Related Texts, pp. 95-122. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.
Thursday, January 29th
Alexander, David
2005 An Interpretation of Disaster in Terms of Changes in Culture, Society and
International Relations. In Roland, W. Perry., and E. L. Quarantelli (eds.). What is a Disaster?
New Answers to Old Questions, pp. 25-38. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation.
Button, Gregory
2010 The Production of Uncertainty. In Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the
Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe, pp. 177-192. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Wenger, Dennis., James, D. Skyes., Thomas D. Sebok., and Joan, L. Neff
1975 It’s a Matter of Myths: An Empirical Examination of Individual Insight into Disaster
Response. Mass Emergencies 1: 33-46.
Week IV: Representations of Disaster I – Media and Disaster
How is disaster perceived and represented? Is there any patterned and general way people behave when
a disaster strikes? What are the roles of the media in influencing people’s interpretations of and behavior
regarding a disaster?
Tuesday, February 3rd
McNeill, David
2013 Them versus Us: Japanese and International Reporting of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis.
In Tom Gill., Brigitte Steger., and David Slater (eds.), Japan Copes with Calamity:
Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011, pp. 127-150.
Bern: Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers.
*In Oliver-Smith and Susanne Hoffman Ch. 7, pp 143-158.
Tierney, Kathleen., Christine, Bevc., and Erica, Kuligowski
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2006 Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane
Katrina. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81.
Thursday, February 5th
Quarantelli, L. Enrico
1985 Realities and Mythologies in Disaster Films. Communications: The European Journal of
Communication 11: 31-44.
Sontag, Susan
1965 Imagination of Disaster. Commentary 65: 42-48.
Weisenfeld, Gennifer
2012 The Media Scale of Catastrophe. In Imagining Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of
Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923, pp. 35-82. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Week V: Representations of Disaster II – Disaster Monographs
What are some ways people talk about a disaster? What does it mean when people who have or have not
experienced the disaster write about it? Is there any single reality of a particular disaster?
Tuesday, February 10th
Farmer, Paul
2011 Writing about Suffering Ch.1 and The Catastrophe Ch. 2. In Haiti After the Earthquake,
pp. 1-5 and 6-21. NY: PublicAffairs.
Solnit, Rebecca
2009 A Millennial Good Fellowship: The San Francisco Earthquake. In A Paradise Built in
Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, pp. 13-72. New York: The Viking
Week VI: Representations of Disaster III – Disaster Memorials and Politics of Memory
How are past disasters marked? Who decides what is to be remembered or to be forgotten of a disaster?
What are processes through which the past is legitimized? What is the relationship between past, present
and future?
Thursday, February 12th
Appadurai, Arjun
1981 The Past as a Scarce Resource. Man 16:201-219.
Edkin, Jenny
2003 Disciplined memories and the Cenotaph. In Trauma and the Memory of Politics, pp. 5166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lambek, Michael
1996 The Past Imperfect: Remembering as Moral Practice. In Paul Antze, and Michael
Lambek, (eds.). Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, pp. 235-254. New York:
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Millar, Paul
Unpublished Why Archive a Catastrophe?: The Importance of Preserving and Making Freely
Available the Digital Record of a Natural Disaster.
→Midterm exam questions handed out at the end of class and on LATTE after class
**Midterm Recess from February 16th to 20th
Tuesday, February 24th
Gardner, B. James
2011 September 11: Museums, Spontaneous Memorials, and History. In Peter, Jan. Margry and
Cristina, Sánchez-Carretero (eds.). Grassroots Memorials: The Politics of Memorializing
Traumatic Death. New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 285-303.
Greenspan, L. Elizabeth
2013 Anti-Monumentalism. In Battle For Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to
Rebuild The World Trade Center, pp. XX. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hastrup, Frida
2010 Materializations of Disaster: Recovering Lost Plots in a Tsunami-Affected Village in
South India. In Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Sorensen (eds.), pp. 99-112. NY:
Week VII: Intermission
Thursday, February 26th
Q&A sessions for Midterm and in class film: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal 2008. Trouble The Water.
Tuesday, March 3rd
Finishing up the film and briefing for the second section and group project.
→Midterm due in class
Section II: Days Before and Days After Disasters
Week VIII: Mapping Disasters
How do people imagine a disaster? How are maps made and how does the public receive them? Is a map
neutral tool or representation? What are some issues and potential challenges that this particular method
of representation has in communicating information about a disaster? If we were to make a hazard map
of the campus, how would it be made?
Thursday, March 5th
Burby, J. Raymond, Robert E. Feyle, David R. Godstalk., and Robert B. Olshansky
2000 Creating Hazard Resilient Communities Through Land-Use Planning. Natural Hazard
Review, May: 99-106.
Syllabus Draft
Kurgan, Laura
2013 Ch. 1. Mapping Considered as a Problem of Theory and Practice and Ch 5. New York,
September 11, 2001. In Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics, pp 9-18 and
pp. 129-138. New York: Zone Books.
**Tuesday, March 10th, Thursday, March 12th, Tuesday March 17th Fieldwork week (Do readings)
Dymon, J. Ute
2003 An Analysis of Emergency Map Symbology. International Journal of Emergency
Management, 1(3): 227-237.
Wood, Dennis with John Fels and John Krygier
2010 Making Signs Talk to Each Other. In Rethinking the Power of Maps, pp. 86-110. New
York: The Guilford Press.
Week IX: Angry Earth? - Natural Disasters (Case Studies)
What are the different types of disaster and how are they studied? What are some similarities and
differences between natural and environmental disasters? Is there one-size-fits-all framework for
studying a disaster? Is it possible to come up with an overarching framework to study disaster?
Tuesday, March 17th
TBD Guest Lecture
*Kieffer Ch. 3, pp. 39-63.
Thursday, March 19th Resume Class
Hastrup, Frida
2011 Ch. 3 and Ch. 6. In Weathering the World: Recovery in the Wake of the Tsunami in a
Tamil Fishing Village, pp. XX. New York: Berghahn Books.
*Kieffer Ch. 6, pp. 127-158.
Week X: Spilling Out Fumes and Spelling Out Blames- Environmental and Industrial Disasters
(Case Studies)
Tuesday, March 24th
George, S. Timothy
2001 Ch. 5 Since 1973 and Conclusion. In Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for
Democracy in Postwar Japan, pp. XX. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
*Oliver-Smith and Susanne Hoffman Ch. 11, pp. 237-260.
Thursday, March 26th
Button, Gregory
2010 Uncertainty and Social Conflict over Animal Rescue. In Disaster Culture: Knowledge
and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe, pp. 45-70. Walnut
Creek: Left Coast Press.
Syllabus Draft
*Oliver-Smith and Susanne Hoffman Ch. 8, pp. 159-187.
Week XI: A New Species of Trouble - Technological Disasters and Anticipatory Risks (Case
Studies) What are challenges in anticipating risk? What role does politics play in making risks visible or
invisible? Is a disaster a sudden change or is it a sudden awareness of old problems? What responsibility
do people in the present have toward future generations regarding disaster, and how are we to go about
communicating risks to the future?
Tuesday, March 31st
Erikson, Kai
1994 Three Mile Island: A New Species of Trouble. In A New Species of Trouble: The Human
Experience of Modern Disasters, pp. 139-157. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Petryna, Andrea
2013 Ch. 1. Life Politics after Chernobyl and Ch. 2 Technological Error: Measures of Life and
Risk. In Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, pp. 1-32 and 34-59. New Jersey:
Princeton University Press.
Zeigler, J. Donald., Stanley, D. Brunn., and James H. Johnson, Jr.
1981 Evacuation from a Nuclear Technological Disaster. Geographical Review 71(1): 1-16.
Thursday, April 2nd
*Kieffer Ch.10 Risk in The Modern World, pp. 260-263.
Masco, Joseph
2012 Econationalism: First Nations in the Plutonium Economy. In The Nuclear Borderlands:
The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, pp. 99-159. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
Sebeok, A. Thomas
1985 Pandora’s Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 years into the Future? In Marshall
Blonsky (ed.), On Signs, pp. 448-466. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
In Class Film: Peter Galison and Rob Moss 2014. Containment.
**April 3rd to April 10th Spring Recess No Class
Week XII: Compound Disaster
Why is culture important in studying disaster? When is a disaster over?
Tuesday, April 14th
Gusterson, Hugh
2011 Social Containment of Disaster. Anthropology News 52(5): 4.
Tom Gill., Brigitte Steger., and David Slater
2013 The 3.11 Disasters. In Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake,
Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011, pp.3-24. Bern: Peter Lang AG, International
Syllabus Draft
Academic Publishers.
Thursday, April 16th
Kuchinskaya, Olga
2014 Twice Invisible. In The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health
Effects after Chernobyl, pp. 95-113. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
*Ryo Morimoto Presentation on His Ethnographic Research in Japan on 3.11.
Week XIII: Hazard Map Fieldwork Day
Tuesday, April 16th to Thursday April 21st
Week XIV: Group Presentations
Tuesday, April 23rd and April 25th
**No Class on April 28th
Week XV: Wrapping Up
Thursday, April 30th (Optional)
Q and A for the Final Exam
*Final Paper Due on May 5th