Vulnerable or Resilient? Vulnerable and Resilient! A Study of Two Disasters

  Date: Thursday, April 11, 2019
By Shinya Uekusa and Steve Matthewman, Massey University and University of Auckland, New Zealand

The general consensus amongst those who study disasters is that vulnerable people lack resilience. To see whether this is true, we conducted a study with linguistic minorities affected by the 2010–2011 earthquakes in Canterbury, New Zealand and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in Tohoku. Previous work has shown that linguistic minorities are often socially vulnerable. They may earn less and be poorer than majority groups, face everyday discriminations and harassment, and experience greater levels of prejudice.

Our study in Christchurch included immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, who had experienced wars, conflicts, displacement, (multiple) resettlements and everyday discrimination in the host country. In Tohoku, many of our respondents were marriage migrant women from countries like China and South Korea who had similarly experienced discrimination in their new communities.

Findings from our interviews demonstrate the fluid, complex and contextual nature of social vulnerability in disasters. The evidence suggests that people may be vulnerable and resilient simultaneously. We argue that this resilience arises partly from the everyday inequalities that they already confront, and partly because of previous experiences of disasters which have given them “earned strength”.

When asked how the Filipina community coped with the 2011 Tohoku disasters and why they were “resilient”, Erica, a woman in her fifties who had lived in Japan for three decades, answered:

“I think it [has] something to do with our culture. We are not easily beaten by difficulties and hardships. Actually, the Philippines is not a progressive country, it is a poor country, we live a difficult life, so that makes Filipinas stronger [...]”

When we posed the same question to Dari, an Afghan refugee woman in Canterbury, she told us:

“Refugees have gone through… all sorts of issues. Probably some of them could not cope and they did not want any more… you know, headache, emotional stress… so they left. But a lot of us have stayed here as well, thinking, oh, well, at least, like… well, nobody is shooting at us. Yes, it’s hard, yet we have been looked after, so we would stay, you know? At least, there is peace, there is support here. We are not kicked out of the city…”

We also interviewed Jahmir, a former Iraqi soldier and refugee in New Zealand, who had lived through multiple wars and had first-hand battlefield experience. He noted:

“I thought, for me, [the earthquake] wasn’t like too hard… my room was shaking, everything was shaking. I knew what was going on. I knew that was [an] earthquake. But, for me, it wasn’t hard because I have been a soldier… I knew how to survive. [Since] I was 14 years old, my father taught me how to shoot the gun… I was a soldier and I have seen worse in the battlefields. [The earthquake] wasn’t like that, you know? I [was] walking [with] no food, no water… my foot skin was all coming off… and I was carrying everything in my bag… so I knew how to survive after the earthquakes…”

As researchers, we know that “resilience” is a fraught term. It has been subjected to numerous criticisms. It is not our job to revisit them all here, but it is important to signal two problematic elements that exist within resilience thinking. First, it can be used to put the burden on to victims by individualizing collective problems. We might say that being resilient means being able to “bounce back”. But what if our social institutions prevent this? We have robust data to show that different individuals can be treated very differently by the same institutions. In such cases we are not dealing with personal problems but with structural issues. Sometimes inequalities are produced by our social systems, as in the case of institutional racism. As sociologists, we resist the personalisation of public issues. Personal responsibility is one thing, and top-down “command and control” models of disaster recovery have been rightly critiqued for ignoring both individual agency and people power, but true empowerment means that people must have appropriate options and resources if they are to be party to their own recovery. Second, if the system is the problem we need to transform it. To return to our previous example, the solution to institutional racism is not to be found in developing a thicker skin.

Our research is open to a negative reading: you can build resilience by subjecting people to hardship. We reject this reading. Hardship might build a certain resilience, but it does absolutely nothing to reduce vulnerability. Indeed, vulnerability and discriminations continued in both of our post-disaster studies. In Japan, the female ‘gaikokujin’ (foreigners) that we talked to often faced oppression and discrimination, mainly on account of the traditional patriarchal Japanese family system, the language barrier, and different cultural norms and expectations as to what constitutes a good wife and an appropriate household member. This was compounded in some cases by completely unfounded accusations that the women were getting preferential treatment from recovery authorities, for example additional disaster aid. In Christchurch, respondents told us of the cultural and linguistic difficulties in dealing with insurance companies.  They typically accepted the compensation packages that insurers first offered them as they were linguistically and culturally unequipped to engage in protracted disputes. This often resulted in financial disadvantage. They also told us of the discriminations that they faced in accessing houses and jobs, as both became much scarcer after the earthquakes.

The positive political message to take away from our research is that even the most vulnerable people have agency and valuable skills that can contribute to disaster recovery. They could contribute much more if they were allowed to flourish to their maximum potential. Going forward, the key political challenge is to think about how we can simultaneously build resilience while reducing social vulnerability. In our opinion, recognition of others and their cultural resources is not enough. Majority groups must commit to redistributing their material resources as well. This is the only way to correct social systems that continually treat different groups inequitably. If we do this we can create places that are fit for all to flourish.



Shinya Uekusa is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Massey University, New Zealand. His work has been published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Language in Society, Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, and Social Science Quarterly.

Steve Matthewman is a Sociologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His latest book is Disasters, Risks and Revelation: Making Sense of Our Times, published by Palgrave Macmillan. He is currently working on a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund project looking at the rebuilding of Christchurch following the earthquakes.

Their research on this topic can be accessed here

The authors would like to publicly thank all of the research participants as well as the supporting organizations such as Tohoku Help! and the Canterbury Refugee Council (CRC) that made the study possible.