Thursday, September 15, 2016

Facing Ragnarok: How Community Diversity Helps Disaster Recovery

Let’s start with religion. Ragnarok is a series of disasters on earth, ending with the great battle of the Norse Gods against Giants and beasts. For those who don’t read sagas (or play the computer game Ragnarok), the Norse Gods are very diverse, which helps them defeat their enemies. So, is diversity also a good thing when facing adversity in our world?

A recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Sunasir Dutta tells us that the answer is yes and no. Let me explain. He examines the effect of natural disasters on communities in California, which of course is one of the few states with enough disasters to do such a study. He is interested in whether the communities can found new human services organizations to help disaster recovery. The answer is that communities with more diversity of voluntary associations are better able to recover from disasters, and this effect is bigger for more unexpected disasters and more complex disasters. An unexpected disaster would mean something that the community does not expect, like a flood in the Southern California counties that often get hit by wildfires instead. A complex disaster is when multiple events happen in the same year, like an earthquake and a wildfire (I am not making this up – it happens). So part of the answer is yes, and it is a good illustration of how communities build organizing capacity that can help them later on.

But the answer is also no. Political diversity makes a community less capable of founding new human services organizations to help disaster recovery, possibly because it is related to disagreement and polarization that complicates the unified effort needed to form human services organizations.

This is an interesting contrast because it illustrates how diversity can have many different effects. Voluntary organizations provide a community with models of organizing, trained volunteers, and networks of people who help each other. They are a form of organizing capacity that gets stronger the more kinds are present. I have written more about this in a blog post on how research shows that communities are imprinted with the memory of past organizing. On the other hand, political views are markers of ideological boundaries. They also represent different views of who are responsible for community help, how it should be organized, and how it should be led. No wonder these forms of diversity have opposite effects.