Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University


Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, by Daniel P. Aldrich, University of Chicago Press, 2012

Over the last decade the topic of resilience in response to natural disasters has moved from the academy to mainstream practice. Dozens of hazard mitigation plans now offer strategies for enhancing municipal resilience in the face of escalating climate impacts. Aldrich’s new book makes a compelling case for social connections as a critical dimension of a community’s ability to recover from disasters. Further, Aldrich also illustrates the methodological hurdles necessary to establish claims of resilience.

Long before Putnam’s Bowling Alone, scholars and practitioners advocated the importance of social capital – the power of human connections in providing resources and services. According to Horwich, while physical capital is the most visible, human capital is the most important economic resource (2000). Aldrich highlights the various mechanisms by which social capital helps to facilitate recovery including deep levels of social capital provide informal insurance and mutual assistance, dense and numerous social ties help solve collective action problems through spontaneous coordination and cooperation, and strong ties create louder collective voices (than individuals can) which can fight for additional resources. On the other hand, perhaps because social capital is difficult to measure and create, it has been ignored in many recovery plans.

Aldrich combines qualitative and quantitative analysis in assessing four disasters that span both time and culture. His findings on the relationship between population growth rates post-disaster (dv) and dominant drivers of recovery (iv) such as magnitude of impact, population density, income levels, foreign aid, and institutional strength, show mixed results. When controlling for these factors, however, social capital, measured in terms of voting rates, tenure, and participation in civic activities, consistently correlates positively with growth.

The main actionable message of Building Resilience is that disaster aid must move beyond restoring physical infrastructure to emphasize investments in the development of social capital. Aldrich reminds us that social capital generates both benefits and negative externalities (for out-group nonmembers). An iconic example of the hindrance that social capital can create is the opposition FEMA faced when it attempted to site temporary trailers post-Katrina. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital resisted their imposition. In response, Aldrich suggests that decision makers should aim to build, recognize, and support neighborhood ties before, during, and post-disasters. For example, prior to disasters, cities can invest in trust-building interaction among neighborhood groups as well as expand efforts to include previously excluded groups. During recovery, managers can formulate emergency response plans that don’t unintentionally break communities apart. Finally, following a disaster, decision-makers can use the event as a catalyst for building new social capital.

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