Last Friday, Professor Daniel P. Aldrich, Director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University and one of the Global Resilience Institute’s affiliated faculty members, gave a talk titled “How Social Ties Matter in Crisis” at Northeastern’s Network Science Institute.
The presentation drew from his research on the role of social capital in post-disaster recovery efforts in New Orleans and Japan. In post-Katrina New Orleans, Aldrich found that friends and family were the driving force behind recovery efforts, rather than the government or economy. This led him to conclude that the success of resilience and recovery rests upon the internal characteristics of a community – the strength of the connections between its members. Aldrich then broke down these connections into three categories:
- Bonding social capital: horizontal social ties within networks.
- Bridging social capital: horizontal social ties between networks.
- Linking social capital: vertical ties to government and people in positions of power.
Based on his research in New Orleans, Aldrich argued that in communities with stronger horizontal social ties, people are more likely to return and rebuild rather than leave and stay away after a disaster. These communities are also likely to have an easier time acting collectively to keep crime low, create systems of informal insurance, and provide forms of mutual aid like childcare in post-disaster scenarios when the government and economy are unable to maintain these functions.
Aldrich also conducted research on the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Based on interviews with people living in areas affected by the disaster, Aldrich found that stronger social cohesion leads to lower mortality rates after shocks. In communities with stronger bonding and bridging social capital, where people knew their neighbors and their needs, residents were better equipped to help each other survive than in communities with weaker social bonds. Aldrich also learned that when it comes to long-term recovery, vertical networks are the best predictors of success. The more powerful people with access to resources that you know, he argued, the more likely it is that you (and your community) will gain access to those resources and recover faster and better than you would without them. In his interviews with residents forced to evacuate after the meltdown, Aldrich found that the mental stress associated with the disaster was best alleviated through strong social ties, specifically by the number of neighbors these residents knew and with whom they could share their experiences.
He concluded that horizontal social connections saved lives during the tsunami and improved mental health outcomes after it, and that vertical social connections sped up the recovery process. He finished the presentation by suggesting that the focus of investments in disaster mitigation and recovery ought to be on social, rather than physical, infrastructure, if they are to effectively build resilient communities.