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A look at crisis and disaster research through a feminist lens

Focusing on the lived experiences of marginalisation and oppression helps us to better interrogate systems of power that present themselves as inevitable or natural. This in turn helps us to think about, and organise towards, more fulfilling, just, and sustainable ways of life. Feminism offers frameworks to do this and intersects with other traditions of thoughts and political practice in this quest.

Poet and activist, Dionne Brand talked about the Covid-19 pandemic as having the propensity “to expose even further the endoskeleton of the world”. Even though this statement suggests crisis and disaster research as an evident ground for feminist thinking, I find its imprint on the field more marginal than expected. Crisis and disaster research has been thinking about race, gender, and class, but converging local and global dimensions of disaster will be inadequately addressed as long as the conversation stays within a social capital-focused articulation of vulnerability and a celebratory resilience and adaptation discourse. Weaving in oppression, resistance, or coloniality allows to uncover the inextricable links between the local and the global, the momentary and the ongoing in disasters.

In this blog article, I am suggesting lived experience and social reproduction to think crises and disasters from. While they both can be made to speak to vulnerability and resilience in some ways, they are analytical lenses traditionally closer to feminism’s transformative quest mentioned above. In the following, I derive two questions from these perspectives that my doctoral research at King’s College London addresses, and that offer ample grounds for feminist engagement within the field of crisis and disaster research.

Question I: How do we come to know crises and disasters?

What we mean by crisis and disaster is a matter of contestation. Depending on the context, they can either be conceptually separated, or used synonymously. Within the mainstream of the research field, crisis is the preferred notion in the contexts of business efficiency and the political economy, while disaster is preferred by that part of social science research that refers with it to extreme events and hazards that exceed local coping resources and require intervention from higher administrative levels. Both concepts, however, make reference to a kind of harm that is capable of shaking the structural and existential foundations of the system in which they appear.

How can feminist thought, in its intersectional and decolonial perpetuations, contribute to the epistemological conversation on crises and disasters?

While much of crisis and disaster research gives meaning to these events through technical and quantitative aspects, a necessary ingredient for an event to become a crisis or disaster is the lived human experience of it. As Schultz et al. explain, “a disaster is characterised as an encounter of forces of harm and a human population in harm’s way […]”. This means that crises and disasters presuppose people and communities who perceive and experience them as such. As research shows, the psychological response from people living through these events may be proportional to the magnitude, duration, and frequency of exposure to harm and may range from distress to more severe post-traumatic stress, depressive, and anxiety disorders. (Although the authors of the paper use the term “natural disaster”, there is an increasing understanding that disasters are not caused by nature. Instead, it is people’s choices, mostly in the form of long-term political decision-making, which create vulnerabilities to hazards that can result in disaster.)

Critical scholars and activists have drawn on the registers of crisis, disaster, and emergency when describing lived realities of oppression and marginalisation. Their perspective draws attention to how the lived experience of crisis and disaster may very well be conjured through systemic and structural harm to specific groups of people. As Dionne Brand with reference to the COVID-19 pandemic writes, “I’ve been living a pandemic all my life; it is structural rather than viral; it is the global state of emergency of antiblackness”. In a similar vein, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement declares that “every single day folks are dying, not, not being able to take another breath … We are in a state of emergency”. And, as Ben Anderson sharply puts, “the distinction between everyday and emergency has only ever been available to some and is produced at the cost of making life into a perpetual emergency for others”.

From a feminist point of view, we can ask: How can we understand crises and disasters as structuring elements of the lived experiences and realities of communities and populations? What are the gendered, racialised, and classed etc power-relations underlying whose and which problems are taken seriously as crises? What are the implications of these ordinary or everyday manifestations of crisis and disaster for institutionalised responses? This brings me to the next point.

Question II: A feminist institutionalised crisis and disaster response practice?

Feminists have spent decades making visible the political-economic relevance and value of people, activities, times, and places that have hitherto been rendered unpolitical or devalued to the public eye: such as the relevance of care and broader socially reproductive labour for life and living per se, in capitalist political economies and beyond. Drawing on these insights, some move on to explore the implications of feminist ways for institutionalised politics: feminist foreign policy is one example of a burgeoning emerging area of political reflection and doing which, in its most consequential form, aspires to be transformative of its established context by introducing and exposing it to intersectional feminist, post- and decolonial knowledges.

How can feminist thought, in its intersectional and decolonial perpetuations, shape institutionalised responses to crises and disasters?

The COVID-19 pandemic has given ample grounds to think about feminist takes on crisis and disaster response in institutionalised settings across the globe. For instance, the world’s first government-proposed feminist economic recovery plan to COVID-19 came from Maui County in Hawaii and was drafted in cooperation with a local grassroots feminist movement. My first observation on government-backed feminism in the case of Hawaii is the focus on social reproduction and caregiving in the crisis response. This approach is rooted in the acknowledgment that what was becoming visible during the crisis as “essential labour” is mostly the devalued and precarious, socially reproductive work that has historically been assigned to women, especially of Colour.

The plan’s critical engagement with colonial legacies in the gendered, racialised, classed etc allocations of power, resources, and value were spelled out into proposals that “hope to make space for community ideas that speak not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration”. As such, the plan’s overarching goal was “not seeking "to return to normal" but to build bridges to a feminist future for Hawai‘i”.

Ordinary and everyday manifestations of crisis are also crises of social reproduction. Their primary crisis responders have traditionally been communities, grassroots activist and charity organisations that struggle for racial justice, alternative economies, and the rights of, among others, our essential labourers: caregivers, domestic workers, cleaners, delivery drivers and many more.

From a feminist point of view, we can ask: How can feminist knowledge be leveraged to identify underlying crises of social reproduction in disaster-affected areas? Why is it important to build disaster response around these and what are the possibilities and challenges for doing so? How can grassroots-nurtured transformative reimaginations of connections and relationships help to formulate responses that go beyond going-back-to-normal?

In this blog article, I tried to take different conceptual routes than vulnerability and resilience to speak to crisis and disaster research from a feminist perspective. I proposed questions and subsequent reflections that are provoked when thinking crises and disasters through the concepts of lived experience and social reproduction. While the challenges are many, feminist thinking can make valuable contributions to a crisis and disaster research and response practice that aspires to engage and involve themes of social justice and change.

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Laura Zuber

Laura Zuber

PhD Student

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