HRAF Advanced Research Centers » Natural Hazards and Cultural Transformations

Natural Hazards and Cultural Transformations

Summary of Project

Climate scientists predict not only accelerated global warming but also greater impacts of extreme events such as droughts and floods.  Such extreme events or hazards are likely to create serious social consequences, including famine, displacement, and increased violence. While climate events are becoming more extreme, natural hazards and resulting disasters are not new, and it is important to try to understand how human societies with varying livelihoods and vulnerabilities have responded to and invented solutions to such conditions both in the past and the present. The assumption is that most societies that have survived for long time periods of time have arrived at some resilient solutions, particularly when hazards were recurrent. To maximize the generalizability of results, the research will be worldwide and encompass contemporary countries, traditional societies of the recent past, and ancient societies in prehistory.

This NSF-supported project* will compare societies/populations normally studied by different disciplines, testing theories derived from each of the disciplines across varied geographic and temporal domains. To maximize the range of both environmental and cultural diversity, the worldwide samples compared and contrasted will vary in the frequency, severity, and predictability of hazards they experience related to food production, storage and availability. The broadest research questions are: How often do events have to occur for humans to plan for them? Do unpredictable hazards lead to different cultural transformations than do more predictable hazards? Under what conditions are contingency plans overwhelmed in the face of natural hazards that are more severe or more frequent than normal? Answers to these questions will give insights into people’s future engagement with climate change.

Hypotheses and models will be tested across three different domains and data-sets: 1) a worldwide sample of over 100 largely preindustrial (“traditional”) societies described by ethnographers; 2) a worldwide sample of prehistoric traditions described by archaeologists; 3) and a worldwide sample of 33 contemporary countries with data collected through individual interviews. To compliment data on natural hazards from historical and contemporary observations, a climatologist will obtain rainfall and temperature data to arrive at independent measures of environmental predictability and variability, plus collect paleoclimate data for the archaeological dataset. Controlling for type of economy and political system, predictable patterns of resilient behaviors in time and space are expected—such as contingency plans, subsistence diversification, and sociocultural transformations that expand and solidify cooperation and networks. These patterns should prove instructive for preparing for extreme events and reducing their impacts.

* This 5-year project is supported by the NSF Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) program (SMA-1416651) in a grant to the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University. The PI is Carol R. Ember (HRAF) and the co-PIs are: Michele J. Gelfand (University of Maryland),  Benjamin Felzer (Lehigh University),  Eric C. Jones (University of Texas-Houston), and Peter N. Peregrine (Lawrence University). The Senior Researchers are Teferi Abate Adem (HRAF) and Ian Skoggard (HRAF).

IBSS_ group indoor posed WP 637 (2).jpg 

The research team met at the HRAF building for their launch meeting in October 2014.  

Shown in the first row from the left are: Peter Peregrine, Carol Ember, Eric Jones, and Ian Skoggard.

In the rear from the left are: Michele Gelfand, Benjamin Felzer and Teferi Abate Adem.


  • PR-NaturalHazardsOverview-SASci2015 (Overview of the project plans; presented at the winter/spring meeting of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, March 25, 2015 in conjunction with the Society for Applied Anthropology, Pittsburgh, PA)
  • PR-NaturalHazardsOverview-HBES2016 (Preliminary results presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting, June 20, 2016, Vancouver, BC, Canada: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3794.7124)
  • PR-TightLoose-AAAS2017 (Results presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, February 17, 2016, Boston, MA.; see also Presenter Notes.)




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Last modified by HRAFArc on 2017/02/03 13:42


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