The intersection of gender and social class in disaster: balancing resilience and vulnerability.

Maureen Fordham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Those who experience disaster are widely recognised as an undifferentiated group, labeled 'victims'. In the immediate crisis period, it is difficult for professionals to differentiate, except crudely, between varying levels of need and still carry out urgent duties and responsibilities, however, it soon becomes apparent that some are hit harder than others and that disasters are not the great levelers they are sometimes considered to be. Close examination reveals complex variations within, and not just between, social groups broadly understood as middle- and working-class. This paper examines the intersection of gender and social class in two major flood events and argues for a more nuanced appreciation of these factors, at both the conceptual and the practical level, to be incorporated throughout the disaster process. Too often, those who are subject to the impact of disasters are conceptualised as belonging to a homogeneous group called 'victims', but this apparent similarity conceals considerable difference: difference in terms of gender, class, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, culture, etc. Dealing with difference represents a significant challenge for disaster managers, one that remains largely unrecognised or suppressed in favour of a sometimes spurious egalitarianism which attempts to treat everyone the same. In this sense difference ahs been problematised. However this paper argues that recognising difference in disaster is part of the solution, not the problem. Equality, inasmuch as it is consistent with social justice cannot be acheived by ignoring difficulties ; this simply reinforces the dominance of the already dominant groups (Phillips 1997: 143). Rather it will be acheived (partly) through recognizing other voices and moving to reduce marginalisation. Nevertheless, there remains a danger that an emphasis on difference, rather than a recognition and incorporation of it, will divide not unite (Harvey 1993) and may lead to a reinforcing of competition over resources. Seeking a more nuanced approach to disaster manaement should not be interpreted as an adherence to a 'faddish' political correctness nor an acceptance of post-modern critiques of grand narratives and universalizing theory. Rather, it is presented here in the context of a recognition that resilience to disaster comes often from dependence upon, and reciprocity within, small and changing networks of individuals (see Peacock et al. 1997 for similar conclusions), within and between varying social group. The recognition of these differences can lead to a redistribution, not just of resources but also of risk and exposure to harm, and to the enabling and reinforcing of coping strategies within a broader context of social justice (accepting that a universally agreed definition of that concept is problematic). However, it must also be recognised that the notion of community itself is contested and can represent exclusion as well as inclusion (Young 1990: Massey 1994)
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen and Disasters: From Theory to Practice
EditorsBrenda Phillips, Betty Hearn Morrow
Number of pages264
ISBN (Print)978-1436308793
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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