Social networks can be key to disaster recovery, finds new book

photo of Eric C. Jones
Eric C. Jones, Ph.D.

HOUSTON — When disaster strikes, do the people in our lives help us — or hold us back? 

That’s one of the questions anthropologist Eric Jones, Ph.D., explores with San José State University colleague A.J. Faas, Ph.D., in their new book, Social Network Analysis of Disaster Response, Recovery and Adaptation. The text is an international collection of studies on how social networks — which are interconnecting webs of family, friends, co-workers and neighbors — effect how we handle disasters. The book was published in September.

There are many books that focus on how individuals or organizations respond to disasters. But Jones says this is the first book tackling the role of social networks in responding to and recovering from disasters.

These networks are important because people first seek help from people they know. 

“Sometimes we need advice or information, or a shoulder to cry on, and these services are not always provided by professionals,” says Jones, assistant professor of social epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso. “We are interested in the patterning of that behavior.”

Social networks can be close, dense webs, with most people knowing all the members. They can be looser, with members not well-acquainted with everyone. Or something in between, like an extending core, or connected subgroups.

The denser the network, the better, right? Not always, says Jones. “In a dense network, everyone knows each other, but they don’t know much about what’s happening outside their network. If you know people just a little bit, they may have a link to other worlds, and be lined up to help.”

Jones encountered this phenomenon, well known in social sciences as the “strength of weak-ties theory,” when comparing the aftermath of volcanic eruptions in Ecuador and Mexico. The Ecuadorians were interviewed two years after they were relocated, and their tight networks helped them cope with an unfamiliar environment in those first years.

The Mexicans were interviewed about seven years after eruptions. They did not have to relocate, but those with tight networks seemed constrained by their networks. They suffered more from post-traumatic stress and depression than their Ecuadorian counterparts.

“Sometimes networks can be suffocating and reduce the opportunity to break out of a groove or bad habits,” Jones explains. “Context matters a great deal in how a network is going to perform.”

Other authors in the book cover major events like Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and Ike in the United States, earthquakes in China, Japan and New Zealand, and lesser-known events, such as landslides, wildfires and drought. They did not include events caused by conflict or mass terror, because people often respond to those differently.

Jones joined the faculty of UTHealth School of Public Health in 2014, coming from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has spent most of his career analyzing the complex ties that bind people together, and more than a decade studying how people respond to disasters. Right now, he’s comparing the mental health and wellbeing of residents of two disasters that happened in Sonora, Mexico: the 2009 ABC Day Care Fire and the 2014 Buenavista Mine Spill. He currently splits his time between his academic office in El Paso and the field.

“Typically, network disaster research has been undertaken in two camps — emergency management and disaster recovery,” Jones says. “Our hope is that the book starts a more robust relationship between organizational and individual disaster response.”

Faas is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at San José State University College of Social Sciences in California.

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—Written by Anissa Anderson Orr