Nepalese Himalaya


Nepal Critical Transitions Project, Phase 2

Project Duration: 2020 – 2025

Natural Disasters, Resilience, & Transformation: Understanding Household Recoveries

Natural disasters can have devastating impacts with cascading effects that can persist over years and decades. Recovery is multidimensional. Ethnographic research after natural disasters can uncover the dynamic, diverse ways that communities understand and respond to extreme events. It can also document how populations adapt and learn through experimentation and innovation. Previous disaster recovery research has been primarily descriptive, focused on localized case studies and human agency rather than the theory-building needed to enable the lessons learned in one post-disaster context to be applied to other contexts. It has also rarely collected and analyzed information encompassing both the initial aftermath and longer periods that are essential for fully understanding recovery and transformation.

The research funded by this award will build on a prior NSF RAPID grant and analysis of extensive quantitative and qualitative data collected at about 9 months, 1.5 years, and 2.5 years after a natural disaster. It will collect data and solicit feedback in years five to seven following the event using an integrated human-natural systems approach, longitudinal design, multiple sites, mixed quantitative and qualitative methods, and outreach to diverse stakeholders. The research combines the broader theorization of interdisciplinary, quantitative modeling in the resilience and regime shift research with the textured qualitative approaches and critical perspectives of the anthropology and social science of disaster. The results will highlight the potential pitfalls of “one size fits all” relief and reconstruction interventions that overlook cultural and spatial diversity.

The findings will also move beyond more-common metaphorical explanations of resilience and transformation to illustrate empirical relationships between variables and household changes.

The research will be conducted in Nepal where there was a devastating series of earthquakes in the spring of 2015. This case study addresses two overarching research questions: (1) what factors contribute to the resilience of rural mountain households to natural hazards during the recovery phase? and (2) at what point do households maintain their condition or undergo transformation to an alternative state after natural disasters? The study examines critical recovery indicators and five household domains of adaptive capacity developed through long-term ethnographic research, pilot studies, and literature: accessibility and hazard exposure, institutional context and power, livelihood diversity, connectivity, and social memory. These domains will be explored inductively, along with household demographics, settlement demographics, and recovery indicators, through a series of information-sharing meetings, household surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups in years five to seven after the earthquakes.

The project will re-identify 400 households in four catastrophically impacted communities. An additional 40-60 individuals will be contacted for in-depth interviews and focus groups. The results will be disseminated to diverse stakeholders in Nepal and in the U.S., in formats accessible to scholars, practitioners, and public audiences.

Read about our first peer-reviewed article in World Development: One-size does not fit all for post-disaster recovery, PSU study finds

Disaster as a Catalyst for Social-Ecological Transformation- Nepal Critical Transitions Project, Phase 1

Project Duration: 2015-2018


This project funded by an U.S. National Science Foundation RAPID grant is led by Dr. Jeremy Spoon in Nepal where there was a devastating series of earthquakes in the spring of 2015. Earthquake recovery and reconstruction comprise a multi-staged process that occurs over weeks, months, and years. Spoon and his research team are in the process of conducting ethnographic and survey research using a retrospective survey of pre-earthquake states, at two short time intervals (about 10 weeks each) to track the impacts and recovery trajectory. The project enrolled 400 households in four communities. An additional 40 key consultants have been contacted for in-depth interviews. The data collection is focusing on three to five key indicator variables that express adaptive capacity and follow them over time to uncover social-ecological transformation in the selected communities. The indicators include: biophysical attributes (characteristics integral to the ecological system structure and processes prior to the disturbance); institutional context (governance of the social-ecological system); connectivity (flows of information, knowledge, resources and linkages between the system and external actors); livelihood diversity (diverse patterns of resource use and heterogeneity of income); and social memory (prior experiences with disturbances). The timing of this project allows the researchers to collect information on pre-earthquake states, the emergency response, the restoration of basic essentials, and the start of livelihood reconstruction. It will provide a window into transformation processes at the earliest stages, setting a foundation for a longer-term project that follows social and ecological reconstruction in the targeted areas over multiple years.

Check out related articles here:

April 2017 Project Description

National Research Return Meeting (November 2017)

Photo blog on life after the quakes (Jan 2017)