The Social Science of the World in 100 objects – The House

Floating HouseThe house (‘pansi ghor’): a classic object of human resilience to environmental disasters?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

A house is a classic object to promote human civilisation. It symbolises home, a place to procreate, security and livelihood. However, the house is also the most vulnerable object to environmental hazards such as floods, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The visual impact of broken and inundated houses is often captured widely and emotively by the media. However, lesser known are the ways people recover from these shocks and build their precious object; their house, repeatedly. This is of particular significance to the people living in the developing nations who lack insurance and social securities. The climate and environmental scientists predict that the impact of global warming and climate change is likely to be worse in the developing nations due to lack of effective governance and disaster management policies. As a result, the house becomes the most important object, not only to protect and secure lives and livelihoods from the chagrins of environmental hazards, but also an object that requires adaptation.

House, home and homestead are of much interest to sociologists and development experts. ‘House’ signifies the physical structure whereas ‘home’ and ‘homestead’ signify the warmth, love, hearth and space required around the house to generate social and economic activities for livelihoods. When disaster affects houses it also destroys homes and homesteads. But not all houses are equally affected by disasters. This varies depending on their make, material, place, intensity of the hazard and context, all of which are underpinned by class, gender and caste dimensions. For instance, gender and disaster studies have observed that houses of women-headed households are more likely to be affected by disasters due to their flimsy structures in comparison to their male counterparts. Also, women-headed households struggle to re-construct their houses after disasters despite receiving external aid from the governmental and non-governmental organisations. As a result, housing is a highly gendered and classed process.

In the event of house reconstructions, the policy makers and practitioners tend to focus on two overarching approaches: risk reduction and vulnerability reduction. The former approach is the dominant approach and believes that ‘nature’ is dangerous and therefore appropriate mitigation measures should be put into place to counteract nature’s fury. The latter approach understands that disasters are created when environmental hazards intersect with risk and vulnerable groups of people. Both these approaches are analytically distinct but in practice they are highly integrated.

The risk reduction approach fosters sharing of technology and know-how on disaster resilient houses and housing. The vulnerability approach also promotes the same, but it supports community participation with special emphasis on women. But neither approach fully explores the structural issues that make women vulnerable in the first place or the reasons that push them to live in the margins of hazard prone locales. These approaches also assume that every individual has access to land or has land rights and what is lacking is the technology or know-how to build disaster resilient houses or housing.

The picture taken on the river Dhonagoda in the Matlab District of Bangladesh, suggests otherwise. It represents the number of homeless people growing worldwide due to flooding, erosion and salination. Lacking the ability to buy houses inland, countless numbers of people are moving onto the rivers every day.

Floating houses (or pansi ghor) and ‘river people’ (or nodi bhangar lok of which the literal meaning is ‘people formed by the broken rivers’) as known in Bangladesh, certainly offers a vantage point of sociological analysis. Most importantly they represent human resilience.

By Dr Nibedita S Ray-Bennett, Civil Safety and Security Unit, University of Leicester.

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