Interview with Anthony Oliver-Smith, February 2, 2011

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Undergraduate education and early work in Peru

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Partial Transcript: So it's, uh, Saturday, uh, February 2nd, uh, 2011.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about his undergraduate study at Brown University as a Spanish major and spending several summers working in student Peace Corps-like camps in Spain. He explains that his first connection to anthropology was his interest in the Hispanic world. Oliver-Smith also discusses his first job after graduating, with the Peruvian North American Cultural Institute in Lima, Peru for one year.

Keywords: Cultural studies; Hispanic world; Peruvian North American Cultural Institute; Spanish language; Undergraduate study

Subjects: Anthropology.; Brown University; Ethnology.; Peru.; Spain.; Spanish literature.

GPS: Lima (Peru)
Map Coordinates: -12.043333, -77.028333
00:03:24 - Initial graduate education / 1970 Peruvian earthquake

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Partial Transcript: At the end of that year I decided I'd go back to graduate school.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about going to graduate school at Indiana University, where he received his masters degree in Latin American studies and completed a study of folklore in the Callejón de Huaylas valley in Peru. He discusses his plans to do his dissertation in economic anthropology as a market study in the valley, but took a year off and worked as a civil rights investigator in Boston. Oliver-Smith also talks about the earthquake in 1970 that devastated an enormous area of Peru, including the village of Yungay in the Callejón de Huaylas valley, where he planned to complete his dissertation.

Keywords: Boston (Mass.); Civil rights investigators; Field research; Market study

Subjects: Anthropology students; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Economic anthropology.; Folklore.; Huaylas, Callejón de (Peru); Indiana University; Latin America.; Peru.; Yungay (Ancash, Peru)

GPS: Callejón de Huaylas (Peru)
Map Coordinates: -9,167, -77.750
00:09:23 - Background to dissertation project in Peru

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Partial Transcript: So what happened was that I thought, "Well, okay, um, I'm going to have to take my economic anthropology study, my market study, and go somewhere else in Peru."

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about how he decided to do his dissertation in the Callejón de Huaylas valley in Peru as a study of disaster areas. He discusses how he prepared to conduct his study and explains that there was little preexisting research on disaster areas in developing countries, especially in the Latin American world.

Keywords: Disaster studies; Disaster zones; Dissertations

Subjects: Anthropology students; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Economic anthropology.; Huaylas, Callejón de (Peru); Latin America; Yungay (Ancash, Peru)

GPS: Callejón de Huaylas (Peru)
Map Coordinates: -9,167, -77.750
00:14:22 - Dissertation research and work with the Peru Earthquake Relief Committee in the Callejón de Huaylas valley in Peru

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Partial Transcript: So I took off to Peru.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about working on his unformed dissertation in Yungay in the Callejón de Huaylas valley in Peru for around a year. He explains the details of his research project, which was an ethnography of recovery that developed into a study of social change after disaster. Oliver-Smith also talks about completing some applied work with the Peru Earthquake Relief Committee, which funded small projects that could immediately help local villages.

Keywords: Disaster studies; Disaster zones; Peru Earthquake Relief Committee; Politics of recovery; Social change

Subjects: Anthropology students; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Economic anthropology.; Ethnology.; Huaylas, Callejón de (Peru); Yungay (Ancash, Peru)

GPS: Yungay (Peru)
Map Coordinates: -9.138, -77.743
00:27:12 - Completion of dissertation

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Partial Transcript: So that was the beginning of this, of this research project that eventually lasted ten years.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about the completion of his dissertation, which focused on the first year of destruction and recovery in Yungay. He also discusses how his study examined the Peruvian government's attempt to move the people of Yungay to a new town and the local populace's successful efforts to resist the plans.

Keywords: Disaster studies; Disaster zones; Local resistance; Politics of recovery; Social change

Subjects: Anthropology students; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Economic anthropology.; Huaylas, Callejón de (Peru); Yungay (Ancash, Peru)

GPS: Yungay (Peru)
Map Coordinates: -9.138, -77.744
00:30:39 - Development of concept of vulnerability

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Partial Transcript: Now, the really interesting thing for me and what has really been interesting to be a part of, um, over the last 30 or 40 years, is that when I went down to Peru to do this research, disasters were really looked at as--in terms of natural forces.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about how he collaborated with other anthropologists and cultural geographers to devise the concept of vulnerability to explain the reasons that disasters were so much worse in the developing world. He discusses how the new concept demonstrated that disasters were outcomes of problems of development in countries, with societies turning a natural hazard into a disaster or a larger disaster.

Keywords: Developing world; Disaster studies; Disasters; Patterns of development; Political economy; Vulnerability

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.; Cultural geography.

00:36:27 - Efforts of Network of Social Studies in Disaster Prevention in Latin America

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Partial Transcript: And so what has really been interesting-and in, in, in Latin America, a whole network of disaster researchers begins to emerge.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about the development of an influential group that he was involved with, the Network of Social Studies in Disaster Prevention in Latin America. He discusses how the most important contribution of the network from his perspective was that they have changed the way that people think about disasters in the world. Oliver-Smith talks about how disasters are no longer understood as simply natural events or acts of God, but as the result of social structures and built environments. He also explains that disasters became a lens for examining and critiquing society instead of only something that happened to a society.

Keywords: Built environments; Disaster researchers; Disaster studies; Disasters; Network of Social Studies in Disaster Prevention in Latin America; Political economy; Social structures

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.; Latin America.

00:43:56 - Problems with translating disaster knowledge into effective practice

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Partial Transcript: Now the big problem that we have right now is we've learned a lot about disasters, and about the causal factors of disasters, and the creation and the construction of risk, but we haven't been tr--able to translate it really effectively into practice.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about the main problem in the field of disaster studies: researchers have learned a lot about the causes of disasters, but have not been able to translate the knowledge into effective practice. He explains that a reason for the knowledge and practice gap is because of the nature of the critique, which is that nations are building societies that are systemically vulnerable and are unwilling to implement the profound structural changes necessary to effectually manage disasters. Oliver-Smith also discusses how the tensions that exist in disaster recovery typically result in a focus on reconstruction of the pre-disaster systems instead of radical change.

Keywords: Critiques of societies; Disasters; Knowledge and practice gap; Political economy; Resiliency; Social structures; Vulnerability

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.

00:55:28 - Expansion of disaster field

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Partial Transcript: We could talk about, you know, going into the disaster field now?

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about the expansion of the disaster field, which is now considered a significant anthropological topic that is linked to other fields, such as political economy and development. He discusses how the field has mirrored the increased international attention toward disasters and emphasizes that the role of the media was key.

Keywords: Disaster field; International attention; Media; Natural disasters; Risks; Social structures; Vulnerability

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology research and developments; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.

01:02:39 - Technological disasters

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Partial Transcript: I, I think also what's adding to the, the increased consciousness within our culture is that in the beginning, especially in the seventies, we had the advent of so many technological disasters.

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about technological disasters, such as nuclear meltdowns, that are related to development and the corresponding place of vulnerability, risk, and sustainability in societies. He also discusses how the opportunity for change to reduce vulnerability after disasters is relatively short because there is always pressure to re-install the former systems and structures.

Keywords: Developed countries; Disaster studies; Social structures; Sustainability; Technological disasters; Vulnerability

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.; Nuclear energy.

01:10:42 - Climate change / Work with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security

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Partial Transcript: And, and particularly in the face of global climate change, which is perhaps the greatest threat that we face in, in various guises in the coming decades...

Segment Synopsis: Oliver-Smith talks about his current work involving climate change and consequent social displacement and adaptation. He also discusses his appointment and activities as a professor at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.

Keywords: Disasters studies; Social adaptation; Social displacement

Subjects: Anthropologists.; Anthropology--Fieldwork.; Anthropology--Research.; Applied anthropology.; Climate change.; United Nations University. Institute for Environment and Human Security