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A6 Cultures of Disaster (project completed)

Cultures of Disaster. Shifting Asymmetries between Societies, Cultures, and Nature from a Comparative Historical and Transcultural Perspective

Coordination: Gerrit Jasper Schenk


The concept „cultures of disaster“ represents specific regional, national, and cultural modes of coping with disasters respectively. Cultural constellations turn an extreme natural event into a historically unique and society-centred disaster.

A comparison in time and space of the different weaknesses and resiliences of specific cultures should reveal the differences and similarities of these „cultures of disaster“. An analysis of the ways in which societies deal with catastrophes which were caused by natural (as opposed to social) events, should also enlighten the culturally specific relationship between nature and society. The handling of disasters most certainly represents a constitutive or at least a formative element of a culture.

One of the main duties of political administrative praxis according to the western modern Tradition is the ability to overcome catastrophes and to protect society from disasters. It is also seen as an indicator of good governance and administration. In line with this, the central subject-matter of our Junior Research Group was to depict this conception as the product of a historical process with many preconditions. Furthermore we wanted to pinpoint different modes of dealing with disasters and the subsequent mutual processes of exchange between cultures from the Middle Ages up to present times.

In the spotlight of our research has been cultural exchange processes within and between „cultures of disaster“. What was the role of the pre-state, the not-state and the national configurations of order when dealing with natural dangers and catastrophes? The conception, interpretation and description of catastrophes as formative elements not only of governments and administrations' modes of coping but also of handling mechanisms and preventive measures have been analysed. Which societal perceptions, models, visions, approaches, structures, and institutions starred in the play of handling natural dangers and disasters? In which way have different „cultures of disasters“ been affected by exchange of concepts, models, techniques, measures, practices, objects, people, and institutions among and between cultures as a result of shifting asymmetries? To what extent have concepts been derived from common experience and cognisance or a specific regional acquisition?

The Junior Research Group has looked into the relationship between nature and society in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia past and present in a comparative and transcultural perspective. We have focused especially on cultural exchange processes within and between European, Oriental and South Asian cultures drawing on different „cultures of disaster“ as examples.

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