January 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 1

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From the Executive Officer

Responding to Crises with Sociological Tools: Thoughts on the Anniversary
of the Earthquake in Haiti

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

January 12th marked the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. On that day, in the words of Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, "the earth turned to water" and soil and rocks moved in waves for 35 world-altering seconds. It was the worst earthquake to hit the region in 200 years and killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people. A number of those who died were never identified; entire families perished and their corpses were hastily buried in mass graves.

Many of us who watched from afar felt at a loss about how to help. Our money and donations seemed insufficient in the face of so much suffering that was not going to end quickly. We recognized this feeling from the helplessness felt during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and some of us, perhaps, in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson this month

But as sociologists, we have a toolkit that includes scientific methods, theories, and knowledge that has provided vital assistance in responding to humanitarian crises. Tonya Golash-Boza was in Haiti shortly after the earthquake to provide assistance, and in a Footnotes article, titled "Bandits Going Wild in Haiti and Other Post-Quake Myths," talked about the need for sociologists to bring critical discourse analysis to address false reporting based on racist conceptions; to "distinguish verifiable evidence from suppositions."

Examples of Sociologists and Their Tools

Promises of assistance and commitment to rebuilding communities are common in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Holding public officials accountable for those promises can be more effective when the extent of recovery (or lack thereof) is measured empirically. Steven Picou has been bringing sociological methods to the study of disaster for his entire career. In addition to ongoing work on the impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and 2010 Deepwater BP oil spill in the Gulf, he is currently engaged in a longitudinal study of survivors of Hurricane Katrina, with interviews conducted in 2008, 2010, and planned for 2013. This work is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is administered through the Social Science Research Council.

Kevin Bales is a sociologist who founded a non-profit organization called "Free the Slaves" that works to abolish modern-day slavery. In the 1990s, he was wary of media reports of contemporary slavery, concerned that the word "slavery" was being co-opted by overly zealous media reports. Bales’ definition of slavery includes three key criteria: forced to work without pay, living under continuous threat of violence, and unable to leave. Using sociological and statistical techniques, based on worldwide data he now estimates that 27 million people live in slavery worldwide. Free the Slaves works to identify people who are in bondage and provide them the means to escape their enslavement, along with the support necessary to establish an economic basis for self-support into the future. Bales’ blueprint for eliminating modern slavery was awarded the $100,000 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for 2011. He was also featured in a 2010 TEDtalk. TEDtalks are funded by the Sapling Foundation to spotlight "ideas worth spreading" in technology, entertainment and design. According to Bales, the effort to end human trafficking needs sociological tools to understand how processes of subversion and exploitation occur, how intra-familial dynamics and power can contribute to the problem, and how interventions can help victims overcome stigma and trauma.

Opportunities for You

While these sociologists have devoted much of their careers as sociologists responding to humanitarian need and human rights violations, there are many ways sociologists can apply their sociological tools in the service of human need and social crisis without investing their entire career in this work. Opportunities exist throughout the ASA. To name only three—our members are working on the Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change; the Section-in-Formation on Human Rights includes among its goals "the forging of linkages and relationships with sociology of human rights scholars across the globe, including community activists, grounded movements, communities, and individual"; and ASA’s CARI program (Community Action Research Initiative) provides competitive small grants to help sociologists who are working at the community level.. To apply for funding, visit www.asanet.org/funding/cari.cfm.

Outside of the ASA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Program on Science and Human Rights has a "Scientists on Call" service that matches scientists with specific expertise to organizations seeking related skills and knowledge. Social scientists have been sought to assist on projects such as: evaluating data management systems for human rights projects; conducting cost-benefit analyses of a human rights-based health care system; analyzing data on the impact of extraction mining on children; analyzing pre- and post-tests of students’ knowledge of human rights. They are currently seeking a Spanish-speaking social scientist with expertise in survey design to assist in assessing compliance with the right to education.

In a January 2010 issue of the weblog Resilience Science, Garry Peterson of McGill University described the myriad ways ordinary Haitians supported each other to survive in the aftermath of the earthquake. He explained what sociologists of disaster know, namely that, when crises occur, nearly without exception, community members use whatever resources they have at hand to help each other. Sociologists, as scholars and citizens of the global community, possess powerful resources to contribute. logosmall


Danticat, Edwidge. 2011. "A Year and a Day." The New Yorker. January 17, 2011.

Golash-Boza, Tanya. 2010. "Bandits Going Wild in Haiti and Other Post-Quake Myths." ASA Footnotes, 38:2 February.

Peterson, Garry. 2010. "Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting." Resilience Science. January 30. (http://rs.resalliance.org/2010/01/30/haiti-disaster-sociology-elite-panic-and-looting/)

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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