Societies in past and present are regularly confronted with major hazards, which sometimes have disastrous effects. Some societies are successful in preventing these effects and buffering threats, or they recover quickly, while others prove highly vulnerable. Why is this?
Increasingly it is clear that disasters are not merely natural events, and also that wealth and technology alone are not adequate to prevent them. Rather, hazards and disasters are social occurrences as well, and they form a tough test for the organizational capacities of a society, both in mitigation and recovery. This project targets a main element of this capacity, namely: the way societies have organized the exchange, allocation and use of resources. It aims to explain why some societies do well in preventing or remedying disasters through these institutional arrangements and others not.
In order to do so, this project analyses four key variables: the mix of coordination systems available within that society, its degree of autarky, economic equity and political equality. The recent literature on historical and present-day disasters suggests these factors as possible causes of success or failure of institutional arrangements in their confrontation with hazards, but their discussion remains largely descriptive and they have never been systematically analyzed.
This research project offers such a systematic investigation, using rural societies in Western Europe in the period 1300-1800 - with their variety of socio-economic characteristics - as a testing ground. The historical perspective enables us to compare widely differing cases, also over the long run, and to test for the variables chosen, in order to isolate the determining factors in the resilience of different societies. By using the opportunities offered by history in this way, we will increase our insight into the relative performance of societies and gain a better understanding of a critical determinant of human wellbeing.
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