In Disaster's Wake, Tightly Knit Communities Suffer More

Researchers find that strong ties to a neighborhood, while normally a good thing, can make it even harder to recover from shared stress

Image
REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Social science literature has pretty well documented the idea that the stronger your ties are to your community—the more attached to it you feel—the better off you are.

“Usually people who are more strongly rooted to place, who’ve been there longer, they have more friends there, they often have kinship networks there, they often know local business owners, they’re heavily involved in civic and church activities, these kinds of things,” says Matthew Lee, a sociologist at Louisiana State University. “What we find is that people who are really socially active and involved, under normal circumstances, are happier.”

There’s even some evidence that these people may be healthier, too. They report being less depressed and less anxious, and in some cases, appear to have better physical health outcomes, too.

Lee and colleague Troy Blanchard, however, may have found a curious exception. The two studied communities in three Louisiana parishes off the Gulf of Mexico that were heavily impacted by the Gulf oil spill last year. And, in this context, they find being heavily attached to community actually made people more stressed out, anxious and nervous in the face of disaster.

“When people are highly attached to their communities and highly embedded, the context in which that is taking place really matters,” Lee says. “Under normal circumstances, just average day-to-day life, being strongly attached to your community is a good thing. But under crisis conditions, that’s not necessarily the case.”

He and Blanchard suggest several reasons for this in a newly published paper in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. People who are heavily attached to their communities may be less willing or able to pick up and go somewhere else, as is likely the case with many third-generation fishermen in the Gulf communities studied here. Stressed-out people who are deeply involved in their communities are likely to be surrounded by lots of other stressed-out people, and feel responsible for them. Lee has found similar reactions among socially involved residents of Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Residents along the Gulf who are deeply attached to their communities also have more to lose when those communities are threatened.

“It’s not just an economic loss,” Lee says. “The threat of them having to relocate to make a living also implies the loss of community. They would have to go someplace where they’re unfamiliar with their neighbors, they’re unfamiliar with the people they see at the grocery store and in church.”

Lee wonders if these negative mental health affects may also translate to poor physical health outcomes, although this study did not collect data on that question. He and Blanchard are careful to stress that they don’t think community attachment is a bad thing. In fact, it’s likely a key factor in the long-term resilience of a community. In the immediate wake of a trauma, though, these same ties can also make people more vulnerable.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.