Disasters and ‘Conditions of Possibility’: Rethinking Causation through an Analysis of Nepal Earthquakes
One of the principle challenges of post-disaster analysis is attributing causation: What causes a disaster’s aftermath? Heeding Watts’ (1983) warning against crudely attributing causation to the disaster itself, scholars have increasingly turned toward historical approaches that link outcomes to pre-disaster sociopolitical dynamics. Disasters lead to “critical junctures” and “tipping points” that “trigger” events unfolding in the disaster’s wake (e.g., Pelling and Dill 2010). In this paper I argue that the “critical junctures” paradigm shares limitations with “path dependency” theory from which it derives (David 2000), namely a tendency toward historicism—a functionalist teleology better able to explain continuity than change (Kay 2005:553). As an alternative, I use Foucault’s understanding of “conditions of possibility” (1970:xxii, cf. Popper 1957) as a way of rethinking agency/causation away from individual subjects, events, or even historical conditions toward , instead, the new, radically-destabilized “epistemological field” emerging in the disaster’s aftermath. In this new epistemological field earlier forms of subjectivity (social organization), knowledge (history), and structure (power) still exist but now in profoundly transformed and contingent material and epistemological “modalities of order” in which no outcomes are “locked in” and no “tipping points” lead to inevitable outcomes. This paper examines a series of devastating earthquakes in Nepal (1934, 1988, 2015) to consider how post-disaster “epistemological fields” open up new “conditions of possibility” within which new ideas, actions, and outcomes become thinkable and possible in ways that pre-disaster historical conditions could not have predicted.