Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery (Book Review)

Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery (Review)

Christopher J. Paul, Duke University. March 17, 2015.

Daniel P. Aldrich. 2012. Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Social capital has been derided as a catchall theory that is imprecise in its mechanisms, unit of analysis, and practical implications. Yet, this book adds to the extensive evidence that suggests social relations play an important role in outcomes such as collective action, civic participation, and in this work, resilience to shocks.1,2

In Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, Daniel Aldrich demonstrates the central role of social capital in promoting recovery across four major disasters, from the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo, the Kobe 1995 earthquake, the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Aldrich defines social capital as “the networks and resources available to people through their connections to others.” He uses a variety of measures of social capital, from voter turnout to participation in funerals, to evaluate their influence on post-disaster recovery, as measured by population growth and recovery aid.

Using his cases, which span nearly a century and a variety of socioeconomic settings, Aldrich tests various measures and outcomes that suggest the prominence of social capital in explaining recovery after disasters. Specifically, drawing on his own extensive research experience in Japan, Aldrich uses historical data of election and political rallies to investigate population recovery after the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo. He then evaluates the variation between two communities in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. In the remaining two cases, Aldrich looks at two very different settings: Tamil Nadu after the tsunami of 2004, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The book is not only a careful documentation of the role of social relations in four post-disaster settings, but also reads like a handbook on social science methods. Aldrich explains how critical case selection is when seeking causal inference. Throughout his cases, Aldrich gives particular attention to methodological integrity and clarity. In his qualitative approaches, Aldrich carefully documents the sources and methods for his interviews and community data, particularly as he combines data from different settings. In his quantitative analyses, he uses less common regression methods, such as the negative binomial, but clearly explains why this approach is superior. Aldrich also takes the time to explain the importance and approach of robustness checks, such as using a Hausman test when choosing between fixed or random effects models, or a variance inflation test to evaluate collinearity. Rather than reporting table after table of regression coefficients and their p-values, the book uses simulations to present graphs showing the relationships of interest, such as population recovery rates graphed against number of community organizations. Aldrich relegates the tabular evidence of regression results to an appendix.

Despite his theoretical review, methodological clarity, and multiple approaches to demonstrate the role of social capital, Aldrich has not solved the challenge scholars of social capital face in defining the mechanisms by which social capital operates. Given Aldrich’s results, we are still left wondering, does social capital matter more to outcomes for an individual or to the aggregate community? How do we distinguish between the private and public good characteristics of social capital? As others have pointed out, like human capital, social capital cannot be distilled to a single direct measurement.

Perhaps in his focus to demonstrate the prominence of social capital as compared to other explanations, Aldrich does not dwell on the other factors that do remain important in disaster recovery and development more generally. While his results demonstrate the significance of social capital, they also indicate factors, such as wealth and inequality, remain important in recovery. There is also some discussion and evidence of the “dark side” of social capital in the book, when group identification of some can result in exclusion of others, but little discussion of the implications for policy promoting social capital.

Social capital is demonstrably important, but has neither been extensively integrated into disaster recovery programs, nor historically in development aid programs more generally. The final chapter of the book discusses existing tools policymakers can use to increase social capital, particularly in the face of natural disasters, which often strip away all other resources and limit the reach of the state. Specifically, Aldrich proposes that recovery efforts reorient to focus on social infrastructure, namely efforts to keep communities intact after disasters. For example, following the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, for example, Aldrich and others attribute avoidable deaths of senior citizens to their isolation from existing community structures. Instead, refugees from disasters should be placed or reunited with community members as often as possible. The overarching conclusion that centralized plans tend to fail, including in the domain of social infrastructure, adds to the extensive evidence from the development literature.3,4

Aldrich’s book is an important contribution to the study of social capital, and a valuable guide for scholars in its methodological clarity, diverse approaches, and unique original datasets combined with existing administrative and historical data. In this case, qualitative and quantitative analyses across a variety of cases and datasets supports a claim of broad importance and relevance for social capital as a theory in social science and in application to policy.


  1. Ostrom E, Ahn T. Foundations of social capital. Cheltenham, UK; Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Pub.; 2003.
  2. Putnam RD, Leonardi R, Nanetti R. Making democracy work: civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; 1993.
  3. Easterly W. The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. MIT Press; 2002.
  4. Scott JC. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press; 1998.

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