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13 On the poverty o/theory:

natural hazards reseatch in


context
MICHAEL WATTS

From the specific kmn of material production arises a specifIC


relation of men LO nalure.
Karl Marx (1961)

We mtml take s:eriou$ly Vic::o's great observation that men


make their own bisrory, that what they can blow is what
they have made, and [w] extend it to geography.
Edwanl Said (1978)

For loo long the ruling classes have attributed to 'Nature' ..


the inequalitiu and suHering1l for wW-ch the organisation of
society is responsible.
Sebastiane Timpanaro (1915)

I have quite deliberately chosen as a tide for tbis chapter a recent book by
Edward Thompson (1978) whose substantive interests must seem, at first
glance. far removed from the geographic study of natural hazards. Tholllt)-
son's polemical treatise is in fact part of a volatile debate in British historiog-
raphy (see Anderson 1980) which speciftcally raises problems surrounding
the nature and place of fact in intellectual enquiry; the appropriate coocepts
for the understanding of social and historical processes and the distinctive
object of historical knowledge. As such The poverty (J/ theary is a work of
epistemology which emphasises that our knowledge is critically shaped by the
preoccupations we bring to it. that we interpret the world within the limits of a
historically conditioned imaginative vision, and that theory and concepts can~
not therefore be taken for granted. It is precisely this series of questions that
constitute the starting point for my evaluation of natural hazards l"C3earch. I
wish to suggest that in a critical examination of thls ~ork we should broaden
our horizons and begin with the epimemology and concepts of society and
nature; that is with the broad problematic into which hazards must be Sifu.
ared. I argue that hazard theory has been framed by concepts and assump-
tions which carry a historically specifIC view of nature. society and man aDd
hence, by extension, of the relations between them. This coIoUH the entire
corpus of hazards work. In trying to provide such a critical elaboration I w:il!h
to place the oonient of this volume into the wider body of social theory of
whil::h lZwl!raohers have all ton frnollt"ntl" .... .,... "':>rrv"hl,.lh, ,,4..,;..t......"'."" ...
MICHAEL WA TIS 233
232 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY

In delimiting natural hazards research I pay special attention to work with a I should like to begin with the work of Anthony Wilden (l~72), and ~
eross-cultural bent and particularly those studies which address hazard particular his observation, following Whitehead. that much of soetal SCJence lS
occurrence, genesis and effect in the Third World, In doing 50 ] n~riJy still living on the intellectual capital a(.(!umulated from the 17th eentury. It
engage the enormous volume of work in the cognate field of hwnan-cultural was, of course, precisely during this period when 'nature' ~e ~ateria~y
ecology since, especiaUy over the pa$t five years, there has been mucb and ideologically commoditised, an object of control and dommatJOn (Lew
theoretical inre.rcbange. While I appreciate that the work on hazards in the 1974, Merchant 1980), Coeval with the transfonnation of nature and science
less developed countries hardly constitutes the entire body of hazards was a fundamental restructuring of social relations emerging from new fonns
research. the issues] raise are entirely apPOsite and relevant to the field as a of rommodily production, in short from a nascent capitalism, "':ildcn sees the
whole, Indeed, Kates' (1971) human ecological perspective and White's use of a Newtonian-Cartesian science - of the world as constituted by self-
(1974) questionnaire methodology have been appliedgrosso nrodo in First regulated closed systems - as: rapidly imported into the mainstream of biolog-
and Third Worlds alike. ical and social science where it still resid~ and flourishes. In his own words:
In the light of my agenda.. this chapter has five major sections. TIle first
examines the epistemological and conceptual Urtderpinllings of man-nature 'In a word, science. ideology, and economics aU became united around a
relations in general; tbe second analyses tbe eritical concept of adaptation as a conception of the individual and the organism (d. Freud, C1aude Bernard.
motif pervading both hazard and cultural ecological research. The third see-- Piaget) as isolated systems. governed like billiard balls by "forces'"
don specifically invc$tigates geographic hazards work in ligbt of my theoreti- ("instincts" In psyebology and ethology), aU on the same plane of being. all
cal concerns, particularly the prevalence of cybernetic views of social systems &epaxate from their environment(s) and from the various levels of the gen~
and the individual rationality approach to hazard behavionr. The fourth prow era! environment. Organism, atom, and person became ODtologically and
poses an alternative materialist epistemology and theory with special attention ideologically equivalent - and explained by overt or covert mechanical
to the dual foci of labour (lJOCial relations of productiOn) and intetSUbjective metaphors. The "Cree" individual_ was: in fact - and still is - a metaphor of
meanings in the society-nature relation. And tinally, part five is an empirical her or his status as a commodity in the marketplace:
case study whicb attempts to apply these materialist postulates to the drought (Wilden 1979, p. 77).
hazard among peasants in nortbern Nigeria.
I
I,
For Wilden epistemology is principally a question of distinction, of, as he puts
it, 'Where you draw the line'; aceordin&ly. the line drawn. for instance. be
Epistemology and the human-env;ronmelll problemtJtic
A proper starting point for the study of environmental hazards is the epis--
temology and conception of natwe itself (see Golledge 1979). A great deal of
I tween 'organism' or 'human' and the 'environmenl'~ is one such epistemO<-
logical distinction. In this case it has arisen in part from the solipsism of
Descartes., but like aU lines it is a necessary fIction. This type of punctuation
the ronceptuaJ and theoreticaJ questions posed by the natural hazard para- or boundary distinction is essential in a methodological sense, but such imag;..
digm: emerge from the broad epistemologieal context in whicb such work is I nary or socially ronstituted oppositions (a) become real for those who employ
ultimately grounded. This sbould come as no surprise became, as Gregory them and (0) can serve inappropriate and often exploitative ends. Of course
Bateson pointed out long ago. epistemological premises which predicate aD Wilden eannot lay claim to this ins~t since it WM William Blake who
mteltectuallabout are notoriously sticky and colour aU theoretical practice. I observed over 150 years ago that 'Nature hath no outline but Imagination
shall examine three authors - Anthony Wilden. Andrew Sayer and KArl Marx has'. A5 Blake understood so well! these epistemological issues should not be
- whose work is of great practical significance in understanding the relevance taken lightly, but unfortunately few geographers read "The Marriage of
of epistemology for both a criticat evaluation of bazards work and also for I Heaven and HeU'.
Sayer (1980) in a brilliant contnnut:ion does, however, start precisely from
situating such work into the wider realm of contemporary social theory. ]
cannot hope to do justice to the enormity of this task; but] would like to ralse
I this epistemological juncture. He posits that geographen have in fact bad
c:rplktdy what is at best only implicit in much of what passes as hazard little (0 say on these subjects largely because a- positivist science sees 'such
research, namely the manner in which we know and the reliability of I vague subjects as the essential character of people and nature .. , 9$
'environmental knowledge', the nature of the object(s) of knowledge and the "metaphysical" and/or meaningless or at least irrelevant> (1980. p. 20). The
social situation under wbich knowJedge and the object of knowledge is pro-
duced. All thi! is to say that we cannot take ror granted the relationship
I naive, cmpiridst view of nature as a consteftation of pbyskal 'facts', unam
biguously obsen;able and unified through a positivitlt deductive method,
between people and nature, between knowing subjects and objects of study or
between theory and fact.
II welded together the entire body of social and natural seJern:;es. To the extent
that lre02rauhers took a stance on what Wf"1"r W'i"n M " - m ... h .....h"'d ... <>1 flo" ......
234 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY MlCHAEL WATTS 235

the belief in a neutral observation language led in a de focW way to the Althongh geographic 'WOrk on hazards bas often been seen as a separate
reroguition of a commonsense epistemology as the basis for all knowJed~.ln realm of enquiry associated with dedsion~making models (see Burton et aI.
this way, parocbial knowledge was based on taken-fur-granted assumptions. 1978). it is clearly aligned with the phalanx of work which broadly faUs under
eternal verities which remaJned largely unexamined. Burgess (1976) has the title of human-cuttural ecology or ecological anthropolt>gy. nis kinship
rightly suggested that the failure explicitly to addressor probleroatise funda.- has developed as geograpbic hazards work embraced cross-cuJtural and Third
mental categories such as nature or the individual An geographical discourse World subject matter (Kirkby 1914). My first point is that, even in diaehronie
bas resulted in an extraordinary eciecmm, The people-nature debate accord- analyses, people and nature are seen as discrete entities - culture and envi~
ingly oscillated between idealism and crude materialism, between detennin- ronmenl - in which the latter is seen lJ.S limiting, non-dynaroic and generally
ism and possibilism, and between '3 naturatisation of bumanity and a human- stable, Anderson (1973. p. 203) has commented on this division in light of thc
ation of Nature' (see Smith 1919. Smith & O'Keefe 1980). ' functionalist bias in human ecology. a point to which I wiU return later:
Why, then. would heady diseourses be pertinent to a diSCU5SIDn of the
merits of hazard resea.rcll? In short 1 would like to suggest that, following *The structural-functionalist approach and its dominant strategy of analysis
Sayer, we must recogn1&e the essential and necessary unity of society and encourage the treatment of ecology (generaUy meaning "environment") as
nature and that 'to start in the conventional manner with such a separation a discrete component among: other institutional components. Thus tnOSt
followed by a listing of interactions would be to pr~udice every other aspect ethnographies or problemo()riented studies begin with a chapter on the
of the e~ition' (Sayer 1980, p. 22). Properly defined. nature is intemaUy physical environment - the gross natural setting of the sociocultural inves-
differentiated and the subject matter of human ecology is accordingly tigation. Since the contents of the chapter are seJdom referred to sub$e-
inneractions with nature (Sayer 1979). what Wilden (1972, p.220) calls qnently. we jnfer that such infonnation is viewed as a backdrop, discretely
'messages-in-circuitt. At tbis point Wilden andySayer come together, for this separated from the primary components of the study!
internal differentiation perspective leads inexorably to a discussion of ituJe".
action sbared between bumans and nature and those which are particular to In spite of the dams of Winterhalder (1980), who has rightly pointed out that
humans; where, in other words, one draws the line. These epistemological this conception of nature ean be improved by increasingly sophisticated
lines are controver&ial (Tmlpanaro 1975) and in geographic work some fun- description of the environment - spatial heterogeneity, patchiness, temporaJ
damental attributes of social life are misrepresented. Deterministic concep- patterns. resilience, stability and so on - by positing a static polarity. the
tions of people and nature reduce humans to objects in which their role as direction of subsequent analysis is inevitably limited. Wbat emerges is a
subjects and agents of history, as conscious. active and intentional producers rather mechanical, biJHard-board view of the world in wh~ individuals,
of social relations and material conditions. is irrevocably lost, Wbile much of organisms. populations and critical environmental variables interact or inter-
recent cultural buman ecological or hazard work has moved beyond a crude face. What is Jacking conversely is (lumped together in the category 'culture'
determinism or possibilism. the question of epistemological assumptions or 'man') the highly oompJexsocial production ofmoJeriaJ life.
remain. I shall argue that such endeavours nevertheless posed the peo- The second point, which follows logicaRy from the first, is that the pattern
ple-natuu.:: reJation in a manner whicb partially misrepresents human Jite. of interaction is ronce:ived along neo-Darwinjan lines (see Alland 1975,
Speeifieally I believe that much conventional work rests on building blocks Durham 1976. Vayda & McCay 1975). This is made most explicit in the early
inbcritcd from biology and cybernetics. This eoosystemic approach, broadly work of Vayda and Rappaport (1967) when they suggest that societies can be
defined, blurs and obfuscates the charnc1er of mnernctions and erodes the conceptually lIeated like an}' other bioJogical population in a web of eoosys-
irredlltibly social character of human life to atoml:sed individuals Of organ- temie relations. The character of 'man-environment interactions' is then seen
isms - albeit rational decision makers or Simonian satisficers - whose status is through the particuJar biulogical optic of adaptation. Once again Rappaport
roughly synonymous with that of a top carnivore. This biotogicallinea~ can, (1977) makes this clear wben he talks of human society as one form of living
I shalJ argue, be identified through the critical role wbich the concept of system; like all Jjving systems. processes of adaptation - or adaptive structure
atitJp/.atkm holds in most human cultural ecological work. - inhere within them, In his own words. 'I take the lerm adaptation to refer to
the processes by which living systems maintain homeostasis in the lace of both
short-term environmental fluctuations and l by transforming their own struc-
Adaptation as a frame of reforence tures, through long~term oonreversing changing in the composition and struc-
ture of their environments as weU' (Rappaport 1979. p. 14S).lt is at tbis point
In this section, 1 would like to make two bask arguments with respect to the that the intellectual conduit between biology and systems theory becomes
generaJ body of environmental research of which hazards is specifically part. clear, Ecolo~icaI an(hrOf)Olollv in uarticular has adontt'ln A M/hfornt'"fu. "i.. _ of
MICHAEL WATTS 237
236 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY

adaptive process in social life. SpectfreaUy. social systems are seen asgenerul which for the: fint time explicitly weds cultural ecology with natural hazards
purpo5e syslemf. whose goal is nothing more tban survival; that is. they can be through the concept of adaptation. Emphasising irs similarity to Darwinian
conceived as a class of 'existential games' in which there is no way of using seJection theory and its stress of the efficacy of responses, this new hazard
wrnoinp ("payoff') for any purpose other than continuing the game for as focus avoids the obvious pitfalls of a theory which is preoccupied with energy
long as possible' (Past. 1968. p. 7). From the. perspective of human-environ- as the critical interface.
ment relations, the specific form of interaction foUows the general model of In spite of the obvious advanaes of the 'new eoology' (Robson 1918. Octove
Skibodkin and Rappaport (l974) on orderly adaptive structure which posses~ 1980, Rappaport 1979). it is clear that new difficulties have emerged as
ses fundamental organhational and temporal characteristics; 'successful anthropologists and geographers move away from relatively isolatcd com-
evolution requires the maintenance of flexibility in the response to environ- munities to the study of social groups in transition. 1bese problems are, I
menial perturbation and that this flexibility must be maintained in the most believe derived directfy from a theoretical starting point which sees 50eiety as
j

parsimonious way. 1bc parsimony argument is that organisms must not make a type of self-regulating. seifw()l'ganiziug living system isomorphic with nature
lim excessive or unnecessary commitment in responding to perturbation, but il5elf. 1:'This] theoretical practice might be called "ecology fetishism",
at the same time the deeper responses must be ready to take over to the Nothing cultural is what it seems; everything is mystified as a natural fact
degree that the superficial responses are ineffective' (SJobodkin IlL Rappaport which has the ostensible virtue of being basic ... Marriage becomes an inter~
1974, p. 198). At the instant of perturbation a series of responses is tri.Mered change of ,generic materials, .. society a popwation of human organisms and
which can be onkred in tenns of activation time and commitment of canmbalism a sUbsistence activity' (Sablins1976. p. 88), This is not th~ place
Ie$QUlces. 1be graduation of responses witb respect: to time also orders theJll to enter into a protracted critique of new developments in human-envtron-
in terms of deptb of commitment. As a theoretical foct1$, then. adaptation ment relations, but I sbould qke to raise two critkisms which are of signal
became cybernetic. organised and hierarchical since 'aU biological and evolv~ importance, DOt least for the study of hazards. First, the cultural ecological
ing systems ... consist of complex cybernetic networks' (Bateson 1912, p. model is fJnctionalist in the sense that institutions and behaviours emerge as
13). rational; their utilitarian purpose is to fulfij prescribed functions with regard
An advantage of adaptation so defined is that it allows one to talk sensibly to the mainteIUtD<;e of popoJations in a human ecological niche, that is'to say
of dysfunction or maladaptation, which has been a major shortcoming of withsunillal. Persistence, then, was a measure of adaptation. This, however,
cu.ltwal ecology. Rappaport (1977). of course, sees maladaptation as those raises some tricky questions. Not only does a purely utilitarian view of social
factors internal to systems which intetfere with their homeostatic responses, Jife deny (:mture - anthropology loses its object as Sahlins (1976. p. 90) puts it
They reduce survival cbano:'!:s since thcy constitute impediments to an effi~ - but in the process adaptation becomes teleologicaL In other words, adaptive
clent and parsimonious response to stress ot environmental hazards. In fight processes are framed by their survival function; they are defined in terms of
of the structural qualities of adaptation, maladaptation can, then, be seen as a their results. H this is not the case, the central problematic becomes either
dass of patboklgies or anomalies in the hierarchical and qbemetic function~ uninteresting or simply a truism. "I'o say that a society funetioDS is a truism
ing of aU living systems. Response may be too slow or too rapid. systems may but to say that everything in a society functions is an absurdity' (LeviStrauss
be overcentralised ('hype:rcohercnf) or oversegregated; subsystems may 1963, p. 13). This adaptive-qbemetk view of functional and self-regulated
rome to capture ('usurp') high"'()rder systems; the autarky of subeomponents living systems leaves two I!iOTlS of residues; first, something vastly more simple
may be eroded (see Fl.nnery 1972). In short, what BateSO" tak.. to be the than the 8Ctua} 'adaptive processes' could account for the phenomenon under
fukrum about which successful adaptation revolves. namely flexibility, has study (Bergmann 1975). And secondly. system. (including social system.)
been in various ways structurally inhibited. need not be cybernetic in order to be "ystems,
All this has taken us a long way from the early cultural-human ecology of
'human niebes', adaptive radiation, and buman ecological succession. This ] 'Systems need not be cybernetit:: in order to be systems. Cybernetic systems
would suggest was inevitable if only becaUSe the early simplistic ecological are specific in that they are managed and regulated hierarchically. The
models were obviously incapable of handling societies in transition. where systems to which I refer, and which 1 think are the normal case for human
formerly autarkic systems wcre being incorporated into a global economy, At social systems tbat are not self.ronscious entities, are those in wbich there
any rate the work by Morren (see ch. 15) and WaddeU (1975) on response are numerous processes and tendencies that are basically contradictory to
systems, and 01 Vayda (1974, 1976) and Rappaport (1977) on pw:porterlly one another. There are, of course, numerous limits that are never
maladaptive systems. has clearly deepened our understanding of transactions exo;eded, but for reasons that have nothing to do with any regulatory
between societies and their environments.. Indeed, Vayda and McCay (1975) procedure with respect to those limits!
have advocated a hazards research approach to the study of human ecology (Friedmann 1979. o. 2.'iQl.
MICHAEL WATTS. 239
238 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY

The second criticism pertains tess to the theoretical poverty of functionalism What, then, is the signmcanceofthesc derivations? I believe that they under-
and adaptation in social systems, than its ideological basis, This raises the write much of hazards research in geography and other disciplines and that
spectre of the conception of mind and man (Friedmann 1979). Sahlins (1976. they are in a fundamental sense bighty problematic, In short, maladapts.tion,
p. 90) fur instance noted that ecological studies displace the notion of mind or the inabilitJy to acrommodate bazards, is not simply a question of bierar~
from the realm of humanity to the ecosystem. This is clearest in the work of chlcal control systems which are there but misu.o;e.d, or qujte literally messed
Bateson (1972. 1978) for whom 'the individual mind is immanent but not up. Equally adaptation is 001 only or even primarily a question of values or
only in the body' (1975, p. 436). Mind is a regulated totality organised as a ideology in which clt.ange is a programme based on rontrol. rules, principles
central hierarchy from the lowest life forms to ecosystems that constitute the aDd regulation rather than socioeconomic structure&. And not least,
universe. This Hegelian view is. of course. embodied in the orderly adaptive man-nature relations are nol a priori cybernetic, 10 return to the motif of
structure which inheres in .aU living systems. Rappaport and Bateson in par- Bateson, humans never simply chop wood, Rather humans enter into a specific
ticular see mind as a type of metaphor and homology for their adaptive relation with the wood 'in terms of a meaningful project whose finality gov-
framework; control hienuehies. therefore" consist of graduated regulators, erns tbe tenns of the reciprocal interaction between man and tree' (Sahlins
the more abstract regulators occupying a critical role in social systems, Thi$ is 1976. p. 91). This is for Sahlins a cultural project. a symbolic order of inter~
why abstract. non-specific 'commands' such as religion are critical for the subjective meanings. in which natwe is harnessed in the service of eulture.
adaptive context of social syslems (Rappaport 1979). But it is above al1 social and it necemtales material produclicm; as Marx put
In transcending the mundane to the ethereal TCalms of mind illJCClDS we it, animals collect but only humans produce <through the appropriation of
have drifted still further from hazards, hut I am arguing that it actually strikes nature by the individual within and through the mediation of a definite fonn
to the very core of the concerns of this volume. Let me simply raise three of society' (Schmidt 197Z. p. 68). But tWs production is not Simply survival,
concerns that reflect the centrality of these. views in hazards research. First, to for societies survive in upecijic. Imtorically detennlrlare way; they reproduce
the extent that systetll$ do not work in the face of hazards or stress, i.e, they themselves. albeit.as systems, but also as certain kinds of men. women, classes
are not adaptive, it is simply because regulatory hiera:rchies are mixed up or and groups, not as organisms or aggregates tbereof. Friedmann (1979) is very
l1OU-Qrderly. In the parlance of the cultural/human ecologist, there is 'hyper~ probably correct in seeing the cybernetic vision as ideological', wholly approp-
coherence' (overcentralisation) or 'usurpation' Oower-Qnier goals take over riate to our rontext of industria] and bureaucratic capitalism.
1 wouid like to suggest that the cybernetic-adaptive systems perspective m
rugh-Qrder regulators). and SO on. 'I'his is a function or industrialism. of tech-
nology or erron in tlUnking. and of 'attitudes:in rnxidental culture' (Bateson
1972. Rappaport 1917), and hence a new value system is required. But the
II the legacy from which the human ecology of hamrds also suffers; it has
defined the man-nature problematic for much of this work in a manner which
nature of the socioeconomic system is rarely addressed. Secondly. nature and leaves it open to the criticisms 1 have just levelled, There is a sense in which
ecosystems are seen as well regulated sets of interlocking programmes. social systems.,. however. have never been adaptive; that the assumption of a
messages and energy flows with which man, and particularly primitive man, priori cybernetic regUlation may be appropriate for individual human organ~
is and was one. Anthropological work illustrates that human practk:e :inter.. isms but not for social systems whicb are accumulative, contradictory and
digitated with the cybernetic principle of the larger ecosystem. a regulation unstable. In the following section, 1 will examine brietly how hazards research
somehow grasped through religion. But with the evolution of more complex has attempted to deal with these unique qualities of social systems.
societies nature issomehow contradicted; the age of Rousseau is superseded. by
an industrial ideology which is intrinsically maladaptive. Our civilisation. with
its linear purposive thinking, contradicts the seJf~maintaining. circular nature Hazards in conleXt
oHbe ecosystem (Bateson 1972). And thirdly> the structure of human activity-
hence of the conception of "man' - assumes a characteristically cybemctk: Roughly thirty yearn ago. largely under the auspices of Gilhert White. a fieki
form; culture becomes, as Sahlins '(1976, p. 90) puts it, the self-mediation of of geographic natural hazards reseatih was conceived.. Initially directed to the
nature; it is simply a systematically governed. fonn of human response. Tbis is amelioration of flooo-control probJems to the United States, the project has
clear in Baleoon's favourite iUustration of man-nature interaction: 'Consider, expanded to include a plethora of 'natural' and man~made hazards and the
a man felling a tree with an axe. Eaeb stroke of the axe is modified or collective wisdom has been drawn together in two major works by White
CO1'C.(:ted. according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the (1974) and Burtonel aL (1978). This is not the place to rehearse many of the
previous stroke. 1'be self-corrective (i.e. mental) process is brought about by a wen founded criticisms of this work (Torry 1979. Wadden 1977. O'Keefe &:
total system, tree~eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-lree; and it is this tOlal Wisner 1975). Suffice it co say that many of the f(lIaYs into Cfoss-cu1rural
system that has the characteristics of immanent mind' (Bateson 1912, p, 317). investigation were especially parochial; the rigid and; on refleclion. extraor~
ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY MICH AEL WATTS 241

diuarily naive questionnaire design (White 1974, pp. 6-10) which provided iwo poSitions, The first. based on a sbarp disjuncture between bumans and
the fonndatlon for lnternational Geographical Union sponsored researdt in their physical environment, sees society 85 aggregates of individual ~cision
the less developed countries was characteristic of the crude scientism, the makers in a fashion which enables Chinese .communes and US corporatIOns to
ethnocentrism and the atbeoretical basis of the hazard project as originally be juxtaposed 'with little sense of the profound differences between modes of
conceived. As is clear in ret~. these fie1d studies were ahistoric. insensi- social organization' (Walker 1979. p. 113). There 15 a sense in Which, in this
tive to culturally varied indigenem. adaptive strategies, laIgely ignorant of the view. individuals arc atoms, society is irreducibly individuated and &tructure~
huge body of relevant work on disaster theory in sociology and anthropology, less. and hazard theory emerges as a none 100 sophisticated type of Uonean
flawed by the absence of any discUS5ion of the POlitical-economic context of taxonomy. As Smith and O'Keefe comment. l'his dualism does not surpass
~~rd ~rrence and genesis. and in the final analysis having little eredibil~ the subject-object distinction of nature and society and so reduces scientific
fty In Ught of tbe frequent banality and triviality of many of the researdt inquiry to an examination of two foIlIlS whOse esscvtial natures are given.
finding, (Waddell 1977). More frequently, disaster vulnerability is analysed as if nature is neutral so
:roo theoretical ~ conceptual poverty of the last decade's work emerges, 1 that the environment is bazardous only when it "intenect5 with people"
~lnk. from two eplSt~logical tendencies, The first pertains to the. contep-- (Smith & O'Keefe 1980. p. 37). Maladaptation in IiOciety. to the extent it is
~Km 1)( the hwnan-----envtronment transactions, that is the status of nature and discussed at aU. simply be<:omes a type of cybernetic malfunction. mistaken
Us transfomlation through htlIIlan practice. And the second is the invocation perception, impemxt knowledge, or inflexible decision-making apparatuses.
of ra~onality as the peculiar optic through which individual and socia! 1be second approacil- characteristic of more receot work on Third World
beha\llO~ are brought into focus. Put differently, it is the undisciplined communities in hazardous environment& - collapses internal into emmal
ooncePbons of the nature of individual and IiOcietY. which of COUtsC suikes to nature. This: is elearest in the synthesis between anthropology and geography
the very beart of aU social theory, that bas acted as a fetter on the past three (see Morren's chapters in this volume) wbich explicitly employs the adapta-
decade's labours. And yet as much as it is firmly embedded in social science tion problematic discuue.d earlier. Vayda and Mt.Cay (1975) adV()(:8te a
proper, hazards research ha$ operated with a rather simple human ecological h37.ards research approach emphasising a similarity to Darwinian selection
model( Kat c:s 1971), ~Iy cybernetic in form, whicb pul'p()rt8 to explain the theory and particutarly the efficacy of adjustments; that is, with emphasis On
~Jdespread. trrationabty of exposure and response to enviroru:nental pertmba~ factors important to the response of the sy'stem to stress, rather than on those
tIOnS. 1r~tc~ .~ Kates-While-Burton paradigm is predicated on an relating to its caUse. In many respects the very best of the recent work on
assum~n of Individual puxpaseful ratioruillty expressed through a tripartite hazard exposure in Third World societies bas emerged from this synthesis
Cfbeme~ structure: (a) hazard perception, (b) recognition of attema- (Waddell 1975). The increasingly sophisticated attention to ethnoscience and
tlYeS-adJus':Inents,(~) cbo~ofresponse. As Walker (1979, p. 113) bas put it. people's knowledge as the basis for bazard response (Ricbards 1978, Wisner
however, thIS model IS manifesdy inadequate to explain buman behaviour and 1981); the recognition that the 'closure' of autarkic communities bas been
a strategic di~rsion is COB5tructed around it. R.esponses to bazards 8re arbit~ progressively eroded by thefr incorporation into global. market systems, which
rarl~ ~tegor~ a;' pu.rposeful aM non-p~fnl, witb the latter further has important implications for the loss of regui8$01)' autonomy in relation to
5Ubd.iVl~ed into tncl~ntal. cultural and bio~l adaptations, the theoretj.. the physical environment (C.larkc 1977); and the emphasis 00 constraint
cal mgniticanee of this taxonomy is far from clear, however. Following Her~ rather than choice in hazardous environments, on tbe loss of so<:W or indi-
bert Simon. individual bebaviour is seeD as boUfldedly rational in which vidual flexibility and on distortions in the temporal order of decision mating
human agents, circumscribed by impe:rfect knowledge, perceive and act upon (Grossman 1979) - have all vastly strengthened the brittle theoretical basis of
the WOrld. Fautty perception and inappropriate psychological propensities much early work. Not least in this regard bas been the renewcd attention to
(!br exa.m ple , ~ gambler's fallacy) are given analytic priority in tbe explana- the unit of analysis in response systems, tbe temporal sequencing of adaptive
bOn of meffectIVe bazard response. responses, (he importance of tbe sociocultural wntext and the admittedly ill
On balance. this hUman ecology model vacillates between inwvidual and specified 'external system', the long-term resiliency of social systems (Hol-
!Kldal causes of behavioural irrationality. Much of the work demonstrates ling 1973). and on intellectual movement away from the preoccupation with
unequivocally that social context and political economy mediate individual energy relations and material flows (Vayda & McCay 1975).
perception. Yet ill spite of the recognition by Kates, White and others of the And yet in spite of these advances. the new bazards work suffers from the
strateg~ impo,: of social causa~ty, they have no social theory capable of limitations of much ecological anthropology (the <new functionalism' as it is
~g !IOC1.9:1 process, organtsation or cbange, To return to the epis- sometimes called), the epistemological and theoretical problems of wbich I
tem.olbgkal mot,if of our earlier discussion, lbe social and individual side of have already discussed. In fact. what is most excitmg in this work is procisely
the hUUlall-envlI'ontnent equation seems to waver inMnclus.iveJy between tbat wbich threatens to break out of the rigid adaptation or human ecological
ON THE POVERTY OFTHBORY MICHAEL WATTS 243
242
framework; take (tarke's work for instance, 'As society and economy are standing of the relation between what had been oonvent~any seen. as a sta~ic
enlarged in ~ course of development, a& oommuniliel> trade aUI8rky for polarity, The content of this metabolism is .tha~ :na~ure IS hUnuu;ti:z.ed while
access to a wider range of goods and services.. new and coarser patterns of men are naturalised' (Schmidt 1971. p. 78) In hlStoncally determined nns. rt:
resource evaluation and selection replace old, fioor patterns. Specialisation The whole Qf nature is socially mediated as society is simuJtmeousiy mediated
replaces diversity; eoooomic risk is added to natural risk' (Clarke 1977, p. through nature as a component of total reality. As Alfred Schmidt observed
384). The foci for Clarke are essentially political-economic, bigbJighting the in a lxxlt on the concept of nature by Marx. 'Labor power. that "material, of
subsumption of local production SJstems, largei}' through exchange and nature transferred to a human organism," acts on the materials of nature which
commodity relations. into a global ecoo.omy. And I believe that this provides are outside man; it is therefore through nature that nature is transformed.
the groundwork ror anotber approach to human ecology. Put differently, I Men incorporate their Qwn essential forces inlo natural objects which have
would like to suggest that the fortes and social reJations of production oonsti~ undergone human labor. Through the same process, natural things gain a new
tute the unique starting point for human adaptation wlridt is the appropria- social quality a5 U5e~va1ues, increasing in richness in the courSe of history'
tion and transformation of nature into material means of social reproduction, (Schmidt 1971. p. 78). Nature, then. is historically unified through the labour
Thl$ process is both social and cultural and it re1lects the relationships to and process,
participation in the production process.. For our purpose$., this does not In contradistinction to human ecology, which has tended either to human-
dclegitimise the study of Melanesian carrying capacities or hazard responses in ise nature or naturalise man, a materialist pers.pective on society and nature is
Botswana, but situates these questions in a new oontext~ dialectical and internally related (OUman 1974). I would like to suggest that
Man's metabolic metaphor provides a richer conceptual frame for both
<Neverthe!csli, it is important not to allow an empiricist concern fot human-cultural ecologists and specifically for the study of hazards. FoUowing
operationalization to eliminate a consideration of fundamental issues of Sayer (1980), this involves two critical concepts: (a) labour and (b). intersub-
political economic analysis, From this latter perspective, the production jectivity. With regard to the fonner, labour can be seen as the intentional and
focus dovetails directly with problems of access to and/or control over the active transformation of nature for survival; that ist the motion of man on
means of production in a given society; and, most importantly, how the nature produces use-values for consumption. But Jabour is more than a simple
total product of that socicty is aUocated among various groups within its change in the fonn of matter~ it is a process in which man and nature partici-
population. With the e~ception of certain simple band or tribal societies, pates, in which humans start. regulate and control the material reactions
this kind of inquiry inevitably leads into a study of the political power betwcen selves and nature' (Marx 1967, p. 177); in wbich by acting on the
structure and social ranking or stratification'. (Cook 1975, p. 41). external world and changing it, man changes his own nature, At the same
time the transformation of nature can only work with its given materials;
hum~n practice cannot transeend the laws of ecology, only the form in which
Labour, fUlture and social reproducoon these laws express themselves. It is. rather, the social structure which 'detcr~
mines the form in which men are SUbjected to these (naturaU Jaws. their mode
In Marxist scholarship, nature a5 somehow separate from society has no of production. their field of applkadon, and the degree to which they can be
meaning. 'This is not simply to suggest that nature is mediated through and understood and made socially useful' (Marx, in Schmidt 1971, p, 98). While
related to 5Qcial activity.' but rather that, in both historical and practical nature can only be ruled in acoordanJ;:e with its own laws, the labour process
senses, nature resides at tbe locus of all human practice. People rely on nature wbich transforms it is social in several imporrant respects, Fmt,. labour pre-
for the fuHillmentof basic needs; that is to say. the first premise of all human supposes understanding of nature's mechanisms and this knowledge is clearly
history is the production of material life which always involves a relation neitber innate nor given but is socially acquired; as Sayer (1980, p, 29)
between producers and natu(c, wbat Marx caUs the labour process. There is, observes, knowledge required from the appropriation of nature is never
then, an :irreducible unity between society and nature that is differentiated umncdiated reflexion but 'always uses means of production in the fonn of
from within.1be socially active producer "[c]onfronts the material of nature existing knowledge'. And secondly, as Marx (in Bottomore & Rubel 1963, p,
as one of hcr own forces. He sets in motion anus and legs. heads and bands. 155) bimself noted, 'In the pro;:::e'j$ of productiOn, human beings do not only
the natural forces of his [sic] body, in order to appropriate the material of enter into a reJation with Nature. They produce only by working together in a
nature in a form suitable for his own needs. By thus acting through this motion specific manner and by reciprocally exchanging their activities, In order to
on the nature which is, Qutside him and changing it, he at the same time produce, the}' enter into definite connections and relapons with one another.
changes hi& own nature' (Marx 1967, p. 177). With this <metabolic' view of and only within these socia) connections and relations does their eonnection
man and nature (Schmidt 1971, pp, 76-7) Marx introduced a new under- with Nature, i.e. production. take place'.
MICHAEL WATTS 245
244 ON THE POVERTY Of' THEORY
capitalists as the oWners and controllers of produc.ti~n. 11lerefore there is a
In the abstract, then. labour is the active and effc<:tive relation between necessary relation between the form of appropnatlOn of Nature and the
society and nature. labour is transformative and social but in its historic
social relations of production>
mission it also ehanges the social relations themseh>es, Labour as the relation (Sayer 1980, p. 29).
between people and nature is., bowever. bistoricaf in t'Nv senses: first. we must
ask what kind of labour. or labourer, or labour proooss1 There is no historical It is critical however that we move beyond the socla1 relations of production
inevitability why interaction with nal\lre is mediated through slave or serf or per re' in c~junctio~ with the forces of production - that is the totality of the
wage relations. But in any gn-en period, tbe metabolism of humans and nature tecbnk.al conditions of repf()duetion - these social relations: constitute a mode
is locked into an bistorical1y determinate structure of social relations (Sayer of produetion, Each mode contains within it certain contradictions ~d, ten~
1980). And secondly. this metabolism is blstorX:al in the same sense that it is sion, which emerge from the labour process and wbkb provide the ~ for
not Voluntarist. for <Men make their own history. but they do not make it just the social reproduction of the entire society. In other words. labour IS ~e
as they please . but under circumstances directly encountered, given and
>
moment in what Friedmann (1976) calls a total system of reproductIOn.
transmitted from the past' (Marx 1972, p. 10). In laying stress on human Among an .African peasantry this would involve the reproduction of the
agency, on histmy, on the non~telooJogical quality of social systems and on productive (agrieultural) cyele, the reproduetion of the pro~uctive (:cll (the
the structured socia! relations, a materialist pen;pective clearly does Dot sim- household), and its social relations of production <see ~illassoUJ( 1981).
ply translate into Carl Sauer's notion of "man as an ecological dominate' (JodeJier has posited the imporqmce of a dynamic conception of the condl~
which js such a strong thread in the weft of contemJXU'ary human ecology. tions of social reproduction whieb is entirely congruent with our discuSsion of
The second concept raised by Sayer. and which 1 shall only touch upon very labour and intersubjeetivity:
mperficially, is intersubjectivity. Precisely because human Ufe is irreducibly
social. interaction within society is meaningfuJ; that is. "the social is grounded 'Cbaque nivesu d'organisation soeWe a des dfets ~ues SUI Ie ~one
in the production, negotiation and use of intersubjective meanings' (Sayer tionnement et Ie reproduction de rensemble de Ja socie~ et par VOle de
1980, p. 22). As knowing subjects, then. we aU operate on the basis of consequence sur les rapports de l"homme avec fa nature .. -e'estseulement
understanding; human action is cotuliluled by intersubjeetive meanings. en tenant compte du jeu specilique de taUS les niveaux du fonctionnement
TItough they need be neither correct nor coherent, these meanings are bound d'UR systeme economique et social que ron peut dec:ouvrir la logique du
up with language, action and institutions; in short. with the practices and contenu et des formes des divers modes de representation+ des diverses
material constitution of sociefy. Meanings are, as Taylor (1911) observed, fnnnes de perception de renvironoeDlcnt' (Godelier 1974, p. 124),
cssentially modes of social relation. While this raises a host of germane ques-
tions on the relations between knowing subjects. between theory and society, Accordingly, for Gode1ier adaptation '~c avant tout la lo~ique interne de
and 50 on, I simply want to point out that the conception of the relation l'exploitaoon des ressoun;es et Jes conditions de reproducuon de ce mode
between society and nature can be constitutive and reflective of prevailing d'explojtaoon. This definition implies that adaptive processes are (a) not
social relations. This is, of course, precisely the pctint made by SaMms and uniquely constrained by nature but az..o. by tbe social relations of production
Friedmann in their critiques of the ecosystem.ic view of adaptation. and (b) often have a contradictory character which emerges from the labo~r
What, then, is the significance of the materialist perspective for adapi;'ltion process itself. Robson (1918, p, 326) is correet ~n she argues that. if
and the study of hazards? A focus oil: labour as the emOOdiment of the adaptation is fo designate a compatibility between SOCIety and nature, these
people-nature relation affirms the critical importance of social context. But mechanisms must have specific social forms and be elaborated in terms of the
in particular circumstances labour IS refracted through the prism of !Jpecijic ronditions of sociai reproduetion of society. If environmental reJatioos are,
i'iOCial relations of production: then. instances of the labour process, bazards ean (as 1 shaJi argue in the
following section) be seen as moments or crises in the sysrem of social repro--
'The manner of appropriation of Nature. i.e. Lbe fonn of our metabolism duction.
with Nature, is determined by the social relations, ehiefly to do with owner-
ship and control. and these forms of apJ'fQpriation have the effect of repro-
ducing those social relations. The separation of workers from the means of
Drought and tlu! simple reproduction squeeze: a case study in
production means that their appropriation of Nature is governed by the northern Nigerio.
interests of capitalists. and in turn this serves to reproduce the workers as:
wage-labourers because it does not give them the control of the means of Odious images of Islam have an embarrassingly longstanding Uneage in. the
West. It is. then, entirely appropriate that Roder and Dupree (1974). m a
production to enable (hem to become anything else. and it reproduces the
MICHAEL WATTS 24'
246 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY

study of drought among Rausa peasants in Muslim northern Nigeria, should by the ruling class) was not a dominant ~baracttris~c of the productive srs-
discover that farmers see tbemseJves at the mercy of the etemeub and in tbe tem. Craft production and petty commodity production generally. emanat1l1~
bands of God. In their own didactic words, 'They know that drought can come from within the household strueturc. was, conversely, a widespread
again in any year and that its occurrence cannot be predicted ... When faced phenomenon throughout Hat&land. The state conlro~ the means of coer"
with drought or other natural disasten; , their chief response is to pray to cion, provided protection for the peasantry and traveUmg ~r;rumts. organ-
God' (Roder & Dupree 1974. p. US). Rather than an invoeation of tbe ised large...sca1e labour projects and acted as a guarantor m tmes of needs,
fatalistic hand of Islam - of peasant irrationality derived from the ideological Within this tn'butarv formation, peasant security in. the face of a hamrdom
hegemony of religion - I shall argue that the starting point must be the labour climatic environme~t was secured through a network of horizontal and verti-
process and the knowledge and intersubjective meanings which emerge from cal relationships and reciprocities which were embedded in the social rela
the social basis of labour. -In short. the optic through which hazards - and in tions of production.
this case drought - are examined is that of the social reJ.adons of production A necessary historical starting point in light of this brief resum6 of 50Cial
specif.k:alty in a peasant society in transition. In the case of northern Nigeria, relations in the Sototo Caliphate is the recognition that extreme dimati,
I shal1 endeavour to show that the articn1ation of a precapitalist mode of variability. particularly drought, is and was an ,intr:insk: pa.rt of nature in
production with a global capitalist system, largely under the aegis of the northern Nigeria and indeed throughout the selllt-and Sa~ltan desert edge
colonial state, explains the changing character of peasant production and in 'The recursivity of drought - and hence of tbe possibility of famine - i~
particular the current vulnerability of mral producen to environmental reOected m the historical landscape of Hausaland which is: littered witb refer-
hazards {or which they are ronceptudIy prepared. It is precisely the inability of enecs to drou&ht and tbe great famines (babban yunwa) of the past. The
some peasants to respond - in other words, to reproduce themselves - under dialectic of feast and famine Of drought and flood is a recurrent motif it
conditions of environmental risk: that cbaracterises the transformation of the Hausa society and it oa:upies a signi6cant cognitive position in the conectivt
social relations of production in Hausatand. In this sense one can quite legiti- mentalite. Not only is there a complex and subtle lexicon which pertains oc
mately talk of structural maladaptation in peas,8.Dt society in northern Nigeria. rainfall variabjljty~ but this same dimatic rontent is embodied in the mool
significant cultural and artistic forms such as praise epithets, folktales, table!
HisJorical perspective By the close of the 18th century, what is now northern and bistorical anecrlote.
Nigeria consisted of a largely Islaurised population in terms of its norms and In light of the recursiveness of rainfall and harvest variability. it is to be
values, whose rulers were also Muslim but whose legitimacy as a dynasty was expected that rural rommunities were in some sense geared to environmenta]
based on an 3,ncient pre-lsI3mic ukoki belief system. From these social and risk, Take the following connnent from Raynault (1975) describing 19th
politieallem.ions. emerged the Jihad or Holy War of 1804,lcd by a revolutio- century Nigerian Hausaland:
nary cadre - the jama'(l - committed to the overthrow of an old SflTautli
'Faced with precarious natural conditions indigenous aoclety was able tc
system. The Holy War heralded a new form of political organisation (the place into operation a series of practices, individual and collective, whicl1
emirate system) and a larger unified polity (the Sokoto Caliphate) whlch
permitted it a margin of seeurity ... traditional techniques of storage per-
'Welded together 30 emirates covering 388 485 km1 The Caliphate survived
mitted grain to be stored for relatively long periods ... which made poss-
for almost 100 years from the act:ession of Usman dan FOOio as Amir-aJ-
ible the constitution of reserves ... after the harvest the seed destined to be
muminin at Gndu in 1804 to the death of Sultan Ahmadu at the hands of the
planted the next year as 9.'eU as the quantity of grain necessary Cor the
Briwh colonial forces at Burmi in 1903.
subsistence of the group during the planting season were placed by the clan
The basic unit of production in the 19th century was the household.
head in a large granary which could not be opened until after the fltSt mins.
perhaps embracing SODS. clients and slaves in an extended domestic structure
in w~ the householder or~ed production and distribution and paid The relation between the labour process and drought extended, then. beyond
taxation. Households were often subsumed in communities controlled the sophistry of Hausa agronomy which included sorghum-millet intercrop.
through the agency ?f village heads whose responsibility extended to land ping, moisture conaervatton techniques, and the exploitation of erologicall~
sales and village adjudication. A proportion of tbe peasant surplus was varied micro-environments into the r.ocial realm. In patticular, the social
expropriated by a ruling class in tbe fonn of either labour. grain. or cash. TIle relations of production defined the socioeconomic context of hazard occur"
office holders bad tenure over "fiefs' given by the Emir. thougb they U5.ually reIKe and notably the possibility of drought-induced food shortage. The
resided OD private estates worked by slave. client and bired labour; tbey could emphasis on the role of kinship and descent grouping generally was one wa~
also demand COrvfl;C labour from villages within their territorial jurisdictioD. in which rjus were diffused and collective security instituted. Among the
Slave labour, though crueiaJ to the functioning of the large estates operated non~Muslim Hausa (he descent group referred to as the dan segment Cune-
MICHAEL WA TIS 249

248 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY


peasant life somehow optimally adapted and uJ~a~stabie. a world of benevol~
tioned precisely to this cod; '[The segment} has but one function: when the ent patrons and weJfare-minded rulers. The ~phate. was~ of ~. a class
grain stores of onc household are exhausted, its bead may borrow grain from societ)' predicated on a determinate set of sooal relations lD which surpluses
another [segment] househoJd and repay that grain at harvest without interest' were canalised from the countryside to the cities. Rather,l simply wi.&b to
(Faulkingham 1971, p. 123). At an ideological Jevel. the redistributive ethic suggest that some institutions, ~anism8 and practices- indeed sorru: of the
was reiterated through a Muslim dogma whkh saw gift-giving as obligatory most prosaic attributes of peasant society - embodied in the Sakato CaI~pbate.
for the rich and the office-holden;, At another Jevel. otber fonnal institutional provided a measure of security and buffered honseholds. from the worst
mechanisms incumbent upon the ruling tlite served to free resources from the effects of variability in rainfaU and food supply_ 1be security a.mmgements
ricb to the peasantry. The communal work group was a case in point in which were grounded in and inseparable from ~ arcbit~twe and ~nsd~ution of
foodstuffs wel'fl released during the critlca1 pre-harvest period. A rather more the social felation of production and were mdeed mstromental m the repro-
elaborate instance was the institution of salkin noma (lit. king of fanning), duction of society at large.
who was elected by virtue of his capacity to produce in excess of 1000 bundles
of grain. ]n essence. it was an attenuated variant o.f the North American Drought and coicniaJism Colonialism in northern Nig~ria was a ~5S of
'potlak:b' in whk:h prestige accrued through the ceremonial distribution of inoorporation in which pre-capilalist modes of prodUd~ ~ art~u[.ated
feJOurces. The office of NJrldn noma entailed on the one band a redistribution with the colonial, and ultimately the global. economy: nus articulatiOn ....as
of foodstuffs through the barvest festival and on the other it was 'the ultimate principally affected through the colonial triad of tax&UOO, export commodity
production and mone:tisatlon. Altbough colonial he~em?ny left ~~t pr0-
defense against famine: when the grain in auy &ida.is exhausted, the reSidents
may obtain an interest free loan of grain from the S. noma's bins., to be repaid j ducers in control of the means of production and IDstituted mmunaI teeh~
at harvest' (Faulkingham 1971. p. 81). nological change, the process of incorporation did necessitate. a !ramforma-
In a society predicated upon an absolute hierarchical segmentation be~ I tion in the conditions of produetion. To the extent th~t pre<aplta1~1 elemen!s
tween rulers and ruled, it is hardly surprising that the upper echelons of in northern Nigeria were eroded by rolo~ial inte&f:3l1On, the a~ptive (:a~bil~
political authority in 19th..(:entury Hausaland were expected to act as the ! ity of Rausa commuDitieS and the mMgm of subsis~nce secunty accordingly
ultimate bu(fefS for the village-level redistributive operarions. The respon- ella ged. In the process, peasant producers - particularly the rural poor -
sibilities and obligations of the village heads were quite clear in this respect
and, when tbeit capabilities were oVl!l-ridden in cases of extreme se3$Onal
beer::, les& CApable of responding to and ~ping with ~th drought and rood
shortage. Traditional mechanisms and adJustments wsappeaced. the exten~
hardship. the next level of the hierarchy (the fief bolder) was activated. In sian of cash cropping undermined self-sufficiency in foodstufflil, a dependence
Katsina Emirate, for example, the district heads often kept grain at several on world commodity prices (for cotton and gro~dnuts) amplified an al~dy
cenlres throughout their district and frequently in villages where they maY bigh tax' burden. and households became increasingly vulnerable to en~n
have acted as patton to a number of cHeots. 1hese graduated responses mental perturbations such as drought or h.arvest is"bortfaU~, 'Ibls vulnetabil.ity
terminated with the state structure itselfwhJcb used the grain tythe for centrN and marginality is highlighted in four major famtnes which occurred ?u~
granaries fur organised redistribution during famine periods. the colonial period in 1914, 1927.1942 and 1951.Ica.nnot hope to do J.UStl~
The pre-capitaIist fonn of the labour process among Hausa peasantries in 10 the complexity of the process of colonial integration in northern Nigena,
relation to drought has much in common with what Thompson (1971) calls nor its effects on the structure of peasant production. both of which are
the moral economy of the poor. Scott (1976) bas in fact suggested that morN
economy js in fact chuacteristic of peasant communities generally which 8le
treated at great length elsewhere. Rather I w!ll sketch ~me of the pertin~t
aspecu. of the changing conditions of productIOn - particularly the extraetiOn
organised around the problem of risk. security and the guarantee of a margin of surplus value and the dblouement of moral economy ~ ~d draw some
of security. Scott calls this margin a subsistence ethic which can be seen as a tentative links to the inereasing hazardousness of peasant bvelibood.
general proclivity towards r.lsi; aversion in agriculture ('&afety first'), a ten- The new colonial administration sought througb taxation to divert as mueh
dency towards mutual support ('the nonn of reciprocity') and an expectation of the surplus formerlyexttaeted by the ruling ~l1te to their own coffers. Tax~
of minimum state support ("the moral economy'). Put rather differently, were reorganised but for the most part rell1amed at the sa~ l~vel and In
liau&a households in (he 19th century were largely engaged in the production some cases revealed sharp increases to compensate for the deellD~g revenue
of U8e-valnesj the simple cyele of household reproduction was in this senSe a of the elite. More traumatic. however, was the move to collect tal: m eash. ru:'t
natnral economy which involved a series of hori.zOrital and vertical ties be- grain; effective by 1910, not only did t~is Wldermlne t~e zakkat-ba$ed gratn
tween households - rather than market relations - institutionalised in the reserve but it deu:rmined the penetratiOn of a generalised modem cwrency
moral economy, i.e. the realm of intersubjective meanings. norms and rules. into indigenous economic systems. Furthermore. taxation bad profound and
All this is not to suggest a Rousseauian pre-capitaJist nirvana, a ~Jorified
ON THE POVfRT" GF ,'BEORY MJCHABL WATTS 251
250
direct implications for hunger itself. First, unlike the indigenous Hausa fiscal The deepening involvement with commodity production and casb ~ps
system, coloniaJ taxes were regular. reasonably predictable and rigid. 11Je naturally impinged upon the social organisation of agricultural productIOn
inflexibility acrordingiy took nO account of tbe realities of Rausa life: late it:cletf. Claude Raynault (1975) has shown how, in the groundnul zone or
rains, poor harvests, seasonal bunger. and a precarious environment subject Niger, this bas taken tbe form of tbe dissolution of traditional estates, an
to perturbations such as locust invasion or epidemics. The severity of colonial escalation in land sales and tbe generalisation ~f hired fann 1~bour..Change5
taxation contrasted sharply with an indigenous system which, though far from in the sociology of production were coupled With the profusion of Imported
being innocent oI extortion, made an attempt to graduate taxes according to commodities. especially cloth, which articulated with the cycle of ra~ly
existential circumstances, Secondly. the timing of tax collection assumed a inflating prices for ceremonial exchanges on the one hand, and the cham of
roIossal importance. This was especially the case throughout the principal indebtedness on the other. Stresses consequently were imposed upon the
cotton-growing areas where annual taxes were gathered prior to the ootton cotpOrateness of thc rural world: the old r~ponsibilities and obligations
harvest, leaving the rural cultivator little choice but the sale of grains when became less binding, communal work largely disappeared, and the extended
prices were lowest or alternatively vulnerable to the clutches of the family became less embracing and hence increasingly incapable of buffering
moneylender. And thirdly, the taxation system was inseparable from the individuals in crisis. In the densely settled areas, the extreme land shortages
colonial policy of the extension 01 commodity production and cash cropping heralded larger food deficits and heightened vulnerability to seasonaJ
into the countryside, It is quite clear in this respect that in northern Hausa- changes. Tbe household showed the first signs of ~ion., al'Kl: colleetive sec~
land groundnuts were the principal tax~paying crop, which perhaps goes a urity had lost its original meaning; social and famihal sobdanty appeared to
long way to explaining the apparently 'irrational' behaviour of a peasantry -:rttc
be dissolving and the gift lost its original slgnHieance. peasantry w~re to,rn
which produced more groundnuts when tbe commodity price had aetuaUy from a social matrix of kin affiliation and obligabon, and the eXIStential
fallen, More generally. of murse, tbe 'groundnut revolution', meant a problem of subsistence became subservient to marketing t>t:~aviour. In short,
decrease in the area deVoted to tood$tuffs, increasing subjection to the vag~ the social nature of the subsistence system and the quahtteS of the moral
aries of the ",'Odd commodity market. and the ever-present threat of indebt- economy were severely ruptured. Reciprocity and solidarity, and hence the
edness at the hands of middlemen, 1t is precisely in this way that the nature nature of inequality, itself had ehanged. . '
of sealnai bungercbanged in tenos of both its dynamics and the predicament The general point I wish to make is that post~1903 the margm of seeunty
of those who find tbemselves suffering from its effects. TIle net result tended for tbe Hausa peasantI}' came under siege. The colonial administration, only
to be that seasonal hunger on a local or regional scale devolved into fully 100 aware of the dangers of oveTCOncentration on cash-crop commodities, a
fledged famine, as was tbe case in 1913-14, and set a precedent for the heavy tax burden and the spectre of starvation. tended to be in the final
coionial period generally. analysis ambivalent or to overestimate the resiHency of the peasantry. The
DespIte the commercial setback of the 1913-14 famine, the groundnut outcome was in contrast to tbe previous century. that Hausaland suffered
revolution picked up momentum and became emblematic of the subsequent from three ~ajor famines in 1913-14, 1927 {1931 in much of Niger) and
expansion in the produce trade. Through this process of coDlmoditisation 'and 1942 and whose occurrence reflected an increasingly artificial character in
the increasingly important rote tbat money came to acquire, it is hardly sur- the s;nse that climatic variability became Jess crucial jn the actual genesis of
prising that the new forms of indebtedness arose. ThLs is especially so in the food shortage. This artificiality reached its apotheosis during the early 1940s
case of the co-evolution of the 'yan baranda' system and of the casb crop with a famine whose structural properties bore a striking resemblance to the
economy. The 'YIm bartznda~ constituted the lower orders of the export crop- Bengal famine of 1943.
buying hierarchy, receiving cash advances from European firms via their The point that 1 wish to emphasise is that colonialism broke the cycle of
buying agents. These sums Were in tum lent directly to the producer who reproduction of peasant households. TIle r~produetion o~ the Hausa farming
pledged bis crop to the agen(. "The interest on such loans was frequently ill the family became contingent upon the conttnued producllon of export com~
order of 100% and for the producer at least was the initial step into a cydicaJ modities; as Bernstein (1978) put it, the reproduetion of the conditions. of
debt trap. It is precisely in tills manner that urban and merchant capital commodity production became 'internalised' in the household reproductIOn
penetrated the countryside and it illuminates the way in which a domestic unit cycle. The necessity for cash ensured a greater devotion to cash crops, espe-
is drawn into au external merchant network. As Sbenton and Freund SO nicely ciaUy during periods of loW export prices and an inevitable participatioo on
put it. 'the most successful traders stood at the apex of a hierarchy of credit the part of the rural poor in the mcrcban[-credit system. Falling export prices:
and clientage that rested on tbe shoulders of village middlemen, Jiving in the were experienced by households as a deterioration i~ the te~s of e~clw!8e
interstices of a colonial economy dominated by the European finns' (Shenton which meant either a reduction in levels of consumptIOn or an mtensification
& Freund 1978, p. 13). of commodity production, 0. both. This has been referred to as <the simple
252 M1CHAEL WATTS 253
ON THE POVERTY, OF THEORY

reproduction squeeze' (Bernstein 1978, p. 63) and is one facet of what Scott concrete empirical variability in annual rainfall, and agronomic practice var~
ealled the 'margin of subsistence r.eeurity'. As ever larger areas were devoloo in tandem with tbe preciae pattern of precipitation. In this sense, agricultural
to cash crop production at the e.xpense of foodstuffs - and this was especially practice is not fixed - a sort of human ecological programme - but fiexjblc:
pernicious for tbe rural poor in closely settled areas who were cultivating with respect to environmental perturbatioDi. With regard to rainfall variation,
small holdings and experienced severe labour constraints - the reproduction suffice to say that Kaita fanners appear to have a firm grasp of those local
:"lueeze deepened and both hwger and indebtedness assume increasing processes which are obsetnble in their totality within the village territory,
JmportanCe: including an acute understanchng of the immediate geographical milieu; what
one might refer to as Hausa ethnoscience. to use the current parlance. In the
'The more commodity relations and acquisition of a cash income become case of drought. Kaita fanners had little comprehension of - or indeed intel
conditions of reproduction, then shortfalls in production and/or income can lectual interest in - its etiology. and a variety of elicitation teclmiques simply
lead to a cycle of indebtedness. Studies of peasant economy in a number of revealed a vague and iU specified association with Islamic metaphysics. On
capitalist social formations have demonstrated the phenomena of "starva- the other hand. they had a remarkable, almost visceral, grasp of the empirical
tion rents" (the payment by poorer peasanlsof bigber [ban average tents to consequences of rainfaJi deficits - or surfeits - on their crops and of the
~re a ~Iot of land for minimal reproduction needs). and of peasants prescribed ways in whicb the symptoms might be treated. First, Hansa iar w

seUmg their food crop after barvest in order '0 meet immediate cam needs. men rarely mooocrnp but plant in a polycu1tUIal fashion. Two., three or four
and su~tIcntly ba~g to buy food at higher prices. SjmilaT in principle to crops (usually millet, sorghum and oowpeas) are normally planted or inter-
tbe railer IS the practace of crop-mortgaging (to richer peasants,local traders cropped in each field. This diversity breeds a sort of systemic stability. for
or larger-scale mercbant's capitaJ) in order to acquire cash in tbe case of each crop has rather different requirements and tolerances to drought
emergeocle$i' (Bernstein ] 978. p. 63), Research has shown how indigenous crop mixtures me risk-aven;c.
guaranteeing an adequate return under unpredictable and variable C(;Qlogical
Hausa peasant producers thus became increasingly vulnerable to even circumstances.
small variations in rainfall since the margin of subsistence security had been Serondly. sbould the onset of the rains be delayed or the distribution 01
eroded, In a very rea1 sense. then, hazardsMd bun rediljined by the tronsfor'- rainfall be patchy. there are varioull forms of water conservation which can be
IPWIwn in the wcioI reloriom of p~ucticn, Indeed, the rural poor were instituted, Ridging. exploitation of seasonaUy damp boltomlanm. and varia-
vulnera.b!e to !lny sort of perturbatIOn and, under conditions of agricultural tion in the intensity of manure application, are all varied in acoordance with
stagnatiOn whICh we~ cbaracteristi~ of the colonial period, northern Nigerian rainfall. Should replanting be necessary in the aftermath of an early drought,
producers were partICularly susceptible to the UlUal environmental variability the spacing of plants (gicci) is usually widened. And thirdly. crop mixtures are
typical of the nonhern savannas. The rural poor were hyper~vulnerable for not static agronomic patterns and neither is the environment perceived as
the) succumbed to relat~ly slight O.scilIatio~s in harvest quality; a 'light' homogeneous. Haum farmers recognise and exploit several micro-
ha~~~ could herald a su~tenre CriSIS of famme proportions. particularly if environments in addition to the predominant upland (jigawa), In particular,
prevailing e.xport crop pnces tended to be tmfavourabIe. As one district tbe lowland (fodtl1t'Ul) environment, which is permanently moist and
off'ioer noted, the Hauss peasantry lived constantly in (he &hadow of famine. occasionally flooded during the rainy season, is broken down into three distinct
niches, 'The floodplain proper is used for rice and sorghum, the basin areas
1!(llQ~dJ, ~ta~n and pellSant difforentkttlon In the Hausa: village (Kaita) generaUy devoted to tobacco or sorghum and the riparian edge devoted
m whkb I lIved m 1977-8. the vast majority of households stm owned their principally to dry season irrigation and the cultivation of vegetables. This
means of production. in spite of high population densities, land shortage and lowland area is of special import when rainfall fails or fluctuates. When the
the changes wrought by colonialism. The absence of a landless class, neverthe- rains begin, the upland isusuaUy planted witb high-yieldingmiUetand sorghum,
less, should not obscure sharp socioeconomic differentiation within the rom- and the floodplain devoted to rice and long-maturing sorghum. Should these
mWlIty, the genesis and reproduction of which is precisely related to the early rains be followed by a drought - as is quite frequently the ease: about 1
appearance of ~age labour, the use of indebtedness, and the dominant roJe of year in 4 - replanting will make use of difforenJ shott-11lllmring cereals.
r:rer~an~'s cap1~ ~nder the aegis of the colonial state.ln light of this quan- Equally in the lowland environments, replanting will take cognisance of the
ti~tlve d'f&:-~tiabon am~ng peasants and the social relations of production possibility of a shortened rainy season and tberefore will usually entail the
whICh sustaD'l It. the question is wbether it makes sense to talk of adaptation replacement of rice with the less water~emanding sorghums. The same
to hazards. process of selection occurs in the lowland miero-environments and, in the
Rain comes and goes, and Hausa farmers are acutely concerned with the event of a poor cereal harvest. then increased atlention will be paid to the dry
254 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY MICHAEL WATTS 255
season agriculture (Iamb"), In short. then, the different environments are
articulated through a complex process of decision making which correlates High
with variability in rainfan (see Fig. 13.1).
in the same way that peasant farmers arc agents in the appropriation of P*tIing of formklnd
nature - of wbich drought is inextricably a part - so do they act in the face of
likely or actual food shortage. By the rains following a poor harvest, stocks of
grain are either low or oon-existent and households are faced with the p0ssi-
bility of liquidating assets to cover grain purchases. Since the probability of or money
food shortage is evident inunediately after the harvest in September or
October, families can begin to respond to the potentiaI threat of dearth. Grain
prices, even in normal years, exhibit a seasonal prke rise during the wet
season wben (iQmestic granaries are low; but, in the aftermath of a poor
harvest, householders know full well that millet and sorghum prices will prof>..
ably me by 100-2001<.
Peasant bouseholds in fact relate to the threat of shortage in a graduated
sequence of responses wldch change as food availability worsens and prices
inflate. Immediately after the poor harvest, householders attempt to generate
income wherever possible- perhaps through wage labouring or craft activity-
in order to -COVer future costs of grain purchase. As domestic stores diminish
and food prices rise. families begin to look for support from their extended
kinaRd friends. As extreme scareity approaches, family units disposeofas&ets
..."""",
Time-
~
{Muy-AtgJ
Figure 1l.2 GraduBled re!J.ponse to food shortage.

MAY
fur liquj<;lity, beginning usually with small livestock. or perhaps tum to the
T T ~ T
Mil'" c~. ~um village trader or merchant for a loan of money or grain. Under famine rondi~
~~<.fTT tions, starving households begin to pledge or even sell their fann holdings
and. in the final analysis, resort to outmigration (see Fig. 13.2).

1
JULY At an aggregate level, however. this model conveys little of the realities of
drought in relation co houtehoJd economy. This is precisely because tbe leg~
AUGUST ~r acy of the development of capitalism in Nigeria has been to generate new
patterns of interiIousehoJd inequaJlty. For while all households are theoren.
cally capable of coping with various fonns of stress, in practice these
SEP'fMIlER
'T <7" "f 11 responses are mediated by socia! and economic inequality. Poor bouseholds
frequently have neither the requisite seed nor the access to land to cope

1 1-~
effectively with rainfall variability. Equally, under conditions of scan..-ity or
OCTOIfR
poor harvests or indeed seasona] price rises in cereals, poor households are
incapable of weathering economic crises. The rich households conversely
'.::,,""'" have adaptive flexibility in the sense that they haVe 3ct'eSS to the resources
neressary to offset drought while their domestic resources enable them to
maintain self-sufficiency in grain even after poor harvests, Accordingly, if one
examines responses to drought~induced food shortage in J{aita village in
Figun 1),1 A model of farmer response to 19n rainfall variabi.lily. The parentheses 1973-4 certain strategies emerge (Table 13.1).
refer wcrop varieties with differing maturlltWn rates, foleratH:e$ to drouSlht and vields. Ohvir.nclv ,hi- rH ..,,1 non .. u.,.,.l"",u.lv ;llrlOn1'lhl... .,.f .-n.... rin .. th ............. nrl" .... f '"
ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY MICHAEL WA TIS 257
256
Table 13.1 Responses by household heads to food shortage, 1973-4. iii of coune, the constellation of social relations which bind households
~gether and project them .into the marketplace which determines. the precise
p
form of thi$ vulnerability. I cannot hope 10 document these relattons of ~
,.
R P R
puKllase grain 4 91 liell ~raln duction in any detail here save to say that indebtedness. the wage relation and
;elllab(lur .7 buy fivC'5toc:t 21 pronounced inequality in landholding. are all critical. More pertinently, for
sell tiVClltock
sell 81!1efli
4 6'
47
lend monty or gTaln
lxIy labour power 51
the 20% of households who are semi-pro1etarianised. every wet season prior
to harvest is a period of crisis in the cycle of reproduction. nu:se households
borrow from trader 0< merdlllni buy farmland 6
pledge farm
...
"
11 are barely capable of producing sufficient grain on their low~y;elding LilliP'U'"
,,~

migrate ,
6 tian farm holdings and they find themselves projected either into the local
grain market when prevailing prices are seasonally inflated or into the bands
NO/t!; Ft, rich (n = 56); p, porn' (/I '" 93). of the village moneylender. Equally, the demand for cash to oover critical
food consumption during the period of maximum mobilisation of agricultural
labour pushes adult males into wet-season farm labouring. the effect of wbich
food crisis and are, therefore. especially vulnerable. Poor harvests and is to delay the timing of, Or entirely neglect. their own agricultural operations
famines are thus social crises, for they are mediated by the exm.ing !lC!cial with the result that yields are pitifully low. At barvest, debts have to be repaid
order and may actuany amplify extant economic inequalities. In lCaita village (often at usurious interest rates). taxes paid and household expenditures (i.e.
during 1973-4 it was the poorer households who sold labour }Xlwer, livestock repairs. marriage expenses) covered erecisely when commodity prices tend to
and perhaps even land in il buyers' malker, while the relatively weif..ro..Qo be lowest. TIle large farmers conversely withhold grains for a mid..season
made the t:nt)&t of a favourable situation by purcbasing cbeap COllllnoditles price rise which then finance the purcbase of wage labour and investment in
and lending both money and grain, Clearly. tben. in peasant communities, the highly lucrative cattle trade and. to a Jesser extent. grains marketing and
whe:('C socioeconomic differentiation is so pronounced. poor farmers. shackled credit functions, The SOCIal relations of trade and production fom:: many
hy their poverty, are largely powerless to e.ffect the sorts oC changes that fanners to sell cheap and buy dear, to neglect or delay their own productive
might mitigate the debilitating consequences of environmental hazards. activities, and to plunge headlong into a cycle of indebtedness.
Hwud rtspo1UtJ is thus contingent upon the soda/ context of the responding Drought hazard is, then, simply one instance of nature as contained in the
units and upon their siluaIion in the productive process. Drought is in an metabolism of these peasant social relations. The labour process in HausaIand
obvious sense re~ through the prism of comnmnity inequality and hence is complex precisely becaw;e peasant society is in transition. My historical
adaptation to hazard is a social proress. For many households drought is presentation indicated bow the colonial state and European me.rchant's capi-
experienced through constraint rather than choice. ta! fulfilled a contradictory function insofar as Hausa rural producers were
A proper understanding of hazards requires, however, tbat we move partially transformed; there wa~ to use Bel'Ileheim's felicitous phrase. both
OO;"Ond simple quantitative measures of inequality to the deterntiuate stn.w;.. conservation and dissolution. In some respects, as new relations of production
ture of the social relations of production, 85 Sayer put it Inequality in this emerged. as the cycle of reproduction was commoditised. so was the moral
sense is tied to the conditions in which wealth becomes capital; that is to the economy distorted. That is, the relation between nature and society was itself
labour process itself. In this tegard, Hausa pea&ant5 can be differentiated in partly lntnsformed. a transfonnation encapsulated in the process of peasant
the following fashion. First there are poor peasants unable to reproduce differentiation, It is into these nascent capitalist relations in the countryside
themselves througb household production and who secure simple reproduc~ that hazards such as drought are deposited. In this case, drought is simply a
cion through the wage relation. Secondly, there are middle peasants who are moment in a cycle of reproduction the significance of which is related to the
sufficiently stable to reproduce themselves througb family labour 'but in situation of each hoosebold in the productive process and in the nexus of
specl6c relations with other strata of the peasantry' (Bernstein 1978, p. 67). social relations.
And thirdly, there is a wealthy or Kulak class capahle of extended reproduc-
tion. that is accumUlation and investment (largely in trade) through $1lperior
means of production and the purchase ofla."bour power. For the tural poor the New directions
precariousness of the material and technical conditions of prod uction, in con-
junction with the pressures exerted by commodity production and the sale of I have attempted to derive an analysis of hazards from two abstract material-
labour. lends itself to a simple reproduction squeeze. The household is obvi- lst postulates whicli grounds the relarion between nature and society - the
ouslv vulnerable m fllillire in an-v I'If .10, ...........,,1 .. f .. "'.... +<> ror ~ ..... A _:...-_ h . ::.. .. "~ ..... , ...
MICHAEL WATTS 259
258 ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY
society $0 striken. In this manner, natural hazards are not simply nmural (see
p~ and the irreducibly inlersubjective quality of social life. In doing SO I
quotation by Brecht. p. 7). for though a drought may be a catalyst or trigger
have suggested that we must be sensitive both to the status of what we take to
mechanisms in fhe sequence of events which leads to famine conditions, the
be environmental knowledge, the manner in which our theories in a real sense
partly produce the "facts' we analyse, and the complex relationsbip between crisis itself is more a reOection of the ability of the soeioeoonomic: system to
OODCepl.$ and the material conditions from which they emerge. By examining cope with the unusual harshness of ecological conditions and their effects. To
the theoretical peculiarities of hazards researcb - and its sister field of neglect this fact is to resort to a fatalism which sees disasters as "Aets of God?,
human/cultural ecology - I have attempted to situate it in terms of the epjs.. placing responsibility upon nature. and in the process missing a major politi-
temology and conception of man-nature relations which. 1 believe. have cal point. In Nigerian HausaJand this is captured in the paradox that during
inappropriately framed environmental thre.ls and perturbations. lbe the famines of the past 10 years it has been the men and women who work on
anai~ of drought in northern Nigeria, conversely, began with the social
the land who have perished for laek: of food. 'I1tose who died were those who
relations of production which has to be defmed historically _ I argued tbat produced. 'The crisis created by a famine reveals the workings of the
drought along the West African desert edge can only be understood in an economic and social system and affords an insight into that structural violence
historkal fashion; that is, the cycle of simple household reproduction in the which has the effect of denying the poorest. , , the right to feed themselves
19th century and its attendant moral eronomy in some sense coloured . .. The fact that .. , [own dwellers can still get something to eat while the
hazards and calamities. Drought was put in context in tenns of the prevailing country people starve ... is a sign of the power relation between urban and
sociaJ and economic architecture of 19tb-centuty Hausaland. The impact of rural lX'pulations' (Spitz 1977, p. 3). This I suspect is what E. P. 'Thompson
cokmialism gradually transfonned the social relation of production and hence (1978) means when he refers to the crisis of subsistence as an 'h:istorical
of the relation between nature and society. I would argue that with respect to category' and is clearly reflected in the comments of the Brazilian geographer
drought this was given a material expression in the almost pbaraoic sequence Josue de Castro on Third World hazards: 'the catastrophic effects of drought
offamines between 1900 and 1960. and floods revealed principally the decrepit character of the prevailing
agricultural structure. the shiftlessness, the improvidence and the inefficiency
The evidence adduced from the contemp>rary ,village economy indicated
that, in spite of a conceptual and practical preparation for drought. the $OCial j of the political system in force' (de Castro 1975, p. 12),
To appreciate the fact that hazard is mediated by the socioeconomic stru(;~
relat~s of interbousehold inequity constituted the necessary starting point
But thIS was not neu:ssarily $0 in some simple quantitative sense - there are tures of the societies affected js simultaneously to recognise that 'modemisa~
rich and poor peasants who exhibit different adaptive capabilities - but mther tion' or 'development' has not necessa.ri1y solved the age-old problems of
because differentiation emerges from the existing labour process. That the subsistence elises or vulnerablJity to environmental threats, and in some cases
rural poor were inc:.aimtde of responding adequately to drought is, of COW'Se, has- actually aggravated them.
consistent with tile cybernetic view of maladaptation. BUl the crncial differ~ In condusion, I would like to point out that theory. and natural hazards
emx is not that households suffer intrinsically from usurpation or hyper- theory in particular, is not something ready made bot, like any intellectual
coherence, or linear thinking or bad values or inappropriate higher-Qfder artefact, it has its material and ideological conditions of existence. Conven~
coimnand statements; rather these pathologies, if they exist. emerge trom the H(mal hazards thoory is also ideological in the sense that it has. to date. a sort
existing social relations of 1'Ioduction. As Sayer observed. the man-nature of hegemonic role in the field which sustains historically speci.fie views of
relation is given form in a determinate structure of social relations of produc<- nature, of society and of change. Ideology is ideological precisely because it
tion and it is this which provides the locus for our study of drought. In presents the existing world as a litany of eternal verities. For this reason I
Hausaland, these social relations are oonvoluted because they are, in some began and conclude this essay with the observation of Timpanaro (1975,
sense, in transition. But it is clearly the emergence of wage labour. or unequal p. 11) that, all too ohen. prevruling power blocs attributable to nature the
exchange through trade, of expanded commodity production and of usury inequalities for which the structure of society is responsible.
which defines this social field of foree.
From a materialist perspective, then, an' environmental crisis not only
probes the darkest oomers of relations, but throws into sbarp relief the stmc- Acknowledgements
lure of social systems. The impact of a drought on human oommunities
affords the social scientist a particular optic through which to view the func- In the not so distant past, this chapter was conceived as a joint effort with
tioning of the socioeconomic formation; indeed if was Marc Bloch who Mary Beth Pudup. For reasons not entirely beyond our control she was
observed that as the development of a disease shows the physician the work- unable (0 participate tully but has. nonetheless, contributerlsignificanlly to tbe
ings of the body so docs a social crisis yield insi.ltht mto the nature of the design and orientation of this chapter. As much as I would like 1D sav lObe ill
ON THE POVERTY OF THEORY MICHAEL WATTS 261
260

jointly responsible for its content, she is not. Tbe empirical work which Grossman, L. 1979, C/JSh, wIle QJtd cojfe.: t#ae c~tunli ,ecoWlfY of ~W!IhP'!"mI
in the HighitUUIs of PiJpua Nf!W Guinta, PhD dlS&etUtlOn, Australtan National
appears here was collected as a part of a research programme (1916-8)
funded by the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Founda- Univ. . R EcoL
Holling. C S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecologiCal systems. An. II.
tion. the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropolitical Research. and SystmJ. 4, 1-23. ,
Resources for the Future. This paper is dedicated to Jobn Berger who taught Kates.. R. W. 1971. Natural hazard in human eoologicai perspe~e: hypotheses BIld
me much about seeing. 10 Edward Thompson fOr his reascming, and to models, Et:on. Gwg. 47. 438-51. . .. .
Gunnar Omoo for showing me that virtually everythIng is reproduction. Kirkby, A. 1974.lndividual and community fe$pon5C to rainfall vaffabilrty tn Oaxaca,
M~. [n White (1974, pp, 119-27).
Leiss:, W. 1974 The domiMlfon O!lUIIlW. Boston: Beacon Press.
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~.-. ~-"

Definitions of disastr
Involvement in disaster by international, national and academic institutions
has led to a number of implicit and explicit definitions of disaster (Westgate
& O'Keefe 19768). The implicit definitions of disaster derive from the field
operations of international and national organisations, particularly from relief
operations, and need not concern us in tbis instanee. The explicit definitions
are those of the academic institutions and are gennane to our discussion,

G e firm important element to note is that dis."", is an event (or serio, of


events) which seriously disrupts normal activities (cmn & Clark 1962).

This emphasis on nonnalcy highlights the need to observe disaster as an


extension ofeveryday life. It also implies that an understanding of the threat of
disaster is as important to the comprehension of disaster as the disaster event
J itself (Westgate & O'Keefe 1976b). Hewitt and Burton (1911) develop thi.s
notion of potential threat and accent disaster as a function