Ana Lucía Londoño.

(Source: Notimerica. Chile remembers the tragedy of its last greatest earthquake)


It is well known that natural hazard events not only provoke deep economic consequences, but also bring with them social chaos, post-traumatic stress, political inefficiency and even high death tolls, depending on the severity of the event, all these leading to social fracture and political instability. Moreover, according to the paradoxical logic of collective action, it is rational for individuals not to cooperate in situations where their own survival is at stake.

The intrinsic selfishness of human behavior and a defensive feeling of distrust among individuals exacerbated with the fear and disorder experienced in extreme situations such as natural catastrophes. Rivalry for scarce resources and information asymmetries intensify individualism and undermine trust together with social cohesion. Among such cases of antisocial behavior, looting, theft and assault are common occurrences and contribute as well to the intensification of violence and the general feeling of insecurity. However, under such circumstances, in which there exists conflict between individual rationality and social welfare, individuals who work in isolation produce suboptimal results compared to those they might have if cooperating with others.

In these sense, the vast history of natural calamities shows that in numerous situations, no matter the degree of devastation or danger, people can surpass their rational egoism and work together to overcome the immediate difficulties. From neighbors to acquaintances or total strangers, under the unavoidable conditions produced by weather phenomena, altruism and solidarity raise, trust is stimulated and social networks grow stronger triggering collective action. Can natural disasters then be also an exceptional opportunity to build and strengthen social capital within a community despite the critical scenario?

Social capital can be measured by the degree amongst a community of interpersonal and institutional trust, the levels of affiliation in different types of groups, and the levels of participation on trade unions and political parties (Albrecht, 2017). Putnam (2000, p. 19) defines the concept as the “connections among individuals–social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness -that arise from them”.

Literature regarding the key role that social capital and especially social networks play in immediate disaster response, preparedness, crisis management and post-disaster recovery is extensive. All in all, research demonstrates how crucial it is a population’s degree of social capital to enhance participation, resilience and collective action during critical circumstances (Albrecht, 2017). However, those early and spontaneous processes of social mobilization, mutual support and solidarity tend to decline over time and return to their initial conditions as the situation normalizes. Less research is focused though on the direct and enduring impact that natural disasters might produce on social capital itself, with special emphasis on the degree of interpersonal trust in a community.

As Dussaillant & Guzmán (2015) mention on their article regarding disasters and social capital, several studies have been made related to this same issue in a range of different contexts, which include for example the case of the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 (Andrabi, 2010) or the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami of 2011 (Hommerich, 2012). The great majority of such investigation papers coincide on the statement that in the face of a natural catastrophe, social capital increases. In this occasion, to proof the core thesis of this article, we will focus on the empirical evidence and analysis from the 2010 Chilean earthquake, studied by Dussaillant & Guzmán (2014).

The Latin American country has been characterized over time for its long history of seismic activity, which has had a deep impact on the Chilean development. The latest earthquake took place on February 27th, 2010 and had a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale (Dussaillant & Guzmán, 2014). According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), the epicenter was located at 76.3 km off-shore under the ocean bed, causing a tsunami that severely destroyed same coastal cities (CEPAL, 2010).

According to the data from The World Values Survey, Chile has usually presented, since the past two decades, a relatively low degree of social capital (WVS, n.d.c), nevertheless, such levels change depending on the region of the country. To measure the effects produced by natural disasters on social capital, the study Trust via disasters: the case of Chile’s 2010 earthquake (Dussaillant & Guzmán, 2014) focuses exclusively on information regarding the levels of interpersonal trust from a few months before the earthquake and tsunami (baseline trust), just after the event and eighteen months later (lasting post-disaster trust). Thereby, the investigation not only compares the evolution of social capital over time, but also combines data to assess how it changes across the different zones affected by the quake.

After studying the social aftereffects produced by disasters, results shown by Dussaillant & Guzmán (2014) in the previously mentioned analysis demonstrate the potential of disasters as catalysts of the production of social capital founded on victims’ interaction. Furthermore, other studies show how the scale of damage caused by the natural catastrophe determines proportionally the level of trustfulness within a community. Changes in social capital are more likely as more severe the event it (Albrecht, 2017).

A factual increase in social trust took place in the Chilean urban zones affected by the earthquake (Dussaillant & Guzmán, 2014). Moreover, it was observed that such positive effect on interpersonal trust, understood as a proxy of social capital, was more defined on those regions that presented a higher pre-disaster baseline for the observed variable, such as the Metropolitan Region of Chile.

On the contrary, data evidenced that those locations which had lower pre-quake levels of social capital, such as the city of Concepción or Region VIII, were also the ones where the repercussion of the catastrophe on interpersonal trust indexes was feebler and even negative for some cases. No trust-building process was experienced and cases of violence and looting took place, rising the chaos and a generalize atmosphere of distrust.

 The snowball impact of disasters on social capital:


Consequently, the relation between trust and disasters is noticeable. According to the investigation outcomes and other research regarding the social impact of natural disasters (Albrecht, 2017), we can conclude that not only the pre-disaster levels of social capital can experience a change after the calamity, which they do in more or less proportion, but also, we can remark the existence of a “feedback loop” in the subsequent networks of trust endorsed essentially by the preexistent basis of social cohesion (Dussaillant & Guzmán, 2014). This phenomenon is known as the “snowball” effect, which keeps growing and strengthening over time, as it can be appreciated in the graph provided above.

All in all, it can be concluded that, besides the vulnerable and shocking situation produced by a natural crisis, people tend to cooperate. We can state, to summarize, that disasters do generate long lasting trust-building effects, are an opportunity to boost social capital and ultimately, are a way of enhancing collective action, however this depends on how strong the trust baseline of a community is and on the density of its social networks. Trust creates trust, but only under some minimum conditions.

With certain precautions and further research about how and why social capital is affected, this knowledge could be applied to a wider range of different disasters beyond natural hazards, such as wars, terrorist events, humanitarian crises or economic recessions, which represent a chance as well to foster interpersonal relations and civil cohesion.


ANDRABI, T., & DAS, J. (2010). In aid we trust: Hearts and minds and the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005. Policy research working paper No WPS 5440. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

ALBRECHT, F., (2017). Natural hazard events and social capital: the social impact of natural disasters, Disasters, pp. 1-17.

CEPAL (Comisión Económica para América Latina) (2010) Terremoto en Chile: Una primera mirada al 10 de marzo de 2010. Santiago de Chile: United Nations.

DUSSAILLANT, F., & GUZMÁN, E. (2014). Trust via disasters: the case of Chile’s 2010 earthquake, Disasters. 38(4), pp. 808-832.

DUSSAILLANT, F., & GUZMÁN, E. (2015). Disasters as an Opportunity to Build Social Capital, International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience. Vol. 17, No.3, pp. 661-663.

HOMMERICH, C. (2012). Trust and Subjective Well-being after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown: Preliminary Results. International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 21, pp. 46-64.

PUTNAM, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and the Revival of American Community, pp. 19, New York: Simon and Schuster.

WVS (World Values Survey) (n.d.a) ‘Wave 3 1990–1999 Of cial Aggregate v. 20140429’. Madrid: (Albrecht, 2017)WVS Association. Of cial release 29 April 2014.