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The Dark Side of Community

LSU Sociologists Find that Community Involvement Causes More Stress During Crises

When confronted with disaster, many people turn to their communities for comfort, becoming involved in volunteer work and other forms of civic engagement.


LSU sociologists Frederick Weil, Matthew Lee and Edward Shihadeh report that socially active residents of Baton Rouge reported more stress, anger, fear of evacuees and felt that there were more problems due to the evacuees after Hurricane Katrina than those who were less socially connected.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

Two decades of social science research reported that such interaction between an individual and their community was a positive thing. In fact, it was considered common knowledge that those attached to and involved with their communities were happier and healthier than their less involved cohorts.

It therefore seemed likely that in South Louisiana, a place where people tend to stay for generations, being strongly attached to the local community would help insulate people from the stress related to dealing with the traumatic events.  But LSU sociologists have recently upended that belief, indicating that social involvement actually increases stress levels for individuals during crises, with two prominent recent studies focusing on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill of 2010.

In the first study, titled “The Burdens of Social Capital: How Socially-Involved People Dealt with Stress After Hurricane Katrina,” sociologists Frederick Weil, Matthew Lee and Edward Shihadeh report that in the first weeks and months after Katrina, more socially active residents of Baton Rouge, one of the communities that received the largest number of evacuees from New Orleans, reported more stress, anger, fear of evacuees and felt that there were more problems due to the evacuees than those who were less socially connected.

“Our study is the first to empirically trace this important arc over time that social support has in the context of a disaster situation,” said lead author Weil. “Like many social phenomena, the impact of social capital is situationally contingent. Having lots of social connections isn’t always a good thing, although these data do reveal that over the long term it can be beneficial to those proximate to significant disasters.”


Matthew Lee and Troy Blanchard report that individuals having a stronger sense of attachment to their community exhibited higher self-reported levels of anxiety, worry, nervousness and fear after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

This study’s findings, published in the prestigious journal Social Science Research, runs counter to the prevailing argument that social embeddedness insulates people from bad things and provides them support. The authors argue that may be the case under ordinary circumstances, but in crisis conditions it does not apply. In disaster situations, the most socially embedded actually experience more stress because they are called on more to help others and because they tend to be surrounded by people that are highly stressed themselves. Socially isolated people are not exposed to these additional sources of stress.

“If you’re not out doing volunteer work or interacting with other affected people, you only have your own stress to deal with,” said Shihadeh. “That’s not really a healthy situation, but during a crisis, our studies show that it results in considerably less stress on that individual as compared to someone who is connected in those community outlets.”

A major concern related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was the impact on people living in coastal areas. News reports provided anecdotal evidence that those living along the coast and reliant on the fishing or oil and gas industries for their livelihoods were very distressed and worried about the impact of the spill on their future. In one of the first publications to present systematically collected public health data on coastal populations affected by the catastrophic oil spill of 2010, LSU sociologists Lee and Troy Blanchard report that individuals having a stronger sense of attachment to their community exhibited higher self-reported levels of anxiety, worry, nervousness and fear.

The data for their study “Community Attachment and Negative Affective States in the Context of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster” were collected via telephone surveys with more than 900 household respondents in Lafourche, Terrebonne and Plaquemines Parishes in coastal Louisiana between June 16 and July 1, 2010, while the oil was still flowing freely.

The oil spill presented a unique situation because the natural resource base was threatened in a region that is heavily economically dependent on having a sound natural resource base. When the resource base is threatened – for example fisheries being contaminated or closed – high levels of community attachment often anchor people so strongly to their place of residence that they would be unwilling to move to find another place to make a living.

“In the case of the oil spill, we’re talking about people who have spent several generations in the same community, involved in the same industry … fishing, tourism or something similar,” said Blanchard. “It’s beyond the realm of comprehension for them to consider leaving. The thought alone would cause considerable stress, and that could be compounded when the entire community is placed in the same position."


It's not all bad news. Those most attached are also likely to recover more quickly as time goes by for exactly the same reason: the high degree of social support from neighbors, friends and family their community attachment fosters.
Jim Zietz/University Relations

In both studies, researchers believe that part of the issue comes down to the fact that people who are strongly attached to their communities tend to know lots of other people in their community who are just like them. They then have not only the personal experience of being stressed, but also end up interacting regularly with other people who are also worried, angry and fearful for their future. This can create a self-reinforcing cycle of stress and anxiety.

“There is no refuge for the socially embedded during a crisis,” said Lee. “Everywhere they turn, they are confronted with the ongoing aftermath of the disaster, causing their stress levels to remain elevated.”

Of course, community attachment isn't all bad. While initially it is associated with more negative emotions for those in communities affected by disasters like the oil spill, these sociologists found that it is also likely that those people who are most attached are also likely to recover more quickly as time goes by for exactly the same reason: the high degree of social support from neighbors, friends and family their community attachment fosters.

“We’re talking about a spike in stress that will occur during the immediate aftermath of an event,” said Lee. “In the long run, we’re confident that being more socially embedded is good. It’s healthy for the individual and essential for the community.”