The Dark Side of Community: Sociologists Report that Strong Attachment to Local Communities Made Oil Spill More Stressful for Many Coastal Residents
BATON ROUGE – 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.
Two decades of social science research has reported that people who are more attached to their communities are better off. They are happier, less depressed and physically healthier than those who have weak attachments to their community. 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 oil spill. But in a study just advance published online in the prominent journal American Behavioral Scientist, two LSU sociologists challenge the conventional wisdom on this score and reach a much a different conclusion.
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 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. 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 authors suggest that under normal conditions, attachment to community is a good thing, providing people avenues for social supports and a positive sense of having a place to call home in mass society. Under certain conditions, however, Lee and Blanchard suggest that strong attachments to community actually increase stress and other negative emotional states. This particular situation was unique because the natural resource base was threatened in a region that is heavily dependent economically 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 addition, people who are strongly attached to their communities also 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.
Based on other research they have been involved in related to Hurricane Katrina, the authors also suggest that 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, over the long term 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.