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Doctoral dissertation project of Sina V. Pfister

Relating to nature – Making sense of natural hazards and the environment in Constitución, Chile (working title)

Chile is a region in which natural hazards occur frequently: Every 20 to 30 years a major earthquake, often followed by a tsunami, shakes up the country. In the last 100 years, Chile has been hit by at least 11 earthquakes of a magnitude of 8.0 or higher. Additionally, the country regularly experiences bushfires, volcano eruptions, droughts and landslides. What does it do with people, when they are frequently confronted with the forces of nature? How does the repeated occurrence of natural hazards (and the existential threat they pose) influence people´s relationship with nature? And how does their relationship with nature influence their perception of these natural hazards?

The relationship between humans and nature is a vital, though generally understudied element, not only in disaster research, but also in the wider context of human life on planet earth. In a time in which the predominant Western technocratic notion of dominance over nature - manifested in neoliberalism, individualisation, philosophy and religion - leads us humans to exploit our planet relentlessly, it is of utmost importance to research and question the relationship we have with nature. A constructed opposition between society and nature has led to a feeling of domination of society over nature in some cultures. Big events such as earthquakes, in turn, challenge this feeling of dominance. Chile has been subject to very diverse ideological influences over the past few hundred years. Spanish colonists brought Catholicism and European philosophy with them, which also entailed the nature-culture divide. Chile’s own indigenous population and the geographical proximity to the indigenous population of Peru and Bolivia, kept alive the concept of the “Pachamama” (Mother Earth), which entails a close relationship with nature and all its beings.

It becomes clear, then, that Chile is not only a country of successive disasters, but also a place of competing ideas (dominance vs. equality) with respect to nature. Exploring these different dimensions of humans relating to nature - especially in the context of successive disasters – is the goal of this research and will (hopefully) contribute to building resilience in Chile and elsewhere, as well as to re-thinking the role we humans have as part of the fine balance of life that nature has created on planet earth.


Short biography

Sina Pfister studied Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, followed by an interdisciplinary research master program in Anthropology and Sociology, both at Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands). During her studies, she received two scholarships for excellent students from the Radboud Honours Academy in order to carry out research projects in India and Chile. After a conference presentation in England, resulting from one of these projects, she had the chance to gain experience with co-editing an e-book, which she enjoyed very much. Having worked in Chile during a gap-year after her “Abitur” inspired her to write her master thesis about the social effects (intergenerational transmission of knowledge, solidarity networks, social recovery, etc.) of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile in 2010 during her stay. Her dissertation builds on this previous work, while adopting a different focus and perspective. Since May 2017, Sina Pfister is a fellow of the a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities program and her project will be supervised by Prof. Dr. Thomas Widlok.

Contact: spfister(at)uni-koeln.de



Mit C. D. Notermans: Water and gender in recreating family life with Maa Ganga: The confluence of nature and culture in a North Indian river pilgrimage, in: AIMS Geosciences, 2,4, 2016, S. 286–301.

Mit K. Gardiner (Hg.): Past and Present: Perspectives on Gender and Love. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press 2015.

An Inspiring Mother: How the River Goddess Maa Ganga Encourages Both Men and Women to Care for Their Family, in: K. Gardiner / S. Pfister (Hg.): Past and Present: Perspectives on Gender and Love, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press 2015, S. 3–11.

Methods, Informants and Choices: The Delights and Challenges of Fieldwork, Radboud Honours Review 2014.



“Making disaster studies personal – Re-considering resilience as a mental constitution”, August 23, 2017, 8th International Conference “Integrated Disaster Risk Management (IDRiM)”, Reykjavik (Iceland).


Cover photo: A broken street in post-earthquake Chile (2010) demonstrates the fragility of human-built structures when confronted with the forces of nature. (Photo: Sina Pfister) // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities
CORDIS: http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/203182_de.html