Elizabeth Bittel




Disaster Recovery, Social Capital, and the Sri Lankan Context: A Comparative Study of Two Communities in Batticaloa

My research focuses on the questions of why and how communities recover in different ways from disaster, as well as the intersection between geo-physical hazards and violent civil conflict.

My line of inquiry is two-fold: I investigate the varying ways in which social capital manifests between communities to produce variable recovery outcomes, as well as interrogate the neo-colonial thrust of Western disaster aid and recovery entities, who often exert power in the form of international "development projects" when disasters occur in the global South.

Over the course of 13 months’ ethnographic fieldwork in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, I have explored these dynamics in the context of two geographically similar yet socially disparate communities in their recovery efforts from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 - 2009).

This research has been generously funded by:

  • The National Science Foundation

  • The American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies

  • University of Colorado at Boulder, Department of Sociology

  • The American Institute for Indian Studies

Research Interests &
Other Projects

My primary research interests lie at the intersections of social inequalities, environmental degradation, cultural politics, and market forces. Long term, I plan to maintain a research agenda which allows me to continue to conduct cross-national and cross-cultural projects in the U.S., South Asia, and the Middle East. In all of my research endeavors, I enjoy working with scientists, students, and practitioners on multi- and interdisciplinary teams.

Disasters and Hazards:

I am interested in multiple aspects of the disaster cycle including the social production of vulnerability and risk, mitigation and risk reduction strategies, and long-term sustainability efforts led by communities and policymakers as we move toward more uncertain climate futures both in the Global North the Global South.

Environmental Justice and Critical EJ Studies:

My sociological praxis is deeply informed by my experiences participating in food-justice and labor-rights organizing with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Student Farmworker Alliance - work I began as an undergraduate student at the University of North Florida, and remain connected to. I am interested in environmental justice and associated social movements and plan to take up projects that allow me to dive deeper into critical environmental justice studies.

In exploring linkages between global communities, I am fascinated by practices of humanitarian response and “international development” and plan to continue my efforts to investigate sustainable development, the spread of “modernity,” and global environmental justice.

Visual Ethnography and Embodiment:

I am excited to expand my methodological expertise into the realms of visual sociology and visual ethnography. In addition to my training in environmental sociology, over time I have grown interested in embodiment - specifically, practices of body modification. I am fascinated by the cultural, religious, and gendered dynamics of rituals and traditions of body modification and am excited to explore these interests with visual methodologies. I am currently working on a project that feeds both of these interests which I am calling “On Temple Adornment: Grief and Pain, Intimacy and Solidarity in Tattoo Ritual” where I explore spirituality, grief, and solidarity associated with tattooing in both in Tamil Nadu, India, and the United States. This project is inspired by my relationship with, and the incredible work of my late mentor and dear friend, Dr. Isabelle Clark-Decès.

[Seedlings of a few visual projects, including “On Temple Adornment…” can be found on the “Photographs” tab of this website.]