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Sociology Professor Works With U.N. to Build Awareness of Disaster Issues

Ryan Alaniz working with the U.N.
Ryan Alaniz (bottom right) and the rest of the World Social Science Fellows 
outside a Marae (traditional Maori meeting hall) in Wellington, New Zealand, 2013.

Sociology Professor Ryan Alaniz — who joined the department in 2012 — is involved with the academic arm of the United Nations, creating ideas that go beyond theory to save lives in disaster situations. Important to this effort is a better understanding of how other cultures cope with disaster, including whether other cultures share Western perceptions of what constitutes a disaster.

Alaniz is working to understand these issues and to instill a stronger sense of urgency in the public. Alaniz was recently selected as a World Social Science Fellow, along with representatives from various countries, to work with the United Nations University, to discuss disaster relief-related issues and possible protocols. Their goal was to develop ideas that the U.N. and national governments could use as a foundation for policy decisions.

“Our job was to look at and develop an even deeper framework of risk interpretation and action to understand how people do or do not react when disasters happen," said Alaniz. “There were 21 participants, from all over the world, each with completely different perspectives.”

Alaniz recently attended seminars and conferences in New Zealand and Bangladesh. As he develops expertise, he plans to expand his scholarship into more complex aspects of disaster relief and risk, bringing what he has learned back to the community level. Alaniz believes there is much more at stake than many realize.

“We know that disasters are increasing in both number and intensity. We know that human beings are more vulnerable because they are living in closer proximity to one another, often with high levels of poverty. We are going to see more disasters and more people suffering, and a lack of national aid to deal with disasters.

“If we can better understand how people interpret and act based on risk, then we can better create strategies to educate people differently or encourage people differently when they face risk,” Alaniz continued.

“It’s all tied together. Our impact on the climate is affecting the number, type and intensity of natural disasters. This is going to change how people migrate and immigrate throughout the world.”

Though research is his main focus, Alaniz also works to bridge the divide between broad issues of world disasters and action in his local community. The first step is introducing the importance of world issues and perspectives in the classroom. 

“I am trying to educate community members and students about the realities of those who are providing for them,” Alaniz said. “That’s the kind of reality check I’m trying to bring to the students.”

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