38 Transcending from Structural Functionalism to Theoretical Pluralism in Disaster Research [Award Winning Paper]

Paolo Fresnoza

*Best Paper Award for the Contribution to Theory


Climate change-exacerbated disasters and its rapidly evolving multi-dimensional complexities render structural functionalism, the most common theory in understanding the social roles, functionality, and resiliency nexus, as incommensurate. Employing multiple theories, rather than solely relying on structural functionalism, is a more robust and effective approach. Theoretical pluralism borrows from the epistemological tenet of interdisciplinarity, where climate change complexities can be more effectively analyzed upon fusing diverse disciplinary lenses, or theories in this case, than elucidating with only structural functionalism on hand. Praxis principles in interdisciplinarity, as espoused in theoretical pluralism, also prescribes disaster research to adopt pragmatic, practitioner-centric imperatives to effect change. Featuring the research context of Indigenous peoples in typhoon-prevalent Batanes Province in the Philippines, the complex dynamics of Indigenous resiliencies in light of new uncertainties of climate change require more novel elucidatory approaches through theoretical pluralism. For its advancement and operationalization, a research design framework that features nuances of Indigenous contextualization and engendering, positioning structural functionalism as a heuristic, and evaluating and selecting complementary theories to interface, among others has been proposed.


Mid-20th century theoretical developments that elucidate the society-environment nexus in disasters ought to have been advancements, yet remain fixated with Parsons-reminiscent structural functionalism (Kreps & Drabek, 1996; Alexander, 2000). As the gold standard theory for contextualizing disasters in its sociological dimensions (Alexander, 2000; Aguirre, 2019), functionalism’s dominance has diluted opportunities to employ integrative, multiple theoretical approaches responsive to new normals and complexities like climate change. This paper posits that heterogenous and applied theoretical interfaces are the new, 21st century shift in disaster studies and transcends the predominating, often singular approach of functionalism.

Researching climate change-exacerbated disasters’ sheer impacts and disruptions no longer affords studies entrenched in traditional and uni-theoretical silos that merely explain with little to no thrust for praxis (Clark & Wallace, 2015; Davidson, 2015; Fresnoza, 2021). To reconcile, rich learnings in diversifying theoretical utilization and its actionability can be learned from inter- and transdiciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity principles inform us that meaning construction from diffused rather than solitary concentrated perspectives is key (Frodeman & Mitcham, 2007). This stems from the rationale that disasters are not only environmental problems, but economic (Etkin, 2004), operational (Rodriguez-Espindola, Albores, & Brewster, 2018), technological (Rose, 2014), and social justice (Sillitoe, 2004) conundrums as well. In parallel, transdisicplinarity also informs us that effectivity is not only rooted from offering credible explanation using a multiplex of paradigmatic and disciplinary purviews, but from a moral duty to effect positive change, engage in action, and formulate solutions to reduce harm (Meyer, 2007). Thus, this paper will also attempt to transpose the epistemological diversity and utilitarian frameworks from both inter- and transdisciplinarity respectively into theories used in disaster research.

Much of the propositions in this discourse are relatable to the instances of typhoon-prevalent Batanes Province in the Philippines. While functionalist approaches produce novel explanations how social, technological, and Indigenous agencies impact disaster resiliencies of the Ivatans (Fresnoza, 2021), the province’s Indigenous peoples, such outcomes remain superficial. This paper therefore proposes how climate change complexities combined with Indigenous contexts justify the use of polytheoretical orientations. This is justified since singular theory reliance hardly unravels deeper, more sophisticated societal problems nor engages into problem solving. It is the aim of this study to foster dialogue and advance multi-theoretical explorations in disaster research as a more robust means to examine complex social configurations and expose critical issues. Social science researchers of all levels are likewise encouraged to reap insights from the proposed and expanded theoretical articulations posited in this paper.

Examining the Batanes Context and Ivatan Disaster Resiliency

Batanes provides a context that illustrates a complex social-climatological-environmental-Indigenous interrelationship. Deeply understanding these interwoven elements within the geo-cultural milieu prescribes theoretical directions and approaches to be discussed later in this paper.

Located in the northernmost region of the Philippines, Batanes is a 10-island province that sits along the pathway of the planet’s strongest meteorological disturbances (Provincial Government of Batanes, 2017; Warren, n.d.). Among the Philippines’ average of twenty strongest typhoons (Hiwasaki, Luna, Syamsidik, & Shaw, 2014; “Philippines”, n.d.; Valenzuela, 2014), between five to twelve traverse Batanes annually (Provincial Government of Batanes, 2017; Warren, n.d.). Other than its prevalent exposure to typhoons, Batanes is also highly vulnerable to typhoon epiphenomena such as landslides, storm surges, and flash floods (Provincial Government of Batanes, 2017).

As an all-encompassing and ubiquitous global disruption, climate change pressures the Ivatans to face exceptional threats. While the Swiss NGO Disaster Risk Reduction Platform (2014) forecasts more frequent and intense meteorological disturbances in the Philippines, various sources detail Batanes’ specific impacts of lessened frequency but greater typhoon ferocity (De Guzman, Zamora, Talubo, & Hostallero, 2014; Fresnoza, 2021; Rappler, 2017; Villanueva, 2014). Yet, climate change and its impacts have induced monolithic shifts in the agricultural, economic, and social landscapes of Batanes, such as altered farming schedules (De Guzman et al., 2014), decreased agricultural productivity (Cadiogan, 2017), and increased dependency to post-disaster external aid (Fresnoza, 2021).

Despite Batanes’ distinct typhoon endemism, generations of Ivatans have normalized climatological threats, created localized storm-proofing practices, and vernacularized these resiliencies as part of Indigenous psyche and identity (Hornedo, 2000; Valenzuela, 2014). Fresnoza (2021, p. 165) similarly asserts, “full immersion and incubation through multiple generations has allowed enculturation and deep infiltration of knowledge into the Ivatan social fabric and identity that enabled resiliency from the harsh climate.” Ivatans today take pride in their contemporary use of Indigenous resiliency practices such as wind and cloud observations for weather prognostication (maychakawan), use of Indigenous typhoon-resilient architecture (sinadumparan), and voluntary cooperative assistance to the community (yaru) (Hornedo, 2000; Fresnoza, 2021).

Ivatan Resiliency as a Projection from Structural Functionalist Lenses

The theoretical premise of structural functionalism, or simply functionalism is the sociological explication that each component that structure society has assigned roles and functionalities (Gingrich, 1999), is interdependent from each other (Holmwood, n.d.), and contributes to overall functionality and stability (Crossman, 2000; Gingrich, 1999). Functionalism frames how social roles and foundations such as common values, beliefs, customs, education, laws, and language explain social structure. Moreso, functionalism also rationalizes the fundamental precepts of normalcy and social order (Crossman, 2000; Gingrich, 1999; Holmwood, n.d.). It is this social equilibrium and its elucidations that disaster risk management studies find relative and purposeful, especially in seeking order within an otherwise chaotic environment. Lozano-Gotor (2013) and Bogard (1988) buttress this argument of functionalism’s normalcy reversions when external shocks, such as disasters, disturb social equilibrium.

Fresnoza (2021) explicitly relates Ivatan resiliency with functionalism. While turbulent weather is instability for others, it becomes the function for Ivatan survival; intense typhoon prevalence tend to repel individuals to less tempestuous settings, as opposed to Ivatan settlement, driven by their inherent homeostatic and adaptive propensities (Fresnoza, 2021; Rede-Blolong, 1996). For Ivatans, normalizing volatile and violent weather is axiomatic, prompting thriving conditions for creativity, innovation, camaraderie, and the development of social capital in a benevolent yet dangerous environment. Fresnoza (2021, p. 161) supports this:

When sheer weather activates and justifies the creation of social roles and responsibilities for preparation, the reduction of social risks are realized. Social order and stability are therefore maintained and are reinforced especially with the continuous recurrences of such physical and social phenomena for generations. Establishing this commonplace practice of maintaining stability ultimately strengthens resiliency, demonstrated by constant casualty-free reportage following the onslaught of typhoons. Where others view typhoon prevalence as pestilent disruptors, the normalization of threat created by the stability of established social functions and reinforcement of social roles contributed to Ivatan views of typhoons merely as “another windy day,” as stated by a resident.

For generations, the Ivatans have developed an acuity in understanding the relationship between environmental changes and impending weather threats. Few instances including the out-of-season colour changes of the aryus (Podocarpus costalis) plant, or the unseasonal steady blowing of the north wind (idaud), or the unusually long and unbroken set of ocean waves have been typical observational markers for weather prognosis (Provincial Government of Batanes, 2019; see Table 7 from Fresnoza, 2021). Epistemologically, the common understanding of these instances and their purpose have been so vernacularized to the point of being part of Ivatan Indigenous knowledge.

Explicating the social production of Ivatan resiliency also makes sense under Mertonian functionalist lenses. Merton provides further distinctions of manifest and latent functions, defined as the direct consequences and the unintended outcomes of social actions respectively (Holmwood, n.d.; De Nardis, 2013). Contextualized instances of manifest functions of Ivatan resiliency practices encompass the development of Indigenous means of forecasting inclement weather. Latent functions on the other hand include the accretion of social capital through creating neighbourly relations to identify the nearest point of assistance, and espousal of altruism and cooperativism as an investment in the goodness of helping among Ivatan residents. These become sensible in understanding the social makeup that contributes not only to resiliency but to the essence of Ivatan culture and identity.

Overall, the elucidations of the Ivatan context benefitted from functionalist theoretical lenses. Elucidation in this manner however is still fenced within the boundaries of solitary theoretical employment in light of a world faced with new uncertainties, complex realities, and transcendent morphisms. It is understood that climate change for instance, does not exempt impacts among Ivatans. In consonance, reliance to functionalism alone is inadequate, myopic, and underestimates the systematic sophistication of climate change implications to Ivatan society. Although criticisms of functionalism have been longstanding and antecedent (Holmwood, n.d.; Alexander, 2000), the underpinnings of interdisciplinarity offer out-of-box thinking to move beyond insular, functionalist lenses to new directions in adopting heterogenous approaches in climate change-reflexive (poly)theoretical discourse.

Functionalism:  Trapped in the Ivory Tower of Disaster Research Theories

Alexander (2000) concentrates the mid-20th century, between 1950 to 1970, as the golden epoch of rich theoretical developments of social science models in disaster research. Parallel advancements of functionalism by prominent all-American theorists, notably Talcott Parsons, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, and Robert Merton (Dillon, 2019; Gingrich, 1999) within this period exerted heavy influence to the point of dominating society-disaster theoretical frameworks. Drabek (1986, as cited in Alexander, 2000) critiqued the Americanist monopoly of functionalism that commanded 80% of human systems research in disasters, thus hegemonizing theoretical orientations to favour rationalist and functionalist ideologies.

Against the backdrop of the post-Second World War and pre-Cold War eras, intellectual communities in the West found great prospects in structural functionalism (Gingrich, 1999; Smith, 2009). American volatility in this period heightened the impetus to idealize theories that sought to comprehend the underpinnings of social foundations as prerequisites in preventing threats, disorder, and upheaval, and as pretexts for achieving social stability (Gould, 1966; Smith, 2009). As functionalism stipulates the framework to which norms, mores, and values are defined, unfamiliar functions such as exogenous influences and foreign principles are easily recognized and isolated. Inheriting this tenet of threat reduction as an imperative for stable societies, structural functionalism found its way into human ecological studies and eventually into disaster-based research (Alexander, 2000).

While American practitioners and academic schools of thought found utility and credit in functionalist discourses in disaster risk management (Alexander, 2000), its etic appropriation to other, typically higher context cultures is suspect. The roots of Western ethnocentrism in functionalism run deep (Gould, 1966), missing cultural subtleties and punctuations in non-American contexts. Gould (1966) and Alexander (2000) articulate how the deterministic and descriptive objective of functional analysis errs on the assumptions that societies steeped in culture act in rational ways to mitigate hazards, identical to the normative of Western societies. Outcomes therefore become skewed interpretations that could not truly capture meanings, symbols, and inner workings that make resiliency in other diverse contexts work.

Typhoon ubiquity in Batanes compels the Philippine Government to intervene as per its constitutional mandate to protect constituents. This becomes functionalist theory at work, rationalized how activated institutional roles prescribed in society ensure its protection and continuity despite anticipated environmental shocks. The Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 (RA 10121) functions as the country’s specified policy that officiates the roles, duties, and responsibilities of the characters in the theatre of disasters.

Although much of the directives in RA 10121 are rational, sensible, and conform to the canons of hazard management, much of these exogenous interventions would likely be dismissed by Ivatans, who are more resigned to use their inherent Indigenous means of coping inculcated across generations (Fresnoza, 2021; Hornedo, 2000); the expectation of patronizing government provision of evacuation centres or relief goods, for instance, finds itself antithetical to Ivatan orthodoxy. Where functionalist lenses ought to view disaster response systems in other contexts as rational means with normative outcomes, the Ivatan case highlights elucidatory inconsistencies of functionalism, amiss of relating cultural nuances as deeper agents of resiliency.

Functionalism, as particularized in the Ivatan experience, is limited in its partial and descriptive utility for justifying social order. Despite resiliency and the reduction of disaster threats as identical intentions by both the Philippine Government and Ivatans, outcomes culminated differently (Fresnoza, 2021). Functionalist lenses are blurred in explaining the discordant role of the state as an exogenous actor responsible for formulating policies meant for stability and order, yet are found to be conflicting in an already traditionally-resilient Indigenous community of the Ivatans. De Nardis (2013) substantiates the criticism of functionalist purviews for failing to adequately distinguish exogenous vis-à-vis endogenous motives and agencies despite similar presuppositions of resiliency and equilibrium.

To be fair, the legitimacy of functionalist theory is attributed to its social equilibrium rationale, to more clearly understand the mechanisms behind properly functioning societies (Bogard, 1988). This legitimacy, however, is confined to Western-centric upbringings and creates limited peripheries for exploring disaster-aligned research questions especially in an epoch most known for increased intensities and disruptions of climate change (Sun & Faas, 2018; Webb, 2018). Functionalism is stunted on the normative of explaining the social-environmental causalities that dictate function and hardly departs into multi-theoretical variabilities and overlaps that create greater collaborative understanding of disasters exacerbated by climate change.

Theoretical Pluralism

As the world plunges in a climate emergency (Guterres, 2019), affirmation of the heightened severity of disasters creates new digressions in disaster studies. The transcendence of climate change pressures and outcomes in Indigenous contexts necessitate disaster research to complement functionalist narratives with deeper cross-disciplinary, multi-theoretical, and intersectional approaches. Mono-theoretical ubiquity in disaster studies is criticized, caused  not only by inadequate attention to rapidly evolving and corollary disaster research inquiries but by unaccounted research contexts and social realities. Rather than amassing the disaster study toolbox with functionalist-concentrated theoretical expansions, the employment of theoretical pluralism produces a new, socially-relevant, and more novel coherence in disaster studies (Christopher, 2010; Sun & Faas, 2018; Alexander, 2000).

Utilizing heterogenous theoretical approaches is rationalized by the foundational underpinning that disasters are collisions of social, environmental, technological, political, economic, and organizational agencies (Fiddian‐Qasmiyeh, 2019; Sutley, 2018; Davidson, 2015) that are grounded by context (Meyer, 2007; Sillitoe, 2004) and yield imperilling disruptions (Gaillard, 2003). It is the dynamism of context, inherent disaster complexities, and pragmatic necessity to reduce disaster impacts that compel transdisciplinary modes and innovations in disaster research and application. Transdisciplinarity invokes a rich integration of complementary theories (Christopher, 2010) to bridge once-isolated disciplinary and intellectual resources (Meyer, 2007; Godemann, 2008). Beyond social structures, dynamics, and role explications confined within functionalist dimensions, new meanings emerge in diversifying theoretical approaches, informed by a synthesis of disciplinary positionalities.

Alexander (2000) posits the commonality in marrying various often unrelated theories to provide distinct hermeneutical platforms to appropriately address diverse disaster forms. The haphazards of sole reliance on functionalism to address disasters and crises that intersect on social-justice, political, anthropological, technological and other themes inhibit more holistic explanations of complexities and fails to truly capture cross-disciplinary insights. Theoretical integrations revealed new theoretical arguments as well as new brands of theories with only a few listed in Table 1.


Table 1 Multidisciplinary Integrated Research that Yielded Expanded Theoretical Arguments

Author Field of Study/Sub-Disciplinary Extensions Theory/Theoretical Argument
Barrows (1923) Geography and Sociology Theory of Human Ecology — geography is also attributable as human relationships with the natural, built-up, and social environments.  In this premise, disasters are perturbations to human spatial and social systems.
Ulrich (1992) Environmental Politics Risk Society Theory — societal transitions and modernization induce risks of environmental impacts and exacerbated hazards that lead to disastrous consequences.
Bolin and Kurtz (2018) Racial and Disaster Studies Critical Race Theory — mechanisms to anticipate, cope, resist, and recover from disasters are unjustly impacted due to racial, class, ethnicity, gender, and age disparities.
Krüger, Bankoff, Cannon, Orlowski, and Shipper (2015) Anthropology Decision-making in risk-laden societies is attributed through cultural contexts and orthodoxies.  Cultural belief systems play crucial roles in disaster risk management and resiliency practices.
Gray, Weal, and Martin (2016) Mass Communications and Social Media Risk Communication Theory — accessible and reliable information transmission through social media are determinants to effective risk management in disaster life cycle phases.
Udalov (2019) Behavioural Economics Disasters play a role in influencing the choice of an individual from either low- or high-income groups between economic progress and environmental conservation.
Seaberg, Devine, and Zhuang (2017) Sociology and Disaster Risk Management Studies Game Theory — social agencies can become collaborative or defensive players in different phases of managing disaster risks.
Dell (2016) Dramaturgy and Mass Communications Critical Theory and Goffman’s Dramaturgy — people, as audiences, are restricted from their roles in society that at the time of crises, discourse becomes a powerful means to influence audience perceptions and assert power structures.

Theoretical pluralism adopts the interdisciplinarity tenet of fusing diverse schools of thought but with the transdisciplinary nuance of praxis, since practical solutions are imperative requisites in addressing disasters’ real-world challenges. Yet, poly-theoretical orientations are celebrations of multiple theoretical complementarity (Cairney, 2013) rather than the wholesale abandonment of functionalism. While there is much to laud in the strengths of functionalist interpretations of Ivatan cultural-environmental stabilities, the sweeping complexities of climate change, its rapid single-generation intensification, its multi-faceted agencies; and Indigenous context among others justify multi-theoretical collaborations. From the hybridized understanding and cross-fertilization of knowledge drawn from theoretical multiplicities, more effective resiliency means to buffer against disasters can be generated.

The multiplex and intricacy of disasters remind that effective mitigation requires the theoretical fusions from urban planning, sociology, geography, meteorology, political science, and other disciplines (Bendito & Barrios, 2016; Hagemeier-Klose, Beichler, Davidse, & Deppisch, 2014). Disciplines provide a unique set of lenses that project a particular reality and provide the basis for theoretical postulations (Repko, Szostak, & Buchberger, 2014). Cairney (2013), Grant and Osanloo (2014) further unpack theories as a set of analytical and a priori propositions designed to frame and structure explanations and observations of the world. Where disciplinary grounding of theories benefits the creation of specialized and focused knowledge (Brandell, 2008), a theory’s purpose is partitioned only within a particular disciplinary boundary. Alternatively, assembling a framework that borrows and converges theoretical expertise highlight intentional contextualization of theories to answer distinct research questions, respond to investigations, and properly rationalize the design of disaster mitigation strategies.

Assembling a Framework for Theoretical Pluralism in Disaster Research

Amongst the plentiful disciplines and theories applicable in disaster research, its complexity is rendered more manageably through a framework that maps, guides, and organizes the chain of research processes coherently. Developing this linear framework, as detailed in Figure 1, is a modest attempt in advancing disaster research that eclipses singular functionalist tendencies to engage with diverse yet complementary theories and further enrich research outcomes. Functionalism and its merits are not shelved but rather positioned as a locus that expands and interfaces with compatible theories. Much contextual modelling of the Ivatan socio-cultural sphere is applied to conjure research within Indigenous settings and reveal richer elucidations from theoretical pluralism.


Figure 1 Framing the Process for Integrating Multiple Theories in Disaster Research within Indigenous Settings

* A separation between Data Gathering and Analyses is distinct in this framework, though both are conjointly explained in one section in this paper.
** This step is augmented with discussion on the importance of applied research.

Numerous caveats are at constant play in the messiness of social science and qualitative research (Bryman, 2015), moreso with engaging Indigenous elements (Kovach, 2020; Mutua and Swadener, as cited in Beeman-Cadwallader, Quigley, & Yazzie-Mintz, 2011). Divergent to the more a priori grounded and inductive research common in qualitative investigations (Glaser & Strauss, 1999), the framework primarily applies ex ante, rationalized deductive reasoning, where theory-driven data validation is employed for novel meaning-making. Functionalism serves as an anchoring theory accessorized by a suite of complementary theories informed by research objectives. While deduction seems at odds with research in Indigenous, more qualitative contexts (O’Reilly, 2009), the framework assumes a post-positivist position where uncovering parallel truths exist through plural ways of knowing and understanding (Miller et al., 2008). Transdisciplinary principles imbued in such research formats also permit methodological flexibility through mixed-methods in data gathering (Miller et al., 2008; Mertens, 2007) yet iterated on Indigenous underpinnings. In this way, the primus inter pares (first among equals) social contract of respecting Indigenous perspectives interpreted under the functionalist lenses are maintained and even augmented.

Research Problem Identification

Consistent with problem solving-oriented research traditions, the genesis of the research inquiry centres on defining the challenges of climate change-exacerbated disasters in Indigenous communities and their state of affairs. The nexus of Indigeneity and disaster concerns sets the foundational and thematic parameters of the research inquiry. While these parameters secure the research scope, the complexity in the nexus also warrants outward extensions, reaching out to multiple and latent disciplinary perspectives that could expose unique problems as new avenues for exploration and analysis. Complex problems that speak interdisciplinarity reveal a multiplicity of problem inquiries, instanced in Fresnoza’s (2021) research where modernization of disaster risk management in Indigenous communities yielded questions of concerns pertinent to epistemologies, power structures, policy, social justice, impacts, and processes.

Indigenous Contextualization and Engendering

Research and methodologies with contextualized pivots are made more relevant, inclusive, and attentive to the needs, problems, and values of the community. Not only does contextualization promote the legitimacy of research that upholds fair and ethical representation of involved stakeholders (Belcher, Rasmussen, Kemshaw, & Zornes, 2016) but also provide roots to ground knowledge production without straying away far into different realms and paradigms that interdisciplinarity augmentations may bring. Contextualization is therefore the customization of research to base distinct ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies of the case setting, which subsequently informs the most appropriate research methodology, recommendation generation, and praxis. Furthermore, contextualization becomes imperative when applying this framework in diverse cultural and Indigenous milieux.

To engender Indigeneity in disaster research is to consider Indigenous peoples not as victims but as agents of change and knowledge-keepers. The United Nations (n.d.) further elaborates, “Indigenous peoples and the role they may play in combating climate change are rarely considered in public discourses on climate change.” In parallel, survival through Indigenous knowledge and practices demonstrate effectiveness of Indigenous resiliencies (Mercer, Kelman, Taranis, & Suchet-Pearson, 2010). Accounting such Indigenous paradigm contextualizes disaster research, further enriching and broadening the horizons of theoretical pluralism beyond the narrowed confines of functionalist interpretations.

Formulation of Research Objectives

Research objectives detail pertinent aims expected to be accomplished in the research (Tucker, 2005). Also, objectives entail an assortment of prospective analytical approaches founded from the antecedent construction of variable problem questions and bounded by the more constant context of the research. Defining objectives also lays the foundation for deriving more specific research actions and informing appurtenant theories. These specific actions include, but are not limited to (modified from Sacred Heart University Library, 2020):

  • Comparing scenarios — distinguishing similarities and differences among two or more social variables.
  • Defining conditions — creating rich meanings associated with a phenomena.
  • Describing situations — providing factual attributes, properties, and characteristics to explain a set of circumstances.
  • Evaluating actions — assessing the merits and performance of actions against a set of criteria or established system.
  • Critiquing decisions — questioning the validity of the decision based on moral and ethical standards.
  • Exploring domains — learning and inquiring about less understood concepts and phenomena to generate new outcomes.
  • Interpreting perspectives — explaining points of view based on one or another’s comprehension.
  • Narrating experiences — relaying stories and lived experiences loaded with particular reflections.
  • Persuading positions — arguing positions to prompt agreement.

Positioning Functionalism as a Locus and Heuristic

Posturing functionalism as a locus not only equips disaster research with a theoretical positionality but also serves as a starting point agency in the later creation of hybridized meaning. Despite the dynamism and socio-ecological complexities of disasters, much merit exists in uncovering predictabilities and explicating how social structure, stability, and cultural homeostasis inform resiliency. Ivatan Indigenous resiliencies, tempered by recurrent social practices across generations, substantiate functionalist elucidations how social roles, customs, and values contribute to social equilibrium (Gingrich, 1999). Such rationale justifies the favourability of functionalism as an ad hoc theory sensible for poly-theoretical disaster research in communities where social resiliencies are established by context and Indigenous orthodoxies.

It requires assertion, however, that functionalism is to be used as a heuristic device rather than the predominating theory that commands the logic of subsequent theories to fasten into as a peripheral accompaniment. To endow the functionalist utility as the undergirding authority in explaining how cultural contexts and orthodoxies catalyze social stability is rife with tension (Olsson, Jerneck, Thoren, Persson, & O’Byrne, 2015; Webb, 2018). Merging propositions from Chilcott (1998) and Lim (2018) suggests that as an anchoring heuristic, functionalism simplifies analytical interpretations of the otherwise complex nexus between social roles, cultural agencies, resiliency, and climate change disruptions and how they influence social equilibrium. In this initial step, room is made to accommodate logical infusions from complementary theories and generate richer, more holistic explanations and meaning.

Evaluate and Select Complementary Theories to Interface

Functionalism, as a Parsons-reminiscent theory of equilibrium that ought to explain social resiliency induced from social stability (Crossman, 2000; Gingrich, 1999; Olsson et al., 2015), is incommensurate in deducing new world pressures of rapid flux and disruptive agencies induced by climate change. While the prevalence of change theories such as chaos theory, adaptive systems theory, and prospect theory has immensely contributed to the corpus of knowledge in disaster research (Hilhorst, 2003; Osberghaus, 2013), much potential exists in integrating asymmetric theories of change and stability to create novel hybridized meaning. Doing so is not merely arbitrary and requires a robust criteria for the complementarity of pluralistic theories. Such criteria include:

  • Theoretical coherence
  • Pragmatic necessity
  • Flexibility to accommodate mixed-methods
  • Indigenous relevance and legitimacy

Complementarity is about finding the right community of knowledge, where functionalist perspectives integrating with lenses from other theoretical traditions contribute to new understandings that are deep, impactful, and create enhanced or new interpretations. Amid the ocean of social and natural science theories that are often epistemologically and ontologically divergent (Persson, Hornborg, Olsson, & Thorén, 2018), the theoretical selection criteria to interface with functionalism is relative to the capacity for the pair to reciprocate coherent logic. In the analytical discourse how resiliency is influenced by religion and gender roles, for instance, functionalism and gender fluidity seem variegated due to their independent academic stances and antitheses of stability and change but may find parallels in themes of adaptation and recovery (Hazeleger, 2013).

Transdisciplinarity is the method-driven model for theoretical pluralism that reifies integrated theories and enacts change to solve problems beyond the scope and capacity of single theoretical constructs (Klein, 1990). Despite theoretical integration’s promise and potential, climate change’s immediacy and intensification hastens the priority shift in translating integrations for the benefit and use of practitioners, particularly in Indigenous communities. In this light, the determination of the practicability, capacity, and theoretical fit in producing socially-relevant and transformative outcomes becomes a vital determinant for interfacing with functionalism. It is acknowledgeable that difficulties transposing from theoretical to practical abound in this process (Godemann, 2008; Bendito & Barrios, 2016), thereby prompting constant iterations of scenario building, contextualizations, technocracy reductions, and practitioner-collaborative deliberations (Popa, Guillermin, & Dedeurwaerdere, 2015) until reaching the confirmability of effective theoretical pragmatism.

While integrative paradigms and their offshoot theories specify proper methodological processes, complementarity will also rely on flexibility to employ mixed modes of quantitative and qualitative methodologies to generate unique insights from complex phenomena. Intersectional research that feature climate change and Indigenous peoples become precarious, however, due to paradigmatic and epistemological divides among the great academic cultures of humanities and natural sciences (Godemann, 2008). Mertens (2007) highlights mixed mode synergies though cautions that even when qualitative and quantitative processes are appropriated from the system of inquiry, mixed mode determinations will require transcending into ontological assumptions, especially when Indigenous contexts are to be accounted for. Yet, flexibility is the emphasis in this criteria, in which the versatility of methodological approaches are appropriately prescribed by the determined research inquiry, objectives, and context.

Complementary theories are those that are protective, respectful, and representative of Indigenous axioms, orthodoxies, and world views. To buttress the engendering of Indigeneity in research stated earlier, theories to connect with Functionalism ought to be privileging rather than disavowing, where theoretical validations stimulate Indigenous participatory collaborations as a gauge of methodological rigour. Beyond inclusive methodologies, triangulating theories are mutually confirmable and acknowledgeable within the gamut of Indigenous positionalities.

Data Gathering and Analyses

The duality of climate change epiphenomena and Indigenous peoples reflect epistemological divergences between natural and social sciences, which therefore calls for rigorous data collection design, strategy, and process that are effective in bridging these epistemological rifts. Responsive to filling this gap, it becomes suggestive to shift into integrative research approaches that call for blended quantitative and qualitative data-gathering processes (Di Pofi, 2002). Mixed-methods, however, are not default nor exclusive approaches in epistemologically and theoretically diverse research, but are rather reliant on the specified goals and objectives of the research; electing singular qualitative or quantitative approaches or the orchestration of both is systematically optimized and is respondent to the research objectives to produce relevant knowledge.

Nuances of Indigenous elements in the research design necessitate distinct ethical and culturally-sensitive protocols to be adhered in data collection and in analyses, whether data gathering orientations are empirical or value-laden. Commencing with the recognition, legitimization, and hallowing of Indigenous knowledge as credible and effective in disaster resiliency, culling data with its subsequent analyses become intentionally collaborative to dismantle outsider technocracy, activate discourse with rather than on people, and involve the community actively in this process (Beeman-Cadwallader et al., 2011). The pro-relational and anti-transactional process of Indigenous-centred methodology is exemplified in the research of Beeman-Cadwallader et al. (2011) and Hiwasaki et al. (2014), where data generation and analysis promote commitment to collaboration rather than conflict of knowledge systems.

As quantitative evidence gathering and examinations have been well-established methods associated in functionalist research traditions by Merton and Davis (Platt, 1986), the more contemporary gauge for methodological effectiveness calls for one that is transcendent. From the conventional often quantitative research styles of the predominant separation of the researcher and the researched, the new gold standard includes methodological repertoires that are interpersonal, ethical, privileging, and are easily reified into action (Bradbury, 2015). Often operationalized in qualitative research through ethnography, participatory action research, photo voice, dramaturgical analysis and others (Given, 2008), locals and Indigenous peoples become active co-generators and validators of knowledge, effectively diagnosing problems and generating interventions that match the needs of the community (Bradbury, 2015).

Formulation of Solutions as the Outcome of Applied Research

Concluding research through the synthesis of data and discourse through theoretical hybridization is a mere penultimate outcome insufficient in addressing social and ecological challenges. Running aground in recursive discourse is paralyzing and unaffordable in contemporary times when disasters’ disruptive consequences are further intensified by climate change. Demonstration of research effectiveness through action is demanded since conduct is inseparable from inquiry (Bradbury, 2015). In parallel, Gould (1981) asserts the inanimate nature of data and how it does not speak for itself unless endorsed into action. Disaster research therefore surpasses the creation of cross-fertilized theories as success benchmarks into applications of strategies and operations of solutions in reducing risks and vulnerability. In retrospect, disaster research transcends from poly-theoretical to pragmatic, entailing the ultimate development of actionable processes with the outcome of saving lives, not just the creation of novel propositions.

Research tradition that treats the innovation of produced meanings and knowledge as the convention for effective solutions is normative, though only lauds technocratic ability rather than social utility.  Epistemologically, the localization of knowledge and its devolution as the expertise of common folk reconciles the limitations of disaster research as mere concepts, ideas, and theories privileged for researchers and scientists only. The Ivatan context teaches us that resiliency is not just an elitist scientific process but rather a communal social endeavour (Fresnoza, 2021). When technical solutions borne from sophisticated theoretical fusions are humanized and translated into acceptable practice by the community, locals then become expert practitioners empowered to inquire rigorously into the distinct problems within their proximities. The citizenry then creates its own capacity to apply learnings and solutions that best suit their needs, independent from outsider, often incompatible prescriptions.

Bradbury (2015) critiques the Cartesian divorcing of knowledge and practice that resulted in superiority and hegemonic tendencies of scientific intellectualism over praxis. To abet the mobilization of research by grassroots community members, as opposed to endowing responsibility just to academics and scholars is a reclamation of power (Beeman-Cadwallader et al., 2011). Fusing assertions from Beeman-Cadwallader et al. (2011), Kovach (2020), and Loppie (2007), grassroots application of research and the reification of theories is also emancipating and decolonizing, especially within the perspective of Indigenous communities whose traditional resiliency practices were inhibited by intergenerational injustice.

Conclusions from Fresnoza’s (2021) dissertation detail how augmentations in Ivatan resiliency extend beyond scientific parley and functionalist discourses but through habituated practice. Intergenerational practice honed through experiential and trial-and-error learnings have enabled Ivatans to survive and thrive despite tempestuous environments (Fresnoza, 2021). While functionalist discourse and even further theoretical innovations are credited to enable deeper understanding of the whys of resiliency (Alexander, 2000), actionability reigns as the ultimate demonstration of theoretical rigour and effectiveness (Beeman-Cadwallader et al., 2011; Bradbury, 2015).

It is crucial to note that actionability is not anti-science but as emancipations from scientific hegemony and as collaborations among competing paradigms. Action research and other methodological shifts that celebrate local knowhow, values, civic participation, and Indigenous knowledge as valid and credible research components have opened avenues for inclusive co-generations of local solutions that tap into Western theoretical foundations and Indigenous knowledge (Bradbury, 2015). Much promising opportunities exist in converging resident knowledge-keepers, sociologists, elders, emergency managers, meteorologists, and local stakeholders among others to merge diverse paradigmatic expertise and strategize cogent action plans since all share common goals of effecting more robust resiliency transformations in the community.


Bridging cross-paradigmatic and theoretical gulfs mirror the romanticism of collaboration that often hits walls as it is actualized into pragmatic applications. How functionalism and other theories ought to work together is a dance with two left feet, understating hit-and-miss compatibilities, incoherences, clashing logic, and even antithetical paradigms expected in the convergence. Despite its laudable response to the climate change imperative, theoretical pluralism exists as an idealism challenged by practicality and is still an experimental means for dilated understanding of disaster phenomena, resilience, and their social nexus. As a prerequisite, the requirement of expertise in the theories of functionalism and others is ambitious, with weightier expectations to co-produce knowledge and apply hybridized solutions that still require leaping into the additional hurdle of contextual fit.

Further melding with Indigenous contexts and ethical reminders, theoretical pluralism becomes a complex ideology with inescapable challenges and long strides before coming to fruition. Operationalizing theoretical pluralism through localization can become limiting, with pressures to become too context-specific, which often hinders research generalizability to model for future research (Belcher et al., 2016). The many moving parts, sophisticated processes, and heavy academic expectations in disaster research within Indigenous contexts do not stray far from both internal and external critique. To reconcile the rigour of scientific theoretical discourse in the academy with the more relational and non-linear Indigenous constructions of truth and reality (Loppie, 2007) is a complicated underestimation of mediating perpetual opposites of constructivist vis-à-vis positivist paradigms that often results in impasse (Sillitoe, 2004). Contention about rightful validity claims then become inevitable when empirical scientific rigour becomes applied in Indigenous resiliency research.

Other than epistemological challenges, integrating theoretical constructs is a demanding feat due to their ontological polarities, especially when theories of equilibrium conflict against theories of change.  Reconciling the propositions of functionalism with chaos theory or dynamic systems theory, for instance, is a tall order that attempts to validate paradoxical theoretical arguments. Klenk and Meehan (2015) also maintain that the hybridizing theoretical positions is contentious due to the difficulty in achieving consensus of among radically different theoretical platforms. Rationalizing the designation of functionalism as a locus also questions the seeming subordination of other theories when context may call for opposite or multi-weighted arrangements. No matter the amount of involved theories or their varying degrees of involvement, Midgley (2010) further contends that theoretical pluralism is a paradox in itself when it is expressed as a single theory.


Alexander (2000) explicitly remarks that theoretical underpinnings of disaster risk management is young with its evolution dependent on renewed theoretical developments. This paper attempts to contribute to such theoretical impetus in light of pervasive climate change disruptions and epiphenomena. Rethinking and tilting the discourse of disaster research towards engaging in multi-theoretical application speak to the timeliness of adaptation and innovation in the face of a world in full motion. Singular theory utilization, often employing structural functionalism as a favourite in disaster research, is incommensurate in recognizing wider interdisciplinary agencies and fails to take into account the true complexity how disasters amplified by climate change impact society, especially in Indigenous settings; theoretical multiplicity unearths problems that uni-theoretical approaches would not have been able to detect.

Functionalist theoretical monopolies require a detachment from ubiquity and pull into new unifications as a means to innovate and become responsive from the rapid accelerations of climate change. While functionalist means for expounding normative societal functions in disaster phenomena is not to be rejected outright, theoretical pluralism offers alternative possibilities to diffuse disaster analysis into multidimensional and multidisciplinary purviews. Modelled after transdisciplinarity tenets, outcomes in the employment of theoretical pluralism not only permits a more holistic understanding of disaster complexities but also invests into actionability and solution co-generation as the calibre of rigour.

There can be much to laud yet also much to critique in advancing theoretical interweaving. Road bumps exist in exploring the viability of theoretical pluralism, ranging from the ontological to the practical. Coherence through complementarity among variable theories is also a challenging necessity, especially as functionalism serves as the anchoring explication of social stability when disaster resiliency is faced with multiple agencies of change. These limitations infer the primacy of theoretical pluralism in disaster research, though like most deductive approaches, viability lies on context and conduct, where acceptability and practicality respectively become key determinants that confirm the utility of fusing functionalism with others.

While postulations in this paper are idiographic to functionalism and the Ivatan context, applied research through the approach of theoretical pluralism could be juxtaposed to other settings since improving resiliency becomes a common denominator. Irrespective where theoretical functionalism is applied, rigour and effectiveness will necessitate a number of expandable criteria such as theoretical coherence, pragmatic necessity, mixed-method flexibility, and Indigenous legitimacy when context demands it. By requiring such conventions, multi-theoretical hybridization as applied elsewhere would effectively transcend not just through its explicative functions of explaining society-environment relationships but through constantly innovating and enhancing disaster resiliencies.


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