Saturday 4 June 2011

A thesis waiting to be written

The university administration here recently asked for information about any research currently being undertaken here relating to the Christchurch earthquakes.

I am sure that the quake will provide lots of scope for future research, in geology, engineering, and social science. I am not aware of any research in economics, currently, but one thesis I would love to see written is on the volunteer work in the aftermath of both the September 4 and Feb 22 quakes.

A major part of this story, of course, is the sheer magnitude of the volunteer work. (My favourite anecdote: My daughter had her clarinet exam, originally scheduled for the week after the Sept 4 earthquake last year, postponed by a week because of the quake. The examiner, a middle-aged woman who had been brought out from England for this round of exams, was already in Christchurch. I asked whether she had left the city during the week exams were cancelled. Oh no, I was told, she went out to the eastern suburbs to help shovel silt!)
Being a social science geek, however, the thing I find most fascinating about the volunteer activities was the high levels of coordination that existed with activities that originated in the bright ideas of lots of people, such as the lunchpacks made for members of the student army, prepared by volunteers in Dunedin, and driven up to Christhchucrh by other volunteers overnight. The student army originated as a single student’s idea after the September quake, communicated to others via Facebook. Is this an example of a Hayekian spontaneous order, with social networking providing the platform for a coordinating network? Or did civil defence and other official organisations have an important role to play in the coordinating mechanism? To what extent was the scale of the volunteer activity this time possible only because the system evolved from the smaller-scale activity last year?

Obviously, whatever the local coordinating mechanism, the whole activity would not have been possible without the global price mechanism allocating resources (think I pencil, with everyone adjusting their behaviour to help the Christhchurch volunteer work), and clearly it is relatively easy to have spontaenous volunteer work when there is so much work that can be helpful, allocating the available help to the most pressing concern is less important than simply increasing the total amount of help. But even acknowledging those points, there is an interesting question seeking an answer here.

Hopefully, there is a lead player in the student army out there with a background in social science (ideally including economics), who would be keen on taking this on as a thesis topic.


  1. I agree that this would be fascinating. There's been a bit of work done on the bottom-up response to Katrina; could make for some interesting comparative work.

  2. Well I'll wager quite a bit that this thesis will not find it was coordinated from the bunker under the beehive by a secret committee.

  3. Are you not seeing a similar thing in the Arab world right now. Revolution without obvious leadership. Coordination via Facebook, Twitter etc. Another spontaneous order?