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Historicizing vulnerability: place-names, risk and memory in the Mont Blanc area

Research Fellow in Anthropology, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin Turin, Italy

Special Issues: Socio-Natural Disasters and Vulnerability Reduction in the territorial ecosystems

This research puts forward what has been achieved about the findings of a research I am currently conducting in the Aosta Valley, a francophone region in the North Western Alps of Italy, regarding the relation which links history, risk, disasters, environment and human vulnerability. The focus of this work, based on place-names, is to prove how social vulnerability is rooted into the landscapes, in its history, and in its memory-scapes.
It is common knowledge that the act of naming places is in fact a way to control and infuse space, with particular belief-systems and values. As Nash and Robinson argued, the specific context of place-naming came to be considered as an “essential human undertaking” to signify cultural or social meaning in the experienced world, and toponyms came to be understood as matrices of language and the various cultural elements, including landscape, which compose a society’s way of life.
Toponyms potentially are able to “transform the sheerly physical and geographical into something historically and socially experienced”, as Tilley states. Place-names are also depositories of the knowledge that ancestors had given to such places. For this reason, the information embedded in place-names can be used to implement the scientific understanding of such “natural phenomena”. Some ancient toponyms in the Valley of Aosta maintain a significance related to “natural hazards”, or to potential disasters. These ancient local toponyms used to connect people to the land, keeping relationships with ecology, geology, fauna, flora and material culture. Nowadays this connection has mainly been lost: people are still re-building and re-inhabiting the same “risk places”, avoiding history. To historicize vulnerability signifies to renegotiate the collective memory and the socio-spatial identities, by allowing the dialogue between past and future.
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