How Helpful Is Resilience as a Conceptual Framework?

Author: Dr Peter Tangney, Science Policy and Communication, Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century, Torrens Resilience Institute member, Flinders University

Dr Paul Barnes, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), recently presented an excellent overview of the various perspectives that might be used to understand the concept of resilience at an event held by the Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University.
Arising as they did more or less independently across a bunch of professions and academic disciplines– from engineering to ecology to psychology and beyond – it’s easy to get confused about what exactly resilience means.

I first approached resilience from the perspective of understanding climate change. In my book, I summarise the various concepts that Dr Barnes described, using the following typology:

Engineering Resilience (or, Bouncing Back): a measure of the speed with which a system returns to its equilibrium state;

Ecological Resilience (or, Bouncing Forth): a measure of the magnitude of disturbance a system can absorb and its speed of recovery to one of a number of alternative possible equilibrium states;

Evolutionary Resilience: a measure of the ability of communities to respond, adapt, and transform under instability and inevitable change. Under this concept, there are no meaningful equilibrium states; instability is a fundamental component of social ecology.

My presentation of these ideas is similar to Dr Barnes, although we may differ in opinion on the objective status of social-ecological equilibrium. Some scientists believe its objective existence is worth questioning, even if it is conceptually helpful.

There is much debate about the interplay between the ideas of ecological equilibrium (which originated in the 1970s) and its eventual development into ideas of social-ecology. Evolutionary resilience, for instance, arose from urban geographers who liked the ideas of ecologists very much but favoured a more fluid idea of how society adapts and transforms in response to change.

In all of this, we can see why some scholars are not fans of resilience as an operational concept. Resilience can mean so many things, some have claimed, that it is not very helpful as a prescription. It may simply foster ambiguity and conflict if we use it to direct how we ought to live or to act or to organize ourselves in preparation for extreme events. Let me provide an example.

Resilience has been promoted as a really useful idea for developing communities’ ‘social capital’. In the context of political conservatism and while climate change risk is still a largely abstract idea, resilience seems like a worthy sort of language for enticing local communities to be pro-active and well organised in the face of extreme events. Others argue, however, that a resilience-based approach gives license to the federal government to promote neo-liberal ideologies concerning ‘small government’. Resilience as a conceptual framework, they argue, permits the government to avoid the sorts of strategic coordination that could reduce the exposure and vulnerability of local communities.

In the UK in 2010, for instance, the Cameron Government announced the era of the ‘Big Society’, promoting local community initiatives for individuals to volunteer their services that, in the past, might have been paid for using tax-payers’ money. As this initiative was rolled out, Cameron axed a whole range of government-funded institutions and introduced stringent economic austerity measures for the sake of the national economy.

If communities can foster social capital for the purposes of maintaining and enhancing resilience, so critics of resilience argue, then the national government can justify stepping back from the coordination of disaster risk management and emergency response, and even, reduce expectations for investment in infrastructure. And indeed, in the UK climate adaptation investments often fail the cost-benefit test, while the government has increasingly transitioned from using the language of ‘climate change risk’ to that of ‘climate resilience’. Thus, critics warn, beware how this potent idea may backfire!

Having a commonly agreed idea of what we mean by resilience would certainly be very helpful for maintaining and enhancing strong government and infrastructure and local communities. However, since resilience pertains to many different areas of systems-based thinking and is such a value-laden concept – concerning the resilience of what and for whom – it seems highly unlikely that, especially in this era of polarization, we would ever be able to come to an agreement between right and left of the political divide.

When we speak of resilience, therefore, irrespective of which strict definition we might use (or imply), the concept can be used to rationalize a whole range of contrasting choices. While at face value this may seem to be a weakness, I propose that the flexibility of meanings of resilience is actually the concept’s greatest strength. The reasons for this will take a little longer to explain than I have the space to do here. In my next post, therefore, I will discuss how, compared with other concepts that might be martialed to enhance social capital and disaster management provisions, resilience has a lot going for it. The reason, in a nutshell, is that it’s actually one of the most value-transparent ideas we can use to understand politicians’, experts’ and communities’ implicit priorities and values.


Author biography

Dr Tangney is a lecturer in Science Policy and Communication, Flinders University. Peter coordinates the BSc program in Science Policy & Communication.

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