By Kaitlyn Rathwell, Prateep Nayak and Mark Andrachuk

Resilience is quickly becoming a powerful word steering high impact policy, international development funding and global environmental governance. The opening plenary @ ‘Resilience 2014 Resilience and Development: Mobilizing for Transformation’ made this especially clear, when five international development diplomats described how ‘resilience’ is a key word in their workplace. Could resilience be the framing we use to legitimize science directed societal transformation? If so, lets continue learning about and clarifying our definition/theory, while at the same time, leverage the capacity of ‘resilience thinking’ as a powerful boundary concept – perhaps capable of providing a bridge between communities of practice in turbulent times.

Defining a theory of resilience

900 delegates from all around the world met in Montpellier France to contemplate resilience thinking in theory and practice. With so many presenters emphasizing resilience in their work, not many gave a definition of what it is and how they use it. When participants did define resilience, they often sank into variations on the old comfortable crutch that is the definition from the Resilience Alliance Website (drawing from Carpenter et al. 2001; Walker et al. 2004):

Resilience as applied to ecosystems, or to integrated systems of people and the natural environment, has three defining characteristics: (1) The amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure, (2) The degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, (3) The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

Yet so much has evolved, diversified and developed in resilience thinking over the past 10 years. Is this definition still appropriate? If not, how can we facilitate an inclusive, reflective, and diverse, yet timely re-definition process? Perhaps a singular definition would be too limiting?

Scholarship and social change continue to teach us lessons about resilience, while at the same time resilience thinking directs scholarship and social change. Thus, resilience thinking, itself, must be approached also as an iterative process, whereby no final endpoint emerges – when the final definition/theory can be put on the mantel.

With current enthusiasm for the concept of resilience, perhaps the power of resilience thinking comes from its lens resonating across multiple communities of practice. We make some initial reflections on selected aspects and emerging trends in how resilience is, and can be, seen and applied to the real world problems today:

Resilience as a boundary object

Resilience thinking has demonstrated tremendous capacity to function as a ‘boundary object’, described by Star & Griesemer (1989 pp. 393) as:

…plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.

Understood in this way, resilience thinking, as an abstract boundary object, can connect social worlds across several vectors: a) disciplines of science; b) generations of scholarship; c) sciences and practice and; d) local to global scales.

       a) Disciplines of science

Resilience scholars are experts in other fields first. This means that resilience thinking is already a boundary concept across disciplines – connecting communities of scholarship via shared discourse. For example, the seminal book ‘Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems’, edited by Gunderson & Holling (2002), showcases some of the interesting and emerging ideas in resilience thinking, born from collaborations across natural, social and economic sciences.

       b) Generations of scholarship

Since its birth in the 1970’s resilience thinking has continued to engage young scholars. Students represented about 1/3 of the conference participants @ Resilience 2014 in France. Such strong presence of young resilience scholars was also indicative of the vast diversity to which resilience landscape is being subjected to. The ongoing work by these young scholars will potentially bring multiple interpretations of resilience concept, leading to expansion in its meaning and definitions, new approaches showing innovative ways to apply resilience as a lens, which will require active collaborations and negotiations between different generations of scholars.

       c) Sciences and practice

Resilience scholars and practitioners have high hopes for resilience thinking to bridge communities of thought, for example science with development practice, social innovation and the arts. A focus of Resilience 2014 was the nexus of resilience thinking and development practice. Experiences of connecting resilience thinking in practice are valuable for cross case learning as we attempt to bridge the science-society divide.

       d) Local to global scales

Resilience thinking is being applied not only across diverse fields of practice but also from local to global scales. Local climate change adaptation and global climate policy are both informed by resilience thinking. The concept has always maintained an admirable capacity to be scaled – for example, panarchy as central to resilience thinking clarifies the role of nested systems within systems, and how change, crisis or innovation can cascade across scales.

Legitimizing science directed social transformation

If resilience thinking can indeed bridge a science- society divide, and help steer social transformations toward sustainable futures, then, how can we, as resilience scholars, keep ourselves accountable? How must our role evolve to take on this responsibility? Below are some initial ideas:

       a) Engage with the philosophy of science and ask questions about our role

The role of the researcher in social change science (e.g. policy processes, art making, community development) needs to be considered and made explicit. Whether resilience thinking should/could be seen as a theory or a mode of thinking is an important dimension that needs to be clarified in order to legitimize the potential role of resilience and resilience scholars. As a theory, resilience would purport to reflect aspects of the ways that the world works. Yet as a model for guiding thinking, resilience is a tool for wading through complex issues.

       b) Explore alternative settings and tools for transdisciplinarity

Artists present at the Resilience 2014 conference were able to engage with scientists during workshops, role play and musical composition. These types of processes asked scientists to step out of their comfort zones and sense-make using different forms of expression and self-identities. Likewise, artists at Resilience 2014 spent time out of comfort zones, attending power-point science presentation sessions. Perhaps we can choose to diversify our settings and tools for transdisciplinary science and practice? With more shared sense-making we can work towards more unified visions for change and how to steer transformations.

       c) Leverage international research networks for checks and balances

Resilience thinking emerged from science. Scientists do have a unique role in society to take the time to reflect and problem-solve issues across many scales. Yet, we can’t let the power of resilience thinking be co-opted into global policy without vigilance toward political outcomes. Resilience can be good or bad, depending on the context and topic in question. Choices to build resilience (of what? to what?) or foster transformations reflect values of those in power at high levels of global policy development. Influential institutes/organizations, nested within multi-level accountability networks, can illuminate the normative aspects of resilience and can help guide this process.

       d) Continue inductive practice

Resilience as a concept emerged deductively as an idea from Buzz Holling’s Canadian research lab in the 1970’s. Fast forward about 40 years and we have a plethora of case examples from all over the world to help us approach resilience also inductively, using frameworks, cases and collaboration to critically reflect on and/or elaborate on resilience thinking. It is time to harness inductive lessons from careful cross case analysis. With 900 delegates at Resilience 2014, this was indeed a good place for such ambitious endeavor.

       e) Engage in social processes

The anthropocene – the era of human impact on planet earth – is a good time for action research. Resilience thinking can be utilized critically in social processes salient to society. Scholars are increasingly being asked to incorporate stake and right holders perspectives and priorities into research programs. Balancing points of view in collaborative initiatives is challenging, especially since some stake and right holders have reason to be suspicious of the scientific approach already.
Thoughtful experiments cannot be controlled in complex systems. Some resilience scholars use lab settings or computer model settings to help narrow in on complexity, but many problems that science can help us address are occurring in real time in the real world. That means that if scientists are to be part of the navigation process we have to get out from behind our desks and engage in social processes. These social processes are experiments that we can learn from.

       f) Value multiple knowledge systems

Science is indeed a specialized type of knowledge and many of us with, or striving for, PhD’s have spent considerable time focused on challenges faced by humanity in the anthropocene. For this reason science can help direct social transformation towards sustainability, but it necessarily need not be the only voice. Many works exist demonstrating the moral, political and very practical reasons for engaging with diverse knowledge systems to understand and navigate environmental change. Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and the arts each have a role to play and effort must be directed toward facilitating fair and just processes that engage with diverse knowledge systems for learning and directing societal transformation.

So, tell me again what is resilience?

Our above reflections point to the fact that the field of resilience is actively growing and it is perhaps far from being a well-defined concept. However, the prospects are high and some of the directions in which it should move are becoming more clear. The diversity of possible meanings and ways in which resilience is used by academia, policy people and practitioners (NGOs and funding agencies) warrants improving clarity on what resilience is as a field/lens/concept. We encourage people to continue asking and answering the question “what is resilience?”

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One Response to Tell me again, what is resilience?

  1. Mamun says:

    I think resilience to be seen through social-ecological framework if we are talking about sustainable uses of natural resources. The idea of bounce back or self-organizations (first two characteristics, as Kaitlin has indicated from existing scholarly works) come to me more like a physical science thoughts but also true for ecosystem features to some degrees. I think the third defining feature “The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation” (The social science part of defining resilience may be) is more we need to worry about if you would like to enhance resilience in social-ecological systems. The first definition is kind of thorny as it envision linearity and equilibrium state if we apply this framework for ecosystem processes that are dynamic. It never can not go back to previous state that what an indigenous scholar was stating in Canadian Water Network Workshop held in North Bay, ON lately. We better try adapt with the dynamism of ecosystem processes rather than thinking that ecosystems can be in a equilibrium states to bring resilience in social-ecological systems. In other word, what Prateep says like we need to work for making better connections, not harming the ecosystem in a way that can not recover such as over uses or abuses of natural resource. Nature will fight back, no fishes for over harvests…..

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