Resilience: some critical questions

Last week I met with a former colleague, Andrea Saveri, who has been thinking a lot about the literature on “resilience” that has been gaining a great deal of traction in the current economic environment. She has an interesting blog post here on it and we’re thinking about how we can use the concept with some ideas from social media and the literature on cooperation and social networks to re-think the Healthy Cities movement. Jamais Cascio has also been writing about this in Fast Company.

After reading Jamais’ piece I found there are some major holes in the work that we need to address to make this more useful for public health. Some of the most interesting conceptual work applicable for public health practitioners is actually coming out of the STEPS Centre (IDS, University of Sussex) and they have an excellent paper from a workshop they which focused on some of the gaps in the current literature. Below I’ll provide an overview of some of the top level critiques/issues they raise.

First a little background. Their focus is on how the resilience literature could be appropriated for discussions in international development framed by concerns for social justice, equity and poverty. Therefore the first question is resilience of what, for whom? Systems need to be disaggregated if we’re going to move from abstract discussions of complex systems to embodied knowledges and systems. The discussion also needs to be informed by the different framings of risk—from risk (that can be quantified) to uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (where neither outcomes nor probabilities are known). This opens up the possibility to talk about the politics of resilience and risk and how organizations/polities can occlude or marginalize particular framings of risk (eg. those who warned of the risks of derivatives for years prior to the collapse were frequently marginalized and ridiculed by the financial sector and business editors). Therefore strategies of resilience and sustainability are often about opening up the debates to new framings of risks.

Some of the respondents to the resilience discussion raised issues of the need to respond to threats that are raised first and foremost, but rather than just responding it is a question of the appropriate response in terms of timing, intensity and resources as Christo Fabricus would have it. Furthermore, the resilience literature comes out of the discipline of ecology, adaption from economics, and in political science/social sciences we have concerns over justice and democracy. These are normative positions that should be brought into the resilience discussion. For example, the World Bank privileges optimality, stability and control whereas many grassroots organizations would privilege equity, social justice, etc.

STS scholar Wieber Bijker notes that the resilience concept comes more directly from engineering and assumes rational actors and a foregrounding of technology in the discussion. He emphasizes that what he is looking at is the vulnerability of “technological cultures”–society and technology as co-produced (the central framework of most STS theoretical discussions). Bryan Turner (sociologist) criticizes the resilience literature for always privileging the biophysical over the social and we see this through the use of “adaptive cycles”, “collapse”, “renewal”, etc. An alternative would look at social, political and economic structures and how they shape access and control to resources and viewing the environment as both a setting and product of human action. Others raised similar issues and throught that the discussion needs to show greater attention to voice, reflexive governance and the politics of framing sustainability goals.

The framing issue was of central importance and always returning to whose resilience is at stake. Social scientists are extremely wary of the deployment of the term “system” for its inherently conservative meanings–preserving the system that may have produced the risks, inequities in the first place. Sheila Jasanoff asks which bonds in systems are worth preserving? She wonders how the resilience discourse can be framed to enable not just survival but rather normative dimensions of life from ethics to politics and justice or self-organizing and self-regulating systems in the context of larger, global systems of governance of sustainability regimes.

The workshop ended with some recommendations on future possible directions. These included the need to analyze networks and relationships in the systems at hand as well as attention to the alternative framings, narratives and imaginations that different actors may have about socio-ecological-technological processes. Re-surfacing normative concerns of various actors speaking about vulnerability, sustainability and resilence. This is part of understanding how power and politics are at the heart of the question of resilience and sustainability.