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On Resilience

Resilience is perhaps one of the most overused yet contested concepts in disaster scholarship. It nevertheless has come to play an important role in understanding and communicating risks. It has moved from being an explanation of how people should act and cope to a somewhat mainstreamed approach to development that is being ‘implemented’ and ‘measured’. Indeed, Resilience features prominently in the name of our project - Gender-Responsive Resilience & Intersectionality in Policy and Practice -

(and I even have the term in my job title!) but nevertheless we do not agree (or disagree!) on the idea of resilience. Some of us (including me!) feel the term has been turned into a neoliberal tool of manipulation; others don’t use the term at all; some feel ambivalent towards it; others find it useful. So where do we start – and can we ever finish - debating resilience?

In one of the episodes of the Disasters: Deconstructed podcast, my co-host Jason von Meding and I asked our listeners to share their views on resilience – and we were not disappointed! We asked our audience three questions: What does R mean to you? Do you think resilience is a divisive concept or a unifying concept? How can the concept of resilience help us to tell stories about disasters?

There was a whole myriad of meanings of resilience. Some focused on measurements and indicators, others focused on people and our ability to cope as individuals. Yet in all the contributions one theme was prominent - resilience does not mean anything, but maybe that’s the beauty of it? Maybe it is this lack of meaning that makes if unifying. But, at the same time, the discourse of resilience is highly compatible with the neoliberal ideological frames that, just like resilience, are malleable, nebulous, multifaceted and replete with contradictions. Joseph (2013), in fact, points out that resilience has only become popular because it fits so well with the neoliberal discourse.

These views of our audience very much reflect the debates around resilience in the academic literature (informative overviews of which are provided by Sanchez et al. (2018) and Wang et al. (2019)). As the concept of resilience is becoming more and more malleable, some argue that it risks becoming less useful in understanding the causes and drivers of risk. Others, however, believe that it is through this malleability that resilience is useful as a boundary object that provide common ground for discussions. There is still a theoretical challenge of deciding whether resilience can and should be measured – and, if so, what should be measured and by whom. Other discussions revolve around community and individual resilience: does labelling someone ‘resilient’ means that they do not need support? Is ‘resilience’ an individual trait, or could it be applied to a whole city, making everyone equally resilient? The recent discussions triggered by COVID-19 have even suggested that resilience as an idea does not work any longer because ‘The Coronavirus brings to the surface the limits of discourses of resilience. If we are the security threat as well as the subjects to be secure, then we cannot be trusted to secure ourselves’ (Chandler, 2020). I recently argued that perhaps we have never been resilient.

All these debates are important and valuable – particularly in the context of GRRIPP project – because if we are to use this concept, we need to be more aware of all the intended and unintended meanings that it brings to the table. We need to recognise, for instance, that the term ‘resilience’ does not translate well into other languages (Chmutina et al, 2020) – but perhaps we can learn from this? We also need to realise that there is little understanding of resilience as a lens for exploring and appreciating intersectionality –and other way around. There are so many questions we need to raise – and perhaps the first question we want to ask ourselves is this: can resilience be a part of a positive transformation based on solidarity and care?

Dr Ksenia Chmutina is the Resilience Thematic Lead for GRRIPP and a Senior Lecturer in Sustainable and Resilient Urbanism at the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering, Loughborough University.

Twitter: @kschmutina

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