Resilience thinking: A concept of or for our time?

Posted by sustainable on March 23, 2013 

 The term ‘resilience’ is increasingly being used in a wide range of circles from ecology, economics, emergency and disaster management, community development, education, psychology, and engineering. It often refers to the capacity of a ‘system’ of some kind (e.g. community, forest, organisation, person) to absorb and adapt to some form of change (hurricanes, economic shocks, trauma) in a way that enables the system to retain the same functions and outputs (jobs, wellbeing, provision of food from a forest etc.). Resilience thinking comes from a systems thinking world view, which recognises that systems are dynamically complex, where changing one aspect in a system can have major and unpredictable impacts on other aspects, such as the collapse of global economies and the credit crunch.

Use of the term ‘resilience’ has been increasing. Google trends shows a steady increase in the number of searches using the term ‘resilience’ relative to the total number of searches over time, while almost seven times as many research papers used the term in 2011 than in 2000. This raises an interesting question: Is increasing use of ‘resilience’ simply a reflection of a broader change towards more systemic thinking in society, or can teaching resilience/systems thinking actually facilitate a change in the way problems are perceived and addressed? That is, is resilience a concept of our time, or a concept that can be used for our time?

To answer this question, it is useful to consider studies of personal epistemological beliefs (PEBs). These are the beliefs held by people about what they consider knowledge to be and how they come to know something, such as the extent to which they see the world as simple or complex, certain or uncertain, and whether they justify what they know through some form of evidence and analysis or by what ‘feels right’. These beliefs have profound impacts on the rest of thinking and behaviour. For example, most conflicts are due to some form of contestation over how knowledge is justified (e.g. what counts as evidence). Those who see the world as complex and unpredictable are also more likely to dig deeper into a problem to look for counterintuitive findings, and recognise there may be different perspectives on the problem and its solutions, than those who view the world as simple and certain. Students with more pluralistic thinking therefore tend to do better in academic tests than those with more black and white kinds of thinking.

Teaching resilience thinking certainly has potential to influence these higher order epistemic beliefs. However, the effect of teaching resilience thinking will also depend on how it is taught (e.g. whether students are required to actively think about their thinking) and on where a student is starting from (if a student has already developed more pluralistic or systemic thinking then they are less likely to be affected). This then raises another important question: Is resilience thinking just a stepping stone to other, possibly more sophisticated ways of thinking that also have profound impacts on how we relate to others and the world we live in?

Research on thinking, such as that by Susanne Cook-Greuter, suggests that most people in western societies view the world as traditional, conventional stages (like the more black and white thinking described above), but that there are also many stages of development that go beyond this. ‘Systems thinking’, however, occurs at the beginning of the postconventional stage. This helps explain why resilience thinking is so popular in our current time: it provides a safe bridge for people to make this significant leap from one way of thinking to another, and to enable them to start seeing the world differently. But resilience and systems thinking is only one step on a road to other cognitive developments. Think, for example, of the seriously wise people like the Dalai Lama who have spent many years (and lives?) in deep exploration of the mind and body. Their kind of thinking is rare, and resilience/systems thinking is only part of a process towards more sophisticated ways of viewing the world and how a person relates to it.

So back to the question: Is resilience thinking a product of our changing times, or can it be used for our time? Certainly resilience thinking can help some people develop new ways of thinking, and is therefore an important conceptual tool to instigate a new approach to understanding and approaching the world’s problems. It is also particularly important in current western contexts where shifts to more systemic ways of thinking are happening. However, resilience thinking is only one of many perspectives. In addition to facilitating cognitive developments using lenses such as resilience thinking, it is therefore important to continue to strive towards other more sophisticated and pluralistic ways of understanding and addressing real world challenges.

This article is a reproduction of a contribution to the ‘Geographer’: a publication of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society which featured a range of articles on resilience in Autumn 2012 (http://www.rsgs.org/publications/geographer.shtml) The work is also based on a research paper (available open access):  Fazey, I., 2010. Resilience and Higher Order Thinking. Ecology and Society, 15(3): 22.