Natural Hazards

, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 7–24

The diversity of resilience: contributions from a social science perspective


Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11069-010-9654-y

Cite this article as:
Lorenz, D.F. Nat Hazards (2013) 67: 7. doi:10.1007/s11069-010-9654-y


The paper presents contributions to the widespread resilience paradigm from a social science perspective. Certain aspects of social systems, especially their symbolic dimension of meaning, need to be taken into account in the endeavor to research coupled social–ecological systems. Due to the symbolic dimension, disasters are defined as the failure of future expectations, and social resilience is defined as the social system property of avoiding or withstanding disasters. In relation to this, three capacities of social systems (adaptive, coping, and participative) that constitute resilience are presented. The adaptive capacity is the property of a system in which structures are modified to prevent future disasters, whereas the coping capacity is the system’s property of coping with calamitous processes that occurred in the past. The participative capacity is a measure of the system’s ability to change its own structures with regard to interventions by other systems, decreasing the system’s resilience. The concept of resilience provides important epistemological and political insights and can help overcome an orientation tied together with the concept of vulnerability that blocks social capacities for the mitigation of disasters.


Social resilienceVulnerabilityAdaptive capacityCopingParticipative capacity

1 Introduction

Resilience has been a prominent topic in various disciplines that aim at conceptualizing different types of systems. Besides the well-known paradigms of disciplines such as psychology and ecology, varying conceptions have developed in the disciplines of geography, urban planning, and social science. But given the nature of cross-scale problems that do not adhere to system boundaries or can even arise from interacting systems, disciplinary approaches reach their limits. For this reason, approaches that consider the interaction of social and ecological systems have emerged within the last several years (Holling et al. 1998). In favor of interdisciplinary approaches, the theoretical outline that stems from ecology has to be reformulated, reflected upon, and also amended within the context of other disciplines, in order to be able to contribute to the widespread debate. From a social science perspective, the ecological resilience concept sensu Holling provides a common basis. Nevertheless, certain aspects of social systems still need to be regarded. Firstly, the symbolic dimension of meaning that is inherent to social systems needs to be taken into account. Furthermore, a corresponding conception of disaster is also crucial, since resilience serves not only the management of coupled systems but, more importantly, the prevention or mitigation of disasters. Resilient social systems do not only try to encounter disasters by detailed planning but rather acknowledge uncertainty resulting from increased system coupling and interaction. Social resilience expresses itself in three capacities (adaptive, coping, and participative), which are all defined decisively by the symbolic dimension of meaning. These capacities and their interplay are fundamental for a comprehension of social resilience and the contribution of social science for interdisciplinary research on resilience.

2 Two concepts of resilience

Even though the concept of resilience has its origins in medical science (Pfeiffer 1929) and was mainly propagated by psychology (Werner 1971), most references nowadays are usually to the ecological research of C.S. Holling. In his research, done since the 1970s, Holling analyzed the non-linear complexity and multidimensional stability of ecological systems. His research culminates in the concept that non-linear factors of influence interact dynamically and (re)produce a complex and multi-stable system that has not just one, but various dynamic states of equilibrium, or a so-called steady-state equilibrium. Holling’s concept of “ecological resilience” or “ecosystem resilience” differs from Stuart L. Pimm’s concept of “engineering resilience”, which posits that resilience is the ability of systems to resist against external influences and themselves return to a well-defined state of equilibrium (Holling and Gunderson 2002; Folke 2006). Due to its ‘well-defined’ stable equilibrium, engineering resilience qualifies as an operationalization, but it does not, however, capture the complexity, permanent change, and dynamic of systems. In contrast to the engineering resilience paradigm, Holling takes the fact for granted that systems are subject to change and fluctuations, whereas for Pimm (1991), changes and fluctuations have to be avoided for the interest of the system since stability is understood as an inflexible and well-defined state. A highly resilient system in Holling’s view can be of low stability and find itself in permanent flux (Handmer and Dovers 1996). “Resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables, and parameters and still persist” (Holling 1973, p. 17). Thus, resilience as a system property is not just a determinant of fluctuations beyond balanced states but rather decisive for the persistence of the system or its capacity for absorption in cases of disturbances.

3 Resilience and social systems

Holling developed his understanding solely with regard to ecological systems. Current research on resilience has drawn attention to the systemic interaction of social systems and ecological systems with non-linear feedback, due to the fact that the nature of existing and evolving problems cannot be analyzed by any single discipline. Interacting social and ecological systems have therefore been conceptualized under the terms human–environment systems (Turner et al. 2003), socio-ecological systems (Gallopín 2006), and social–ecological systems (Berkes et al. 2003). Following Holling et al. (1998) a panarchic dynamic is the result of interacting hierarchies among different systems. The possibility of such an interaction is dependent on the likeness of the interacting systems—coupling being otherwise impossible. The similarities of Holling’s ecological system theory and social system theory have been stressed in different contexts (Scheffer et al. 2002). Varying approaches to the social system theory have also been discussed: Westley et al. (2002) refer to Talcott Parsons highlighting the fact that social systems must serve the so-called AGIL paradigm, consisting of the functions: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency. Other authors, like Japp (1990), point out the similarities of the ecological resilience paradigm and the concept of general social systems by Niklas Luhmann with respect to self-organization.

Both systemic types are characterized by the scales of time and space (Westley et al. 2002). And, like ecological systems, sensu Holling, social systems are regarded as dynamic, discontinuously changing, complex, multi-stable, self-organizing, and adaptive. The fact that social systems are influenced by the variations of change is considered to be the theoretical basis in social science—regardless of the trigger that can have a wide range—e.g., the conflict of the material productive forces and the relations of production (Marx 1977), the circulation of elites (Pareto 1968), or technology and technological development (Ogburn 1950). Furthermore, it is undisputed that change cannot be continuously broad and radical if a system is not to become entropic, and the system itself therefore be preserved (Luhmann 2005). From a social science perspective, the assumption of a return to one single state of equilibrium and social stability—in the sense of engineering resilience—is a misjudgement that underestimates social complexity as well as the adaptive evolution of systems and relates therefore with the fallacy that social systems can be managed in terms of linear and single-stable systems. That social systems are single stable is not only wrong but above all allows high potential for the disregarding of the necessity for adaptation in untenable situations.

In contrast to the given similarities, some significant differences between social and ecological systems need to be acknowledged. They feature different scales of time followed by different action and response times when they are challenged (Holling 1986; Young et al. 2006). The dynamic of social systems can be of a higher degree and change can be significantly faster compared to ecological systems (Scheffer et al. 2002). But the most important, not only gradual, difference that needs to be pointed out is the fact that social systems exhibit a symbolic dimension of meaning (Luhmann 2005) or so-called structures of signification that enable a higher level of self-organization (Westley et al. 2002). Intentionality and interpretation play decisive roles in social systems (Holling and Sanderson 1996) that can manifest themselves in time and space and also interpret change in terms of causality (Clausen 1992). Thus, social systems are aware of being within an environment with a given history and with certain expectations of the future and are able to learn and act forward-looking in anticipation of future states (Young et al. 2006), using this reflexivity for their (future) interest (Westley et al. 2002). Social systems are even capable of replacing the complexity within their environment with internal complexity, in order to increase their degree of freedom (Young et al. 2006). Prominently illustrated by the social phenomena of globalization that brings with it certain developments, such as space–time compression (Harvey 1990), the significance of the dimensions of space and time can be altered: by means of reflexivity, time and space can be transcended and suspended to some extent, while ecological systems do not posses such an ability (Westley et al. 2002). In regard to coupled social–ecological systems, these characteristics of social systems that enable specific capacities (see paragraph 6) should be taken into account, especially in cases of social resilience that cannot be understood in detail if the ecological resilience paradigm is not widened.

Neil W. Adger (2000b, p. 361) defined social resilience as “the ability of communities to withstand external shocks to their social infrastructure”. It is useful to substitute “communities” with “social systems” in the given quotation because social systems cover a wide range of systems, from families to whole societies (Westley et al. 2002). The focus on communities ignores the fact that other social systems might have different forms or sources of social resilience, which should not be disregarded (Berkes and Folke 1998; Bankoff 2003). Answering the two questions that were endeavored for systematization in the discourse by Carpenter et al. (2001)—Resilience of What? and Resilience to What?—social resilience can, prima facie, be perceived as the ability of social systems to cope with external stress or change—which can be rapid or steady as well as widespread or on a small scale—and persist as a system, even if a modified internal structure is necessary (Adger 2000a). In this context, social resilience does not mean that the system changes as fast as possible or perpetuates its structure under any circumstances, but that the new structure in the case of change involves sustainable variances that enable the system to persist into the future under any given terms. The two questions point to the fact that resilience can only be understood with regard to a specific (systemic) entity and its external environment. Resilience is a relational concept that saliently marks the importance of a balanced relation between a system and its environment, as well as their seminal adjustment with regard to the system’s persistence in the future. Environment in the given context does not necessarily mean ecological environment. Different social systems also form an environment for each other—a fact that has been neglected in the discussion of social resilience so far. Given this relational nature, it is irrelevant whether the external shock on the social system results from ecological (social–ecological systems) or social environmental (social–social systems) change (Gallopín 2006). Even internal social change can cause stress on the social system: the rapid evolution of system structures can lead to incompatible structures that might place a system under stress if they cannot be fulfilled by the environment, whereas the impact on the social system structure is highly relevant. Quoting the terminology of the resilience approach in the tradition of Holling, the “basin of attraction” is determined by the services of organization and reproduction of the specific social system with regard to its environment. Due to the symbolic dimension and its necessity of meaning and order, concepts of the social system itself are formed and lead to expectations (Holling 1986) that can even be consolidated into policies in some cases (Gunderson et al. 1995). What is expected by a social system in terms of organization and reproduction depends—in sharp contrast to ecological systems—on the (self-)conception of the system that cannot be defined finally and irrevocably cause its subject to change. Historical and cultural expectations differ and change. Within a culture, various outcomes are expected from different social systems: families, for example, provide different capacities and services than organizations or societies. Moreover, these expectations are not always constant. And among varying cultures, more differences between expectations can be found. Depending on the specific social system, its point in time, and its location, various expectations are formed. Even though different social systems with different structures of expectation exist, the conditions of their desired realisation differ less. Since the required resources are transcendental they are applicable for the realisation of various desired states (see paragraph 6).

4 Disasters and social resilience

Social change is not itself tenuous for a system but can be essential for the future persistence of the system. Social change becomes problematic when expectations of a social system are not fulfilled due to changing expectations or a changing environment that does not provide the required resources. Thus, critical interdependencies exist between systems and their expectations that can be catastrophe-prone in extreme cases (Clausen 1994). Within this paradigm, disasters are the result of a breakdown of the expected organizational and reproductive services in the social system. Allen Barton (1970, p. 38) defined a disaster as a collective stress situation that occurs “when many members of a social system fail to receive expected conditions of life”. It is not important whether the collective stress has its origins inside or outside the social system but rather the challenge to the structural coupling of the system with its environment. Whether changes in the environment or the system itself exert influence on a social system that can be categorized as a disaster depends on the expected organizational and reproductive services. This is due to the fact that the structural coupling between the system and its environment, as the essential base for its services, is composed of producing structures of expectation. Fundamentally, the question is raised whether environmental change challenges the expectation structures of a social entity: the burst of stock market bubbles and the annihilation of bank money can be a disaster for a future-orientated, capitalistic society but will not on the other hand be detrimental for a present-orientated tribal community that lives on farm subsistence. Just as risk perception is a social process that selects certain risks corresponding to the predominant social structure (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983), predominant social expectations framed by the given social structure select possible disruptions that are in conflict with the prevalent structure of expectations. The failure of expectations—surprises as discrepancies between reality and expectation sensu Holling et al. (1998)—might be a disaster for one system but does not necessarily have to be for another. Disasters are not just the destruction of something—according to Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction, it is even necessary for novelty (Schumpeter 1943)—but rather the disturbance or destruction of expected organizational and reproductive services that are considered fundamental for a certain system (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983). The occurrence of change is not a disaster but simply a petty alteration of state (Folke et al. 2003). Due to the fact that every system depends on selected structural coupling with its environment, only specific change puts the persistence of the system at risk. If change does not affect a system in terms of its expectations and, therefore, future, that change will be irrelevant for the system. In such cases, social systems tend and need to mask this kind of change to produce blindspots since complexity has to be reduced, in order to focus on the fundamental services (Luhmann 2005). Only the structures that ensure the reproduction of the system (autopoiesis) are likewise sources of possible disturbances. Change becomes a crisis when fundamental expectations addressed to the present or future are at stake, and a disaster ensues if and only if these expectations can presently be no longer fulfilled. Hence, a disaster is the factual falsification of these expectations wherein the diachronic coupling of time (past expectations and present or future realization) is no longer assured (Dombrowsky 1987a). Therefore, disasters are likewise relational and the result of a misguided interaction of two systems (Dombrowsky 2001; Felgentreff and Dombrowsky 2008; Kroll-Smith and Couch 1991; Bankoff 2003). Grasping disasters in this vein inhibits the still frequently encountered demonization that deprives a disaster of the human fields of operation and helps overcome the belief that technology alone is able to dodge and mitigate (Clausen 1994; Hilhorst and Bankoff 2004; Voss 2006). Taking the misguided interaction of systems into account, the social origin of disaster becomes apparent, and non-technological potentials for disaster prevention can emerge. In this regard, the concept of social resilience can be considered a part of a comprehensive disaster culture that describes the ability to cope with failure or prevent such failure (Felgentreff and Dombrowsky 2008). Social resilience is the internal ability of the social system to counteract events described as the failure of expectation toward its environment. Therefore, it manifests not only in times of disasters but also in crises and emergencies, thus in times of danger and uncertainty.

5 Resilience and uncertainty

Given the rising uncertainty as a result of the non-linearity of interacting systems (Berkes et al. 2003) and increase as well as compression of linkages in the globalization, surprises are inescapable, increasing the possibility of the failure of expectations (Holling et al. 1998; Young et al. 2006). Rigid adherence to a static concept of stability in terms of a single-stable state or the fallacy of a future that can be anticipated in detail can decrease resilience. On the contrary, the acknowledgement and confrontation of uncertainty are a first step in increasing social resilience (Michael 1995; Gunderson 2003). Social science and especially sociology understood “as the analysis of the unexpected” (Portes 2000) can provide important insights of dealing with uncertainty. The specific connection of resilience and uncertainty was prominently highlighted by Aaron B. Wildavsky. He refers to Holling’s concept of resilience and compares anticipation as an approach of confronting hazards with Holling’s pejorative description of stability (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983); notwithstanding, he did not conceptualize resilience as the property of systems—or, to be more precise, social systems—, but rather a general form of coping with uncertainty. Wildavsky criticizes the anticipated handling of hazards as well as the alleged increased safety within high-risk technologies and emphasizes the necessity of resilience as an alternative approach (Krohn and Krücken 1993) that, for him, is superior to conventional safety efforts (Wildavsky 1988). Resilience is outlined as the ability to learn how to cope with unanticipated hazards through a positive attitude toward failure (Wildavsky 1988; Weizsäcker and Weizsäcker 1984) or “embracing error” (Michael 1995). For Wildavsky—in contrast to successive authors like Barnett (Barnett 2006)—the resilience approach is not a provisional arrangement of change that will be replaced by a better concept of anticipation when adequate knowledge is attained. Apart from a few exceptions, for Wildavsky, resilience is a superior counter concept. In contrast to anticipative, precaution-orientated concepts, resilience tries not to focus on well-known hazards and make plans to dodge them. Solely under the severe restrictions of known causalities, known boundary conditions, and space–time coordinates, the aim of anticipation is a promising strategy (Wildavsky 1988). As these conditions are hardly ever at hand and moreover deviations cannot be subsumed under general rules—as Robert K. Merton (1936) revealed in the 1930s—the attempt of anticipation can be a cause of reduced resilience. The “system itself is a moving target” that cannot be predicted (Holling 1995, p. 13), since every prediction undermines its own conditions of emergence (Clausen 1994). Anticipation uses up resources for the prevention and defense of certain hazards and reduces their potential damage further disabling the used resources form application to the defense or attenuation of other hazards (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983). Ultimately, the increase in the potential damage of unexpected hazards is the result. Additionally, an attempt to protect against all imaginable risks carries with it costs that no society can afford (Wildavsky 1993). Furthermore, the illusion of safety increases with more detailed planning and anticipation (Weick and Sutcliffe 2007), as the fortuity achieves more impact when planning gets more detailed: the more well-planned people proceed, the more they become prone to chance (Dürrenmatt 1998). The majority believing in manageability combined with risk analyses that do not take the complexity of systems into account, creating a loop of newly planned arrangements. Through anticipating action for the enhancement of safety, time and again new safety arrangements that require resources become indispensable and bind them to the defense and mitigation of defined hazards. These new safety arrangements increase the complexity of the system, and thereby, new hazards eventually become possible (Wildavsky 1988; Weick and Sutcliffe 2007; Bechmann 1993). These limits of anticipation in contrast to resilience and the constraints of both concepts are, for instance, illustrated by Kuhlicke and Kruse (2009) and their research on adaptation strategies in the case of the Elbe flood in 2002.

Therefore, and also due to the differences of a precaution system based on anticipation, the concept of resilience is open to change in the environment that is still inconceivable and undefined (Voss 2006). The concept of resilience does not even attempt to encounter known and specific hazards with anticipating action. It is rather an all-hazards approach, opposed to exterior and interior hazards in general (Berkes 2007). But not only known and potential but also (still) unknown hazards should be taken on through the promotion of resilience. The social system is not just resilient to ignorance and non-knowledge but also to nescience, thus hazards that are not imaginable because they are beyond the system’s horizon of expectations (Gross 2007). This notion stands in opposition to authors like Haimes (2009), who argue for a limitation to clear-cut and known hazards for the sake of measurement. But given the fact that many disasters are not obviated and new systemic and system interaction hazards with cross-scale impacts are evolving, different approaches for coping with unpredictable hazards and change are needed (Berkes 2007; Yorque et al. 2002).

6 Adaptive capacity, coping capacity, and participative capacity

Given the similarities and differences of social and ecological systems in the endeavor to broach the issue of social resilience, the symbolic dimension of social systems comes to the fore. With regard to an understanding of disasters that sees them as the failure of fundamental structures of expectation in uncertain environments and toward an uncertain future, social resilience is framed as the internal ability of social systems to prevent and mitigate disastrous change. Within the social resilience approach, importance has been attached to three components that are shaped by the preeminent role of the symbolic dimension of social systems: the adaptive capacity, the coping capacity, and recently the participative capacity. The research on social resilience, including coupled social and ecological systems—following Holling and the approach of Wildavsky—has focused on adaptive capacity—coping and participative capacity have been almost wholly neglected. Adaptive capacity and coping capacity are distinguished by the reference of modification and time frame they provide. In contrast, participative capacity is a measure of the extent to which a social system is able to use its adaptive and coping capacity or to which extent a social system is pawn of outer interest (Table 1).
Table 1

Different notions of adaptive, coping, and participative capacity

Adaptive capacity


Short-term response in crises and emergencies


Proleptic creation of new expectation structures to prevent future disasters

Coping capacity

Comprehensive coping with meaning

Assuring the continuity and identity of the system

Coping with meaning in terms of a historico-philosophical narrative

Disaster is construed as meaningful but remains calamitous

Other symbolic forms of coping: Grief rituals, unification, sense of humor, etc.

Cultural altering of loss and devastation

Participative capacity

Measure of the ability to self-organize and use adaptive and coping capacity

The relationship of adaptive capacity and resilience is contended in the academic debate, since a multiplicity of interpretations primarily of the adaptive capacity exists. Some authors put resilience on the same level as adaptive capacity (Smit and Wandel 2006), others define the robustness of the system to change by way of adaptive capacity (Gunderson 2000), while others again argue that adaptive capacity is an element of resilience that manifests itself in the ability to reflect on change-driven learning processes and make them useful in the future (Carpenter et al. 2001). In this paper, adaptive capacity shall be understood in the sense of Walker et al. (2004), who also speak about adaptability as the social ability of a system to establish new structure relationships—understood as a change in the so-called basin of attraction—that subserve the persistence of the system (Gallopín 2006) in the case of major environmental change or incompatible system structures. These relationships cover short-term interventions to mitigate disastrous events as well as long-term orientation to deal with future hazards. Folke (2006) refers to both orientations with the terms of adaptability: responding resiliently in short term and transformability: the creation of fundamentally new system structures if the existing ones become untenable. The capacities of adaptability and transformability in social systems both depend—in sharp contrast to ecological systems—on the possibility to reflect on the state of the system and being able to imagine new, worthwhile structures (Westley et al. 2002; Young et al. 2006).

Due to the fact that in every case of disaster, the continuity of the specific system within a specific environment is at risk, the adaptive capacity turns out to be a system- and context-dependent capacity. Certain contexts support the adaptive capacity, others do not. For example, the adaptive capacity of smaller social systems like families or local communities is linked to and depends on larger and inclusive social systems like societies, its resources, and its capacities (Smit and Wandel 2006). Thus, the enhancement of adaptive capacity involves mainly a decrease in resource dependence. A strong dependency on system-sustaining resources and critical infrastructures should be avoided, since strong coupling of a system to its environment creates immediate pressure to adapt in the case of environmental change. Diversity of resources and structures as well as economic variability are key elements for resilience (Folke et al. 2003). Loose coupling, flexibility, and redundancy prove to be better principles for the provision of resources than mere efficiency (Orton and Weick 1990). But, above all, the willingness for institutional change is the defining factor in this context.

Different types of knowledge—local, indigenous, and traditional (ecological) knowledge (TEK) on the one hand, and (Western) scientific knowledge on the other—rest upon different time scales of observation and experience (Berkes 1999; Berkes et al. 2003). Whereas the first knowledge type that can be considered as social memory (Olick and Robbins 1998; Folke et al. 2003) is based on diachronic long-term observations, scientific knowledge has its roots in synchronic short-term observations. Bringing the social memory of past events together with the orientation of scientific knowledge promises to be a sustainable strategy of “learning to live with uncertainty” and events whose recurrent appearance exceeds individual lifespan and memory (Berkes 2007; Berkes et al. 1995). Furthermore, learning aptitude and willingness are significant influence factors of adaptive capacity (Oliver-Smith 1996).

On a basic level, the comprehension of inevitable uncertainty, unpredictability, and permanent changes in general (Holling 1978; 2001) and on another level, the manipulation of social change that includes the processes of modernization and globalization, as well as disastrous processes in a narrower sense, depend on the ability to reflect on these processes (Brauner and Dombrowsky 1996). The knowledge of dependencies of the social system and therefore possible failures of expectation as they manifest in times of crisis can initiate learning processes related to the misguided developments (Michael 1995; Folke et al. 1998) and increase the willingness to amend these developments (Folke et al. 2003). Social systems opposed to ecological systems have the unique property of developing novelties and innovations with respect to their memory and experience (Gunderson 2003) that are “key to dealing with surprises and crises” (Westley et al. 2002; Gunderson et al. 2002). For the purpose of an approach that tries to foster adaptation by means of reflected learning, different kinds of learning like deutero-learning (Bateson 1972) and organizational learning (Agyris and Schön 1978; Voss and Wagner 2010) need to be considered. The promotion of adaptive capacity and its expansion therefore become part of the learning processes and the adaptive capacity itself (Günther et al. 2007).

Similar to the adaptive capacity, it is essential to point out that different social systems display different coping capacities (Turner et al. 2003). Folke et al. (1998) differentiate between adaptation and coping as different ways of responding under stress with regard to the time scale of response, the level of vulnerability, and the type of risk involved. For Folke et al., coping is characterized by a short-term adaptive response in situations that set a social system under stress. In this paper, conceptualizing social systems with regard to their symbolic dimension of meaning, coping is understood to be a way of dealing with the failure of expectations in terms of meaning. Coping capacity is therefore a unique property of social systems that cannot be found in ecological systems. It has been widely disregarded in the concept of social resilience and can be captured neither by the time of response nor by the level of vulnerability nor by the risk type. Contrary to adaptive capacity, coping capacity does not serve the adaptation of the structure relationships to environmental change but rather the coping with failed expectations and the securing of the connectivity to the structures of expectation that have been evolved by the system (Voss 2008). If system structures are understood in terms of expectation structures, the difference between adaptive and coping capacity disappears: both comprise the modification of the expectations structure. However, one important difference with regard to the reference of modification remains: adaptive capacity changes proleptic and with respect to exterior environmental change or inner friction the structures of expectation. In contrast, coping capacity tries to assure the connectivity to structures from the past with regard to the system’s inner continuity and therefore identity in the case of failed expectations. Hence, coping becomes obvious when a calamitous development takes its course or has already occurred. If disasters are seen as a breakdown of the expected organizational and reproductive services of a social system and coping as the property of the system to modify the old structures of expectations or to imagine new worthwhile structures, importance needs to be attached to this property: does a social entity succeed in integrating a disaster in its “Sinnhorizont” or structures of signification (Westley et al. 2002) and therefore in reconstituting the connectivity to the past? Is a social system able to eliminate the “disastrousness” as an attributed character of a pretended calamitous process by construing changes in the fundamental services of organization and reproduction as meaningful? Wolf R. Dombrowsky (1987b) defined the significance of a disaster by the amount of work in terms of endowing meaning (“sinnkonstituierende Arbeit”) that is needed to overcome the disaster. But does a “disaster” remain a disaster when it is construed as meaningful? At this point, we are somehow confronted with the limits of our language that tries to capture disasters as materialized, reified entities. But such reification masks the relational nature of disasters. Without the hiatus of structures of expectation and the absence of their realization, devastation is not grasped as a disaster. There are two ways of coping with disasters in terms of meaning: the first is so comprehensive that processes that would have been disastrous in the past will not anymore be so in the future because they become part of the expectation. Given the close linkage of coping and adaptive capacity, the first triggered by a past event enables the adaptive capacity to establish new structures of expectation that modify the system’s expectation of the future: Social systems can become adjusted to disasters so comprehensively that “disasters” even become ordering elements (Bankoff 1999). Greg Bankoff (2007a, p. 107), for example, describes an “Asian way of coping” that takes place for example in China, Japan, and India: the construction of “‘ephemeral cities’, where people accepted the periodic loss of their dwellings and allowed for easy dismantling and removal of costly interior features that could be reused in cheaply constructed new structures”. In the case of the “ephemeral cities”, coping with periodical devastation enables adaptation in terms of a new expectation structure that does not regard periodical devastation as a disaster. Nonetheless, other expectation structures might still regard specific change as a disaster when devastation ensues. The existence of different expectation cultures is also illustrated by Elísio Macamo (2003), who demonstrated on the basis of the flooding in Mozambique 2000 that devastation and death do not make a disaster if they are expected and that the attribution of disaster from the exterior might differ from the view of the people who are affected.

The second way to cope in terms of meaning is to construe meaning by placing the disastrous event in a teleological inevitable chain of events, whereby a former event is needed to achieve later stages of evolution. Similar to teleological conceptions of philosophy of history, coping mechanisms are also salient in the case of disasters, which are interpreted as necessary events to prevent an even bigger disaster or as retribution for human arrogance (Sloterdijk 1987). In other words, a disastrous event is embedded in a historico-philosophical narrative. In this second approach, the disastrousness remains but is diminished by the meaningfulness of the event. Meaning is an important requirement for recovery on the one hand (Westley et al. 2002) and the collapse of sense making an integral part of disaster on the other hand (Weick 1993). Besides coping with meaning in terms of a historico-philosophical narrative, other social forms of coping that culturally alter the loss and failure of expectations can be named. Every culture has specific forms of coping, such as grief rituals (Eyre 2006), unification (Pfister 2003), even a certain sense of humor (Bankoff 2007c) that help overcome the failure and assures the connectivity to the past by passed-on social practices. The existing cultural and religious patterns of interpretation and traditional knowledge about disastrous change that are at a culture’s disposal determine the possibilities of integrating the development and (re-)connecting to the past. As in the case of adaptive capacity education, the ability to learn and the willingness to change play a decisive role in the coping capacity. Without the comprehension of the necessity to change and the processes that form its basis, change is experienced as calamitous. Coping relies on the legitimacy of political institutions and trust in these. Both legitimacy and trust can have great influence on whether an event is classified as a disaster (Rodríguez et al. 2006). Further, coping depends on the cohesion of a social entity: grief rituals and unification during and in the aftermath of disasters need specific circumstances. Emergent social systems with special coping properties do not appear out of nowhere (Quarantelli and Stallings 1985) but need a specific social cohesion as a precondition (Eyre 2006). This cohesion needs to exist before a disastrous event occurs: coping is only possible if the social disruptions and cleavages are not too great and the horrors of the calamity do not exceed the social cohesion which is prominently illustrated by Kai T. Erikson (1976) in his study about the loss of communality in the Buffalo Creek Flood 1972.

The concept of participative capacity (Voss 2008) is just emerging within the discourse of social resilience. The concept tries to place emphasis on the difference between interpretative and normative power among various social systems, since these differences determine the effectiveness of adaptive and coping capacity. Participative capacity is therefore a unique property of social systems: it manifests within social systems and between them (social–social systems). Broaching the issue of social resilience, it is first of all epistemologically necessary to take different perspectives and expectation structures into account to eliminate blindspots resulting from selected coupling with the environment. Secondly, there is no Habermasian non-coercive communication that grants equal rights to everybody in a negotiation process: stakeholders with communicative assertiveness have greater prospects to bias the discourse and hence to assert their claims. Because every social system is part of the environment of other social systems and the ability to become widely accepted exists within a zero-sum game, the enhancement of one system’s participative capacity comes at the cost of the diminution of another system’s participative capacity. Diminution of participative capacity blocks the ability of social systems to use their adaptive and coping capacities. Thus, the unequal distribution of power is a significant source of reduced social resilience. Participative capacity is therefore an integral part of a social entity’s resilience that is decisive to whether a social system can use its own adaptive and coping capacities. Self-organization plays a significant role in the attempt to adapt or to cope in changing environments (Folke et al. 2003; Holling 2001; Berkes 2007) and participative capacity can be described as a measure of the ability to self-organize. Great importance is attached to the political system and the legal system. As a result, some authors argue for a political system based on the principles of the Rawlsian Theory of Justice (Dow et al. 2006), others argue for a rights-based system of justice (Adger 2004). Both speak concertedly against a greater influence of economic elites. Even within a democratic system that legally protects the freedom of expression and political decision making of all people concerned, intense distortions arise from social drivers. Factors such as the unequal distribution of power and resources (Adger 2000b), the existence and value of weak and strong ties in social networks (Blaikie et al. 2007; Hurlbert et al. 2006; Granovetter 1973), expert cultures (Clausen 1992), mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion (Cutter et al. 2003), mobility (Adger 2000b), conventions and customs (Oxfam 2005; Krishnaraj 1997), language, but also role systems, property rights (Berkes and Folke 1998), and education (Brauner and Dombrowsky 1996) interfere and distribute interpretative and normative power unequally. These factors can be totalized in the extended concept of capital provided by Pierre Bourdieu that does not only take economic capital into account but also social, cultural and symbolic capital (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). The concepts of social capital (Scheffer et al. 2002; Bankoff 2007b; Murphy 2007) and cultural capital (Berkes and Folke 1992) are applied in the discussion of social resilience with regard to adaptation.

But at present, the dimension of power that exists in participative capacity and Bourdieu’s symbolic capital is as far as possible neglected in the discussion of social resilience. How an unequal distribution of participative capacity leads to the diminution of social resilience is described by Greg Bankoff (2003), who criticizes the symbolic violence that is inherent to the concept of vulnerability. The concepts of resilience and vulnerability are not just scientific antonyms or inversions (Adger 2000b; Sapirstein 2006). Epistemic restraints, linked with the concept of vulnerability, not only lead to certain aspects being ignored but furthermore become manifest in social structures (Hewitt 1986). As the concept of vulnerability puts a strong emphasis on damages and casualties, parts of the world are rendered unsafe, as Greg Bankoff (2003) bluntly puts it. Due to an asymmetrical distribution of participative capacity, the local social capacities that avoid damages and casualties are disdained and regions are labeled as poor, weak, and passive as the relevant people are commodified by (foreign) planning—or in the words of James Midgley (1983) “Professional Imperialism”—and become “justified” objects of interventions in opportunistic interest (Hewitt 1997; Delica-Willision and Willision 2004; Bankoff 2003). In lieu of this, the import of external beliefs and the intervention in local system structures reduce social resilience by reducing participative capacity of the local system (Delica-Willision and Willision 2004). The import of a vulnerability concept that deprives the local resilience by producing the mirror image of the helpless that need external relief is fostered in one of the weakest moments of the relevant people. This image of the all-time helpless and needy is perpetuated and shapes reality (Bankoff 2003; Hewitt 1997). Due to risk perception as an expression of the predominant social system structure, it is necessary to take the specific local perception into account to access the social resilience and vulnerability (Adger 2010; Heijmans 2004). On the one hand, interventions produce incompatible system structures and thus disparate expectation structures that increase the possibility of failure (Sanderson 1995; Holling et al. 1998). On the other hand, interventions by developed countries often lead to a short-time rise of expectations that can be experienced as disastrous if their fulfillment fails. The starting point of development cooperation and foreign emergency aid must be the local factors of adaptive and coping capacity and the aim should be their improvement (Bankoff 2007c; Delica-Willision and Willision 2004). But against the backdrop of globalization and a global economy, the talk of local sources of social resilience and self-determination of local communities is often not more than lip service (Bankoff 2004). Not only the import of external believes can be a source of reduced social resilience: within one social system, resilience can be abridged as well. Even though the case of external intervention in developing countries might be more salient, reduced social resilience can actually be found in developed countries if minorities are “rendered unsafe” or if the whole population is not seen as an integral part but rather as interference in civil protection (Brauner and Dombrowsky 1996). In the end, resilient acting in disasters or in the front end of a disaster is rendered impossible. Due to unequal participative capacities, alien structures manifest in social systems whose structures are somehow incompatible and social resilience will be weakened. Decreased social resilience is nothing other than “the blockage, erosion or devaluation of local knowledge and coping practices” (Wisner 2004; Anderson and Woodrow 1989) caused by unequal participative capacity.

7 Conclusion

Social resilience expresses itself in the three given capacities. In conceptualizing social resilience, the time frame is widened; not only short-term interventions with the objective of rebuilding are considered, but also factors fostering social structures that effect the non-occurrence of disasters: factors that support the immune system of social systems, so to say. Aaron Antonovsky’s theory of salutogenesis might provide analogies that can help in understanding why social resilience should be regarded even though it should not be overestimated. (1) As Antonovsky attaches great importance to the factors that prevent diseases instead of highlighting the factors that are pathogenic, social resilience also puts emphasis on the factors that prevent and mitigate disasters (Berkes 2007). Thus, the concept of social resilience breaks the deadlock of vulnerability and its “katastrogenetic” orientation on deviance (Antonovsky 1979). Notwithstanding, the concept of vulnerability was an important advancement but still has its blindspots. Social resilience, framed as a theoretical and heuristic concept, goes beyond vulnerability and allows inspections and sheds light on so far neglected epistemological and political aspects within the concept of vulnerability (Bankoff 2003). An increase in vulnerability might be a product of a “katastrogenetic” orientation that underestimates the capacities of the potentially affected and produces vulnerable social structures through single interventions in comprehensive social systems. The concept of social resilience focuses on the fact that disasters have to be understood in terms of social change and that they can only be captured if non-disastrous change is understood, for reason of that being where disastrous change has its roots (Clausen et al. 1978). Once it is comprehended how change is a normal part of the persistence of systems and how dealing with change can be managed successfully, abilities to adapt and to cope can be fostered by reflexive learning processes.

Another important aspect (2) is that there is no dichotomy of resilient and vulnerable structures but rather a continuum between both. The factors that capacitate social systems to act resiliently and to attune to changing terms of the environment are very broad—they are strongly context and system-dependent and they can, to date, often only be identified ex post (Günther et al. 2007). Calamitous processes do not happen ceteris paribus—otherwise anticipation would have a greater chance of success. The social resilience concept is a theoretical construct and remains abstract and refuses well-defined operationalization if it tries to display the complex interplay of factors within a multi-stable system (Carpenter et al. 2001). Therefore, it is controversial whether a detailed operationalization is possible (Adger et al. 2004; Staber and Sydow 2002). But given the concept of social resilience as a heuristic outline, aspects can come to the fore that are not taken into account when other concepts, like vulnerability, are applied and future research on the topic can be addressed.

Antonovky’s so-called sense of coherence (3) characterizes a perception of the environment in terms of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness (Antonovsky 1979). Likewise, the paradigm of social resilience is a way of understanding processes of change in terms of meaning (coping capacity) and even frame them (adaptive and participative capacity). Therefore, (4) all three capacities and their sources can be understood as general resistance resources (GRR) which provide a strong sense of coherence. The latter can be seen as an expression of a resilient social system that can only be understood if the symbolic dimension of meaning is not dismissed, since the symbolic dimension is significant in grasping disasters as the failure of fundamental expectations. Due to this conception, new aspects in the interaction of coupled social and ecological systems arise, but—and even more importantly—so far, idle potentials to conceive and avoid, or at least mitigate, disasters still abound.


This paper is based on a presentation at the workshop ‘Can resilience be planned?’, hosted by the German Geographical Society’s working group ‘Natural Hazards and Natural Risks’, March 2009, Leipzig. I would like to thank Gerard Hutter (Dresden) and Christian Kuhlicke (Leipzig) for the organization of the workshop. I also want express my gratitude to Gerard Hutter, Christian Kuhlicke and two anonymous reviewers who gave constructive suggestions in improving the clarity and quality of the manuscript.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010