Natural Hazards

, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 61–76 | Cite as

Resilience: a capacity and a myth: findings from an in-depth case study in disaster management research

  • Christian KuhlickeEmail author
Original Paper


The discussion surrounding resilience to natural hazards and disasters has advanced considerably within the last years. It ranges from ecological to social systems and also covers some socio-ecological spaces in-between. Yet, although the discussion is broad and multifaceted, a common theme runs through most approaches to resilience: Resilience is defined as a system’s capacity to adapt to or respond to singular, unique and most often radically surprising events. This paper seeks to shed some light on a different aspect of resilience; its constructionist dimension. For doing this, it introduces the ‘myth of resilience, which not only considers the functional aspects of resilience (i.e. actors capacities), but also how actors make retrospectively sense of the radically surprising discovery of something entirely unknown. The paper will argue that the ‘myth of resilience’ may become a powerful worldview that enables actors to define what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, as it may be used as a very intriguing way of changing, creating and consolidating power relations; at least this is the insight a study on disaster management reveals. The case study was conducted in a municipality of a city located in the State of Saxony Germany, which was severely affected by the 2002 August flood. The paper ends with outlining implications for the discussion on resilience.


Resilience Myths Nescience Flood In-depth case study Qualitative research 


  1. Adger WN (2000) Social and ecological resilience: are they related? Prog Hum Geogr 24:347–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allenby B, Fink J (2005) Toward inherently secure and resilient societies. Science 309:1034–1036CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berger P, Luckmann T (1967) The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Anchor Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Berkes F (2007) Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: lessons from resilience thinking. Nat Hazards 41:283–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bohle H-G (2008) Leben mit Risiko—Resilience als neues Paradigma für die Risikowelten von morgen. In: Felgentreff C, Glade T (eds) Naturrisiken und Sozialkatastrophen. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Berlin, pp 435–442Google Scholar
  6. Brand FS, Jax K (2007) Focusing the meaning of resilence: resilence as a descriptive concept and a boundary concept. Ecol Soc 12(1): 23. Available via Accessed 01 August 2010
  7. Brockmeier J (1999) Erinnerung, identität und autobiographischer Prozeß. Journal für Pyschologie 7(1):11–21Google Scholar
  8. Cannon T, Müller-Mahn D (2010) Vulnerability, resilience and development discourses in context of climate change. Nat Hazards, online firstGoogle Scholar
  9. Carpenter S, Walker B, Anderies JM, Abel N (2001) From metaphor to measurement: resilience of what to what. Ecosystems 4:765–781CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clarke L, Short JF Jr (1993) Social organization and risk. Some current controversies. Annu Rev Sociol 19:375–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clausen L (1983) Übergang zum Untergang: skizze eines makrosziologischen Prozeßmodels der Katastrophe. In: Clausen L, Dombrowksy WR (eds) Einführung in die soziologie der katastrophe. Osang Verlag, Bonn, pp 41–79Google Scholar
  12. Cyert RM, March JG (1963) A behavioral theory of the firm. Basil Blackwell, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  13. de Bruijn KM (2004) Resilience in flood risk management. Water Policy 6:53–66Google Scholar
  14. Flyvberg B (2006) Five misunderstanding about case-study research. Qual Inq 12(2):219–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Folke C (2006) Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social-ecological system analysis. Glob Environ Change 16:253–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gross M (2007) The unknown in process: dynamic connections of ignorance, non-knowledge and related concepts. Curr Sociol 55:742–759CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Handmer JW, Dovers SR (1996) A typology of resilience: rethinking institutions for sustainable development. Ind Environ Crisis Q 9:482–511Google Scholar
  18. Hilderbrand RH, Watts AC, Randle AM (2005) The myths of restoration ecology. Ecol Soc 10(1):19. Available via Accessed 01 August 2010Google Scholar
  19. Holling CS (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 4:1–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Holling CS (1978) Myths of ecological stability: resilience and the problem of failure. In: Smart CF, Stanbury WT (eds) Studies on crisis management. Butterworth & Co. Ltd, Toronto, pp 93–106Google Scholar
  21. Kates RW, Clark WC (1996) Environmental surprise: expecting the unexpected. Environment 28(6–11):28–34Google Scholar
  22. Klein RJT, Nicholls RT, Thomalla F (2003) Resilience to natural hazards: how useful is this concept? Environ Hazards 3:35–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kuhlicke C (2010) The dynamics of vulnerability: some preliminary thoughts about the occurrence of ‘radical surprises’ and a case study on the 2002 flood (Germany). Nat Hazards. doi: 10.1007/s11069-010-9645-z
  24. Kuhlicke C, Kruse S (2009) Nichtwissen und Resilienz in der lokalen Klimaanpassung: widersprüche zwischen theoriegeleiteten handlungsempfehlungen und empirischen befunden am beispiel des Sommerhochwassers 2002. GAIA 18(3):247–254Google Scholar
  25. Lévi-Strauss C (1963) Structural anthropology. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Merz B, Thieken AH (2005) Separating natural and epistemic uncertainty in flood frequency analysis. J Hydrol 309:114–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Merz B, Hall J, Disse M, Schumann A (2010) Fluvial flood risk management in a changing world. Nat Hazards Earth Syst Sci 10:509–527CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Meyer JW, Rowan B (1978) Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. Am J Sociol 83:341–361Google Scholar
  29. Meyer JW, Boli J, Thomas GM (2005) Ontologie und Rationalisierung im Zurechungssystem der westlichen Kultur. In: Meyer JW (ed) Weltkulturen: wie die westlichen prinzipien die welt durchdringen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, pp M17–M46Google Scholar
  30. Milly PCD, Betancourt J, Falkenmark M, Hirsch RM, Kundzewicz ZW, Lettenmaier DP, Stouffer RJ (2008) “Stationarity is dead: whither water management?”. Science 319:573–574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Perrow C (1999) Normal accidents. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  32. Pimm SL (1984) The complexity and stability of ecosystems. Nature 307:321–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Rerup C (2001) “Houston, we have a problem”: anticipation and improvisation as source of organizational resilience. Comportamento Organizacional e Gestão 7(1):27–44Google Scholar
  34. Schanze J, Hutter G, Penning-Rowsell E, Nachtnebel HP, Meyer V, Werritty A, Harries T, Holzmann H, Jessel B, Koeniger P, Kuhlicke C, Neuhold C. Olfert A, Parker D, Schildt A (2008) Systematisation, evaluation and context conditions of structural and non-structural measures for flood risk reduction. Flood-Era Joint Report, published by ERA-NET CRUE, London. Available via Accesses 01 Aug 2010
  35. Steinführer A, Kuhlicke C (2007). Social vulnerability and the 2002 flood: country report Germany (Mulde River). Report of Task 11 of the floodsite integrated project. Available via Accessed 01 Sept 2009
  36. Strauss A, Corbin J (1996) Grounded theory: grundlagen qualitativer sozialforschung. Beltz, WeinheimGoogle Scholar
  37. t’Hart P (1993) Symbols, rituals and power: the lost dimensions of crisis management. J Conting Crisis Manage 1(1):36–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Timmerman P (1986) Mythology and surprise in the sustainable development of the biosphere. In: Clark WC, Munn RE (eds) Sustainable development of the biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 435–453Google Scholar
  39. Vaughan D (1999) The dark side of organizations: mistake, misconduct, and disaster. Annu Rev Sociol 25:271–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Walker BH, Anderies JM, Kinzing AP, Ryan P (2006) Exploring resilience in social-ecological systems through comparative studies and theory development: Introduction to the special issue. Ecol Soc 11(1): 12. Available via Accessed 01 Aug 2010
  41. Walker G, Whittle R, Medd W, Watson N (2010) Risk governance and natural hazards. Available via Accessed 01 Aug 2010
  42. Weick KE (1993) The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: the Mann Gulch disaster. Adm Sci Q 28:628–652CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Wildawsky A (1991) Searching for safety. Transactions, New BrunswikGoogle Scholar
  44. Witzel A (2000) Das problemzentrierte interview [26 Absätze]. Forum qualitative sozialforschung/forum qualitative social research 1. Available via Accessed 10 Oct 2009
  45. Zhou H, Wang J, Wan J, Jia H (2009) Resilience to natural hazards: a geographic perspective. Nat Hazards Online First: 11 June 2009Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Urban and Environmental SociologyHelmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, UFZLeipzigGermany

Personalised recommendations