Genealogies and Etymologies of Resilience

A succinct tour of the modern landscape of resilience meanings is found in the following quote from a recent paper by Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper. Entitled “Genealogies of resilience: From systems ecology to the political economy of crisis adaptation” (abstract here), it is one of a growing number of works attempting to untangle the complex history behind the increasingly pervasive uses of the word resilience.

Developed within systems ecology in the 1970s, ‘resilience’ as a science of complex adaptive systems and as an operational strategy of risk management has flourished, progressively asserting itself as a dominant discourse in natural resource management (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2006). The concept of resilience has in the recent past rapidly infiltrated vast areas of the social sciences, becoming a regular, if under-theorised, term of art in discussions of international finance and economic policy, in corporate risk analysis, the psychology of trauma, development policy, urban planning, public health and national security. Since the nineties, global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF 1996, 2005) the World Bank (WB 2006), and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS 2002, 2008), have increasingly incorporated strategies of ‘resilience’ into their logistics of crisis management, financial (de)regulation and development economics. With the post-911 revolution in ‘homeland security’, resilience has become a byword among agencies charged with coordinating security responses to climate change, critical infrastructure protection, natural disasters, pandemics and terrorism (UK Cabinet Office 2007; World Bank 2008; World Economic Forum 2008; Jackson 2008; Australia21 2009), reorienting these once distinct policy arenas toward a horizon of critical future events which (we are told) we cannot predict or prevent, but merely adapt to by ‘building resilience’. Abstract and malleable enough to encompass the worlds of high finance, defence and urban infrastructure within a single analytic, the concept of resilience is becoming a pervasive idiom of global governance.

David Alexander, in an interesting recent discussion paper entitled “Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction: An Etymological Journey” (download here) goes back all the way to, literally, Pliny the Elder in tracing the roots of modern meanings of resilience. He concludes: “… that the modern conception of resilience derives benefit from a rich history of meanings and applications, but that it is dangerous – or at least potentially disappointing – to read too much into the term as a model and a paradigm.” Also see the photographs of historical documents and the diagrams found at the end of Alexander’s paper.

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