Resilience and responsibility: governing uncertainty in a complex world


  • The information, practices and views in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).


‘Resilience’ has risen to prominence across a range of academic disciplines and political discourses. Situating resilience theories in historical context the paper argues that the resilience discourse of complex adaptive systems, for all its utility as a means for conceptualising and managing change, is allied with contemporary governmental discourses that responsibilise risk away from the state and on to individuals and institutions. Further, in arguing that resilience theories originate in two distinct epistemological communities (natural and social science) in its mobilisation as a ‘boundary object’ resilience naturalises an ontology of ‘the system’. Resilience approaches increasingly structure, not only academic, but also government policy discourses, with each influencing the development of the other. It is argued that by mobilising ‘the system’ as the metaconcept for capturing socio-natural and socio-economic relations resilience theories naturalise and reify two abstractions: firstly, the system itself – enrolling citizens into practices that give it meaning and presence; secondly, the naturalisation of shocks to the system, locating them in a post-political space where the only certainty is uncertainty. With reference to an emerging governmentality through resilience, this paper argues for a critical interrogation of plural resilience theories and wonders at their emancipatory possibilities.


In a world of complexity and contingency, of risk, relationality, flows and mutability theoretical frameworks that promise a means of capturing that complexity are seductive. ‘Resilience’1 is one such theory that has recently come to prominence – a ubiquitous term deployed within a variety of epistemic communities as a means for understanding and managing ‘complex systems’2 and the processes and effects of change upon them.

The complexity turn in social sciences (Urry 2005), including geography (see O'Sullivan 2004; Harrison et al. 2006; Martin and Sunley 2007) has provided a fertile bed for resilience theory to flower. Pitched as a radical approach for thinking about change and stability resilience (much like ‘sustainability’) serves as an interdisciplinary ‘boundary object’ (Brand and Jax 2007). Mobile and mobilised across a diverse array of epistemic communities, both academic and political, these concepts have evolved and cross-fertilised since the 1970s into a framework of increasing centrality to a number of academic and political discourses, notably around the management of uncertainty and risk.

There are two main, though to some extent converging, forms of resilience theory in circulation that originate in distinct epistemological communities: mind–body disciplines, principally psychology; and nature–society disciplines, principally ecology and economy. Although resilience theories and research are determinedly multi- or trans-disciplinary, they rarely appear on the same page. Multi-disciplinary communities mobilise in distinct clusters around either a person–community centred conception of resilience (‘psycho-social resilience’) or a biophysical environment–community one (‘socio-ecological resilience’). In nature–society disciplines, socio-ecological resilience, the ‘science of surprise’ (Holling 1986), dominates as either metaphor or methodology.

Common to most deployments of the concept is the invocation of crisis or trauma as ‘the event’ acting upon an entity (e.g. ecosystem, a child, an economic region). Resilience is primarily conceived as the property that captures the capacity of the entity to anticipate, adapt to and recover from the event such that it resumes its original configuration, shape, functional relationships or trajectory afterwards. The linking of social and ecological systems and integration of complexity theory produces a model of interlinked systems in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring and renewal (the ‘panarchy’ of Gunderson and Holling 2002). This conceptual model has been particularly successful in propagating itself across disciplinary knowledge domains, including human geography.

In the political domain there is also evidence of an emerging form of governmentality through resilience. Resilience discourses mark a break with the modernism of the ‘risk society’ by introducing novelty, adaptation, unpredictability, transformation, vulnerability and systems into a governmental discourse that now makes the governance of uncertainty and unpredictability a hallmark of rule. In this ‘period of crisis’ (Larner 2011) versions of resilience are being mobilised to facilitate archetypal governmental technologies of neoliberalism; government at a distance, technologies of responsibilisation, and practices of subjectification that produce suitably prudent autonomous and entrepreneurial subjects in a world of naturalised uncertainty and crisis.

An increasing number of publications use a resilience framework of some sort to structure their analysis. Journals have devoted entire issues to the topic and the number of articles has grown enormously (see Janssen 2007).3 Resilience framed degree schemes are proliferating with numerous conference sessions and individual workshops held on resilience themes. The resilience agenda is also being driven by funding programmes. Within the UK alone the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Department for International Development (DFID), Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Medical Research Council (MRC) and Leverhulme Trust put out calls for applications on resilience themes in 2010 and 2011.

Given the volume of material produced and decades of (inter-) disciplinary theoretical development this article can only sketch some dimensions of a melange of concepts constructed as both pliable and fuzzy, precise and bounded. The aim is threefold. First to provide a typology of resilience theory illuminating the epistemological and ontological confusion and colonisation that occurs in translating these theories across disciplinary knowledge domains. Second, to highlight the potential depoliticising and post-political nature of the resilience discourse as it is mobilised in governmental structures. In its propagation between academic discourses I highlight standing concerns about the ontological colonisation of ‘complex systems’ theories that the adoption of a resilience epistemology entails. In its propagation into the political domain I highlight the work it does in sustaining and naturalising neoliberal paradigms of contemporary governance. Finally I consider the emancipation of resilience and call for a more sustained and critical engagement by human geographers with resilience studies and their effects.

Outside of its natural science setting, with a few notable exceptions (Martin et al. 1993; Klein et al. 1998; Adger 2000), resilience theory has only entered the geographical lexicon in the past half decade. Yet resilience theories pivot around a number of inherently geographical themes – scale, nature–society relations, communities and regions, risk and security, management of environmental change, agency and affect.

Some characterise resilience theories as transformatory, a normative philosophy for shaping change, producing active citizens and facilitating self-securing agency (Hopkins 2008; Chandler 2012), a dynamic process for ‘bouncing forward’ (Shaw 2012) and changing to a new, more sustainable, state. Others find its deployment problematic, a post-political ideology of constant adaptation attuned to the uncertainties of neoliberal economy (Duffield 2011, 14) where the resilient subject is conceived as resilient to the extent it adapts to, rather than resists, the conditions of its suffering (Reid 2012). An emerging critical literature links complexity, resilience and modes of neoliberal governmentality, primarily coming from the fields of security, development and international relations studies (Walker and Cooper 2011; Duffield 2011; O'Malley 2010; Reid 2010 2012; Zebrowski 2009). It is hoped this intervention will encourage a similar critical engagement by geographers considering the governmentalising effects of resilience discourses as operationalised through different modes of governance.

A typology and genealogy of resilience

Resilience is a metaphor that captures the ability of something to rebound or resume its original shape following exposure to a stressor. In the 1970s it came to be associated with two distinct epistemic communities investigating separately the natural world and the inner world of the traumatised child. Within a range of disciplines with their own methodological histories two broadly parallel discourses evolved that might be termed ‘psycho-social resilience’ and ‘socio-ecological resilience’. A third discourse (considered later in this paper) emphasising the governance of risk and threats to the social body overlaps with the other two but hews closely to political and public discourse on resilience as ‘robustness’ – that of security, disaster planning and international development where ‘resilience’ has become the politically accepted term of choice (Smith and Fischbacher 2009; Duffield 2011).

‘Psycho-social’ resilience theories: originate in studies in epidemiology and child development in the 1970s (see Werner et al. 1971; Werner 1993; Garmezy 1971 1985; Murphy 1974; Rutter 1979). Oriented around the individual, their immediate community relations and their response to adversity they are grounded in localities and places. As a field of research it includes social (psychology, sociology, education, gerontology etc) and natural (biochemistry, genetics, neurology etc) sciences (Curtis and Cicchetti 2003). Although methodologically dissimilar, they triangulate on similar objects of analysis – the individual and their response and recovery from an adverse event.

Here resilience is the ability to recover from trauma, and a capacity to persist or sustain health and psychological wellbeing in the face of continuing adversity (Ungar et al. 2008; Zautra et al. 2010). The field has become more process oriented (Rutter 1990; Campbell-Sills et al. 2006; Friedli 2009) and normative, emphasising achieving ‘positive adaptation’ in the face of adversity (Luthar et al. 2000, 543).

A striking example of the mobilisation of psycho-social resilience is the US Army/University of Pennsylvania Resiliency Project collaboration – the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program (see O'Malley 2010). As an example of ‘governing through contingency’ (O'Malley 2010) this comprehensive programme of ‘resilience training’ conceives resilience as a skill that can be learned, producing new resilient subjectivities capable and responsible for themselves in a world of uncertainty.

The rescaling of psychological resilience from the body to the place-based setting of the community, notably in natural hazards and disaster management research, has incorporated complex systems thinking, modelling community functions and conceptualising resilience as an outcome of definable and measurable sets of community relations, e.g. cohesion, communal imaginaries, external stressors etc. (see Flora et al. 2004; Murphy 2007; King 2008; Cutter et al. 2008; Norris et al. 2008; Kulig et al. 2009; Buikstra et al. 2010). Although informed by complexity theories that presume nonlinearity (see ‘The systems ontology’ below) underlying such approaches is an assumption that, through information/knowledge and design, resilience is a capacity that can be ‘built’.

‘Socio-ecological’ resilience theories4 originate with Holling's articulation of ‘ecological resilience’ (Holling 1973). Resilience had been conceived as a property of a system that makes it return to an equilibrium or a steady state after a disturbance (or ‘engineering resilience’; Gunderson 2000). In contrast ‘ecological resilience’ defines or measures ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks’ (Walker et al. 2004, 2).

The ‘non-equilibrium’ emphasis of ecological resilience represented a radical break with ecological theories that preceded it, providing a basis for critique of the prevailing productivist resource management theories of the time. Within this framing the objects or actors that make up a system can exist in multiple configurations or ‘regimes’ and crucially may at some point fundamentally change – characterised as a regime shift (Walker and Salt 2006; see Nadasdy 2010 for a questioning of the extent to which this represents a genuine paradigm shift in ecological theory).

Led by the Resilience Alliance network, notably through its house journal Ecology and Society, the concept was extended to human ‘systems’, or more accurately social-ecological systems in the 1990s. The incorporation of a scalar and reflexive motif linking systems in a nested hierarchy is described by the term ‘panarchy’, a metaconcept presented by Gunderson and Holling in their edited volume Panarchy: understanding transformations in systems of humans and nature (2002). Panarchy is fundamentally concerned with governance and scale. All systems are described as existing and functioning at multiple scales of space, time and social organisation with interactions across scales being important in determining the dynamics of the system at any particular focal scale (Resilience Alliance 2002).

It is this complex adaptive systems iteration of the theory that has attracted wider academic attention in recent years, including (not uncritically) within geographical research; as a means for imagining urban5, regional and economic geographies6, but most directly in research into the socio-ecologies of environmental change7.

The dangers and difficulties of translating theories and concepts between epistemic communities have not been lost on researchers instrumental in developing and popularising the discourse outside its ecological heartlands. Not only are the difficulties of transferring resilience theory between epistemic communities recognised (Adger 2000), but from its origins as a descriptive-analytical term it has been pluralised and stretched into a more malleable concept that in academic and political realms now purportedly functions as a general approach to systems analysis. Yet for resilience theorists resilience provides a methodological foundation from which to develop and test theory and answer defined questions in empirical settings. As such, there is an evident desire for conceptual precision, hence calls for greater conceptual clarity (Martin 2012), suggestions of constraining specified resilience to the ecological realm (Brand and Jax 2007), and calls for working towards a common lexicon (Gallopín 2006; Miller et al. 2010).

Resilience research claims to be ‘determinedly holistic: it treats social and ecological systems as a fully integrated whole' (Harrison 2003, 1). As a result resilience researchers are ‘guided by rationalist assumptions [to] look to economics and sociology for their social systems exemplars and overlook the peculiar characteristics of the political system that generates the policies they hope to change and the governance of the ecosystems management that they want to improve’ (Harrison 2003, 7; see also Hornborg 2009). In recognising these critiques of socio-ecological resilience, in particular its weak integration and appropriation of social theory and methodologies (Harrison 2003), there is a turn towards ‘epistemological pluralism’ (Miller et al. 2008) and actively exploring more integrative approaches (e.g. see Cote and Nightingale 2012).

There has been critical interrogation of resilience as a structuring discourse of government, governmental practices and the production of new subjectivities in the fields of disaster studies, international relations, international development, security studies and analysis of social risk8. In geography, with notable exceptions (e.g. Coaffee and Roger's 2008) ‘dark side of resilience planning’, urban security and the responsibilisation of community resilience as governmentality, Anderson and Adey's (2012) emergency and the governing of life, Davoudi's (2012) ‘power-blind’ resilience), interrogation of the ways this increasingly structuring concept is deployed in practices of government and governance has been limited. Before reviewing the extent to which resilience thinking is embedded in contemporary governmental rationalities I briefly turn to the ontological question of the system.

The systems ontology: from metaphor to materiality

The incorporation of complexity theory into natural and social science research brings with it the ‘complex adaptive system’ (CAS) as an ontological category. Such systems are conceived as essentially biological entities; a complex of multiple interacting agents that possess capacities to interact with other agents and artefacts. The system is self-organising, emergent from those interactions, and non-linear in outcomes – in other words the effects of a simple interaction in one part of the system can produce large and complex effects in other parts of it. But the key word in the CAS is ‘adaptive’. It is the adaptive capacity of such systems, the ability of the system as a whole to cope and respond to the unforeseen, the unpredictable and the new, whether from its ‘external’ environment or arising from changes or damage to its ‘internal’ structures that characterises the relative resilience of a system.

The recent flourishing of resilience approaches across social and natural sciences and political domains may in part be explained by the longer term inter-disciplinary circulation of complexity and systems discourses going back to Durkheim, von Bertalanffy and Parsons, but in particular Hayek and Boulding (see Walker and Cooper 2011). These complex system discourses are in turn situated within a wider historical cultural discourse of holism or organicism.

The resilience approach is, if not derived from then certainly influenced by the cultural idea of ‘individualistic holism’ (Kirchhoff et al. 2010). The world is imagined to a priori consist of systems in which entities and their non-living environments are intrinsically connected by characteristic functional interdependencies, interdependencies that self-regulate the ecosystem as a functioning unit. In these terms ecosystems are understood as objectively existing functionally integrated units. One of the longstanding controversies in ecological science has been about the ontological status of ecosystems. Is the unity of ecosystems objectively given by nature or subjectively defined by man? (see Kirchhoff et al. 2010 for provocative answers to the question).

Certainly the proposition that ‘ecological and social domains of social-ecological systems can be addressed in a common conceptual, theoretical, and modelling framework’ (Walker et al. 2006, 13) is inherently problematic on a number of levels. The most fundamental is the presumption of the ontological soundness of ‘the system’ as a functionally integrated community of objects and agents. Equally problematic are the assumptions of sufficient commonalities between economic, social and ecological ‘complex systems’ to justify the translation of theory and models between them. Then there are potential epistemological ruptures between disciplines, not least the historically greater interest in neo-Lamarckian evolutionary approaches in social sciences. But, as I come onto later, a primary concern is the mobilisation of these complex system theories as translated and transformed through the power–knowledge complex of government.

While the complex adaptive systems ontology is most obvious in socio-ecological resilience research, it also provides a foundation for psycho-social resilience research. Having identified potential assets or protective factors associated with the degree of resilience displayed by individuals in the face of adversity, the ‘second wave’ of psycho-social resilience research focused on uncovering the processes and regulatory systems that account for such factors. Accepting the idea that ‘resilience can be applied to any functional system’, in this context most frequently the individual as a ‘living system’ (Masten and Obradović 2006, 14), focus has recently turned to uncovering the multiple ‘adaptive systems’ that are implicated in the resilience of individuals and communities. At the same time a dialogue between psycho-social and socio-ecological theorists has sprung up which has highlighted ‘striking parallels in the conceptualization of the resilience of a living human organism in developmental science and the resilience of an ecosystem in ecology, perhaps because both sciences were strongly influenced by general systems theory’ (Masten and Obradović 2008, 9).

Complexity theories stress contingency and non-linear ‘evolutionary’ (adaptive, reflexive) properties of complex systems. Resilience as an approach to systems management is therefore inter alia defined in terms of improving ‘evolutionary capacity’ or the fitness of systems or people (Zebrowski 2009, 2). In response to a catastrophic event systems that have been constructed to be best able to withstand, rebound, or better yet, rebuild and make better systems are the most resilient. They have the greatest evolutionary capacity, or more precisely they have greater adaptive capacity.

As Reid argues, this conception of ‘adaptiveness’ permeates international discourses of risk, humanitarian relief and development. The biopoliticisation of security has seen disasters reproblematised as inevitable and necessary phenomena. The objective of governance regimes becomes facilitating capacities in complex systems to adapt and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure in the wake of uncertainty. Here the resilience approach has been critically identified with construing the emergency as ‘a moment and site of profound “opportunity” for societies to transform themselves so that they might be governed differently’ (Reid 2010, 404).

In an age of ‘generalized crisis’ (Larner 2011) and contingency, resilience discourses offer a means to imagine a way for individuals to live with socio-natural uncertainty whilst maintaining collective functionality. However, in their operationalisation as governance strategies they may do so in a manner that presumes that in its essentials the system can be captured, modelled and managed, coupled with an unstated expectation that, for all the emphasis on adaptation and flexibility, what is needed is to make the components of the system appropriately fit for the system. Here resilience becomes ‘an ideology attuned to the uncertainties of a neoliberal economy’ (Duffield 2011, 14)

The governmentalisation of resilience

Outside the hallowed walls of the academy, resilience has fast become ‘a pervasive idiom of global governance’ (Walker and Cooper 2011, 144) where ‘resilience functions more as ideology … promoting a post-political life of constant adaptation, [and] the abandonment of long-term expectations’ (Duffield 2011, 15). Fundamentally this is a discourse about human security in a complex networked world. As Coaffee et al. (2008), Lentzos and Rose (2009) and O'Malley (2010 2012) highlight, these resilience discourses are situated in, and help reproduce, broader neoliberal practices of security that shift from state-based to society-based conceptions of distributed risk and reaction. Such effects are most explicitly captured in government policy and programmes relating to ‘the emergency’, international development, environment, and security where a resilience approach that emphasises adaptation, flexibility and functional continuity (e.g. of critical infrastructure) is promoted.

As a set of techniques, there is much to commend an approach that emphasises (contra characterisations of the modernist, interventionist risk society) prevention and empowerment, the resilient subject conceived as an active agent, intervention targeted at the vulnerable rather than victims (Chandler 2012). The objective of the resilience approach as a technique of governance is notionally to enable individuals, institutions, eco-systems and economies to be responsible for transforming themselves in the face of a world of contingency whilst also increasing their resistance to exogenous and internal shocks by limiting the potential of events to provoke change. Resilience is therefore fundamentally concerned with inculcating particular subjectivities that are fit for purpose in this context.

The breadth of fields in which a resilience approach of some sort is now structuring government policy and practice is extensive. In international governance its reach is most visible in international development, disaster planning (illustrated by the European Union integration of emergency humanitarian and development arms under a ‘Resilience Paradigm’; see EC COM (2012, 586)), and in particular, the all encompassing discourses of climate change and sustainable development (e.g. see Resilient People: Resilient Planet, United Nations 2012). Indeed in relation to climate change, resilience and adaptation now sit side by side, potentially displacing the more revolutionary concept of mitigation.

To illustrate the penetration of resilience discourses into government and governance it is useful to summarise this in a UK context. This empowering and active citizen conception of resilience is more obvious, discursively at least, at local and international scales of governance. At the national scale a more traditional ‘engineering resilience’ conception still dominates thinking, mostly around civil contingencies planning. For example, local government in the UK, encouraged by national government, increasingly conceives of regional economic development and the relationship between government services and its citizens in terms of ‘building resilience’. Illustrative of this approach is the London Borough of Newham which has taken forward an explicitly psycho-social conception of resilience and sought to apply it to its reimagining of welfare state policy through a focus on personal resilience, community resilience and economic resilience (Newham Council 2011).

In a similar vein the After the Riots report drew heavily on psycho-social resilience research for its analysis and structural framework to understand and propose policy responses to the 2011 English city riots (Riots Communities and Victims Panel 2012). Psycho-social resilience discourses are also visible in national government policy. New Labour embedded it into a number of its programmes, notably through the Department for Education (e.g. see the UCL Institute of Education ‘Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education’ research study, or, under the auspices of ‘Every Child Matters’, the piloting of the UK Resilience Programme in schools from 2007; DfE 2010).

At the regional level resilience provides an optic through which both academia (e.g. Fingleton et al. 2012) and practitioners conceptualise, coproduce and service the economy. Allied with the rise of city-regional thinking this is most obviously illustrated by the Yorkshire Cities Strengthening Local Economies programme and their development of an Index of Economic Resilience (ekosgen 2011). The programme started in 2008, developing a toolkit to enable areas to assess their resilience using six knowledge domains of economic structure, enterprise, workforce skills, economic inclusion, place and population, and infrastructure and connectivity (such ‘toolkits’ translate and mobilise a resilience model in various settings, e.g. community emergency planning through the Cabinet Office, business opportunities from climate change (Defra's 2011 Climate Resilience Toolkit), and even the emotional management of employees (BitC 2009)). Modified forms of this analysis have been applied as a regional mechanism of economic knowledge generation and policy tweaking in a number of other parts of the UK, e.g. Scotland (ekosgen 2009) or the Experian Local Resilience Assessments incorporating data for 324 local authority districts (Experian 2010).

However, the most obvious adoption of a resilience approach is seen in ways of ‘governing emergency’ (Anderson and Adey 2012), particularly its national security and local emergency response plans where (exemplifying earlier statements about ‘responsibilisation’) responsibility for ‘preparedness’, ‘response’ and ‘recovery’ lies in localities, reserving for central government an authoritative coordinating and facilitating role (see Cabinet Office 2010 2011a 2011b 2011c 2011d; Defra 2011). The biopolitics of resilience in UK civil contingencies planning are well documented by Zebrowski (2009), and Anderson and Adey (2012) provide a detailed exploration of the emergence of emergency and its various configurations in relation to civil contingencies planning.

Local Resilience Forums and Regional Resilience Teams were established under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. UK Resilience is the Cabinet Office led team that seeks to coordinate and embed resilience to natural or manmade disaster into all areas of the UK. A whole host of toolkits and plans exist, such as a National Resilience Plan for Critical Infrastructure (Cabinet Office 2010) and the Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience (Cabinet Office 2011a), which serve to coordinate preparation, response and recovery to the unknowable, but mostly guessable event. One example of such ‘known unknowns’ is the ever present threat of climate change, now increasingly conceptualised in terms of ‘climate resilience’ (such as in the cross-government Climate Resilient Infrastructure Strategy; Defra 2011).

These strategies are mostly concerned with an older, engineering resilience conception of resilience as essentially being robustness, an ability to withstand shocks to the system rather than to adapt and reconfigure in response to them. More recently, the adaptive (and flexible) systems version of resilience that emphasises that the brittleness of a system stems from rigidity and centralised command and control systems has come to prominence, notably in relation to thinking about communities, climate, development and human security. This is exemplified in the strapline of Resilient Nation, a report into ‘our brittle society’ (Edwards 2009, 9) prepared by the think tank Demos, the cover of which reads: ‘Next generation resilience relies on citizens and communities, not the institutions of state …’ This influential report presented a locality based imaginary of ‘community resilience’ that was ‘premised on institutions and organisations letting go … and allowing community resilience to emerge and develop in local areas over time’ (Edwards 2009, 80). The fit with the Conservative Party ‘Big Society'/small state ideology are obvious and unsurprisingly the UK Resilience (2012) programme adopted the Demos definition and rationale of resilience in its Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience (Cabinet Office 2011a, 4).

Urban policy is also increasingly shaped by a resilience agenda at a domestic, but also international, scale (see, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and its ongoing Resilient Cities programme, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and its Making Cities Resilient campaign, and the World Bank approach to Climate-Resilient Cities). The capacities of urban environments to facilitate and hinder social capabilities to prepare for, respond to and recover from multi-hazard threats are primarily framed around climate change, terrorism and natural (biotic and abiotic) hazards such as earthquakes or heatwaves. Again the goal is to build resilience to shocks by adapting the environment or social practices (see Coaffee 2008) to mitigate against the effects of that shock and to ensure system function (notably in relation to integration into the global economy) is maintained. Such approaches entail disciplining not only the material urban environment but also the subjectivities of those living in them where resilience provides the conceptual metaphor and rationale for the governance of emergency (Coaffee et al. 2008; Anderson and Adey 2012).

These resilience approaches operate on the normative assumption that communities can and should self-organise to deal with uncertainty, that uncertainty is a given not something with a political dimension, and the role of government is limited to enabling, shaping and supporting, but specifically not to direct or to fund those processes. This locates the responsibility of ‘communities’ as needing to organise themselves, primarily in the context of sustaining economic growth. As a consequence, there is little sign of a profound engagement with a politics of resilience as a means for conceiving of change; of revolution through resilience.

In providing a framework for governing uncertainty in complex networked social systems/settings resilience foregrounds the where, when and how of change-inducing events but might this be at the expense of giving much consideration to the why of them?

Resilient subjectivities

The human here is conceived as resilient in so far as it adapts to rather than resists the conditions of its suffering in the world. To be resilient is to forego the very power of resistance.

Reid (2012, 76)

A major criticism of the resilience approaches are their co-option into a neoliberal governmentality. For example, in tracing a genealogy of ecological resilience theory, Walker and Cooper (2011) point to a shift in resilience theory from its origins as a critique of Cold War ‘command and control’ resource management to a ‘methodology of power’ (2011, 143) across a number of social domains. Hornborg goes one stage further. In a critique grounded in concern with the functionalist overtones of resilience science, Hornborg sees a major weakness in the resilience discourse is that it is ‘oblivious not only of power, conflict and contradiction, but also of culture’ (2009, 255). As such, resilience is politically neutral, sitting comfortably with a consensus rhetoric of criticality (certain practices are ‘bad’ or unsustainable) yet proffering technocratic solutions (of adaptive management) framed within and using the same (capitalist) logic and vocabulary (of capital and services etc.) that those problems result from. Consequently the resilience discourse can become defined by a set of consensual socio-scientific knowledges that reduce the political to the policing of change (Swyngedouw 2009), diverting attention from questions of power, justice or the types of (socio-natural) future that can be envisaged. For Hornborg this is why resilience and not revolution is the rallying cry of the early twenty-first century (2009, 252).

Such approaches to manage naturalised processes of rapid or slow change also reshape the subjectivity of the resilient subject (as adaptive, flexible, resilient) and its relationship with the state. As Julian Reid contends, ‘ “Resilient” peoples do not look to states to secure their wellbeing because they have been disciplined into believing in the necessity to secure it for themselves’ (2012, 69).

Resilience holds out the promise of knowing ‘when’ change enters a system, in turn holding out the promise of managing change, of ameliorating its unacceptable effects. However, paradoxically through that technology it also holds the promise of avoiding fundamental change. Certainly it introduces flexibility and adaptability but framed in terms of maintaining system function as the priority, with responsibility for maintaining function something distributed throughout the system. As such, it could be said to produce active citizens and active institutions whose act is to maintain the status quo rather than conceive of challenging it.

There is a growing literature on the link between complexity, resilience and the production of neoliberal subjectivities (Lentzos and Rose 2009; Reid 2012; Duffield 2011; O'Malley 2010). With notable exceptions (e.g. Coafee and Rogers 2008; Coaffee et al. 2008) a critical analysis of the resilient subject has received little attention within human geographic research. It falls outside the scope of this paper to tackle that lacuna; however, resilience approaches to the governance of uncertainty should be subject to sustained critical interrogation.

Concluding remarks: the emancipation of resilience?

Resilience discourses, as mobilised through the institutions of government, seem to have a number of implications. They foreground a concern with technologies of preparedness and planning, disperse uncertainty and responsibility for being prepared and respons-able throughout the system, and are institutionalised in apparatus of government and governance to fashion adaptive subjects that act autonomously to secure the system against exogenous and endogenous shocks.

There is need to theoretically emancipate resilience as a concept, sensitive to its historiography. As a heuristic this plurality of resilience theories are very useful tools. They allow us to simplify extreme complexity. However, the way resilience is deployed in academic and political spheres seems to suggest that that simplification might itself be mistaken for the messy materiality of life in all its forms and species. As I have argued the inherent danger is that policy and academic analysis becomes concerned with understanding and maintaining a system shorn of political context or attention to questions of power and inequality.

By fetishising the complex adaptive system, by being overly concerned with an abstract concept rather than the real world, do we make the maintenance of the system the objective of governance, the measure of success being the preservation of the system rather than the protection of citizens? What role does the researcher and research process play in making the system visible, in imbuing it with an ontological permanence that oversimplifies the very complexity of life such research aims to capture? Does resilience thinking ultimately facilitate a post-political epistemology, principally concerned with the ‘right disposition of things’ (to paraphrase Foucault) in the system to maintain ‘the system’, erasing the possibility of fundamental change.

This post-political dimension of an approach that deals with the most political of questions (the causes, distribution and effects of differentiated risk in a global society) is somewhat perplexing. Yet there are examples of the practical emancipation of resilience. More radical conceptions of resilience, conceptions that are perhaps more closely allied with the normative intentions of the socio-ecological theory's originators, have also emerged.

Ecological resilience presumes the existence of alternative semi-stable states. Some theorists and social activists have mobilised resilience to imagine how a ‘regime shift’ can be brought into being. There exists a growing literature on ‘socio-technical transitions’ (see Rip and Kemp 1998; Smith et al. 2005; Pelling 2010) which in socio-ecological resilience research has focused on transition management towards the normative goal of ‘sustainability’ (Smith and Stirling 2010). Recognising the capacity of systems to change, and the significance of ‘system resilience’ as both a constrainer and enabler of alternative regimes, resilience is reconceived as an analytical framework for examining change itself (for example, see Jerneck and Olsson 2008; Fischer-Kowalski and Rotmans 2009; Klein et al. 2003; Newton 2010; Coaffee 2008 2009).

While the theorisation of this new ‘multiscale resilience and transformability’ discourse (Folke et al. 2010, 24) has begun, it is in political and practical discourses of grassroots societal change that the emancipatory potential of resilience theory has been most explicitly articulated. One of the clearest attempts to utilise resilience theory as a basis for achieving ‘regime shift’ is the so-called Transition Town movement, summarised in Hopkins (2008) populist The transition handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience. Here resilience has become an organising principle around which to achieve transition to a localised low carbon future. Transition Towns are a recent iteration of localist civil society responses to the effects of globalising socio-economic practices (for engagement with the resilience of Transition Town practice, see Bristow (2010), Mason and Whitehead (2012), Bailey et al. (2010) and Wilson (2012)).

It is not my intent to dismiss or negate the utility of resilience theories in helping provide heuristics for understanding, responding to and managing change. Indeed the socio-ecological resilience literature is replete with welcome applications of resilience approaches for progressive and empowering purposes. My concern is with unintended consequences arising from the totalising effects of a complex systems discourse colonising a wide range of academic disciplines. Through interdisciplinary encounters it might animate new debates but it also frames them in terms that ultimately depoliticise and naturalise a world of uncertainty and render them knowable in the common vocabulary of capital. That the unexpected happens, whether in occurrence or as an effect of a complex non-linear world, is not contested. But I would urge a note of caution in placing such emphasis upon a concept and approach to contingency that in its political mobilisation risks facilitating the abdication of responsibility by the collective and relocates it to the individual.


I would like to thank the editor Professor Klaus Dodds and the anonymous referees for their very constructive feedback and advice, and also Professor Martin Jones, the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences (Aberystwyth University) and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) for support in the preparation of the paper.


  1. 1

    Multiple disciplinary definitions of the term exist (see Holling 1973; Rutter 1990; Kaplan 1999; Gunderson 2000; Adger 2006; Luthar 2006; Edwards 2009; Folke et al. 2010; Zautra et al. 2010). Brand and Jax (2007) identify 10 definitions of socio-ecological resilience alone.

  2. 2

    The ‘complex systems’ referred to here are multiple, ranging from the macro scale of, for example, ecological and financial systems, to the meso scale of regions and communities, to the micro scale of the human subject and their neurological systems.

  3. 3

    See Journal of Clinical Psychology 58(3) 2002; Substance Use and Misuse 39(5) 2004; Global Environmental Change 16 2006; Development and Psychopathology 19(13) 2007; Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 3(1) 2010; Environmental Education Research 16(5–6) 2010; Progress in Development Studies 10(4) 2010; Critical Planning 17 2010; International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment 2010; International Journal of Critical Infrastructures 7(1) 2011.

  4. 4

    A snapshot of key publications include Walker et al. (1981), Pimm (1984), Holling (1986 1996), Berkes and Folke (1998), Adger (2000), Carpenter et al. (2001), Gunderson and Holling (2002), Holling et al. (2002), Folke et al. (2002 2010), Walker et al. (2004 2006), Adger et al. (2005), Gallopín (2006), Perrings (2006).

  5. 5

    For example, in different contexts, see Godschalk (2003), Bohle and Warner eds (2008), Gleeson (2008), Wallace and Wallace (2008), Coaffee (2008 2009), Evans (2011).

  6. 6

    For example, Boschma and Martin (2007), Vale and Campanella (2005), Martin (2010), and see Christopherson et al. (2010), Hassink (2010), and Simmie and Martin (2010) in ‘The resilient region’ special issue of Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society (March 2010) for critical and exploratory engagement with the resilience metaphor.

  7. 7

    For example, Adger (2000), Adger and Brown (2009), Cash et al. (2006).

  8. 8

    Furedi's technocratic construction of resilience as solution to a ‘universal state of vulnerability’ (2008), Duffield's resilience and the environment–security nexus (2011), Reid's resilient subjectivities (2012), O'Malley's ‘mythology of resilience’ (2012), Walker and Cooper's geneaology of resilience and crisis (2011), Zebrowski's production of prudent citizens (2009).