An Examination of the Contemporary Meaning and Utility of Resilience

“America is a strong nation. And we are a resilient nation. But … we can’t guarantee there won’t be another successful terrorist attack … if that attack comes, our enemies will still not have succeeded, because our nation is too strong, and too resilient, to ever cower before a small group of violent extremists.” (Napolitano, 2010)

The use of term resilience has proved increasing popular and widespread in the last decade, becoming a “concept used liberally and enthusiastically by policy makers, practitioners and academics” (McAslan, 2010). If one types ‘Resilience’ into Google it returns over 5 million hits. Even in sport, England’s cricket team no longer have a middle order batting collapse, instead according to Geoffrey Boycott, they now lack resilience in the middle order. This paper will investigate the origins of the term resilience and demonstrate how its meaning has developed in the last 30 years. Resilience and its utility will be examined in relation to a number of sectors; environmental resilience, individual resilience, community resilience, organisational resilience, and national security and resilience. Whilst it will be demonstrated that there are numerous definitions of resilience, and dependant on the context appropriate variations will be required, the term resilience underpins a mind-set, common set of characteristics and ability to recover that is prevalent no matter the context.

When seeking to understand the definition of resilience, one could use the Oxford English Dictionary definition “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape” or “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” (2011). However, there is merit in understanding the origins of the term resilience and its development so as to provide a more complete understanding of its contemporary utility. Resilience first came to prominence in the English language in the early 19th century when Tredgold (1818) used the term to describe a property of timber. This concept was further developed by Robert Mallet (1856) who, in the modulus of resilience, developed a measure of assessing the ability of materials to withstand severe weather conditions. Resilience differs from strength in the materials and generally, as the term resilience implies that something is absorbed before responding to its previous state. This understanding of the ability of a material to absorb and release energy and term it resilience is still valid today.

The use of resilience in relation to the properties of materials may provide the origins of the contemporary understanding of the term, but to understand resilience in just that context would be limiting. To fully understand why resilience has become such a pre-eminent term, one must understand its modern characteristics and how the term is applied. There are critics of the term resilience, believing that the term’s inherent meaning of a positive outcome to events is limiting. Kaplan (2005) states;

“A close examination of this idea, however, reveals a number of unresolved questions that at best render the concept less than useful, and at worse impede progress in understanding human adaptation.”

Others see resilience as not just a new and useful concept, but as essential to understanding how societies can develop in confronting uncertainty and challenges. McAslan (2010) argues that “the resilience approach focuses on the interaction between periods of gradual and sudden change, and provides better understanding on how society should respond to disruptive events and accommodate change.” Sims (2012) argues that resilience has become a relevant term because of the ease with which it can be incorporated to promote national identity.

“… (Resilience’s) success as a term lies in its ability to be mobilized in an explicitly political rhetoric of national identity.”

The full article, authored by Andrew MacLeod, is published on Continuity Central