The words above, or something very close to them, came out of my mouth when I was advising a student about a thesis he is writing related to resilience. There are many examples of social systems that most people would consider "bad", but which appear to demonstrate very strong resilience. This is especially obvious in politics. For example, I would guess that across the globe there are very few people who hold positive sentiments toward the political regime of North Korea. However, that regime has exhibited extraordinary resilience against efforts by many of the most economically and militarily powerful countries in the world to encourage it to change its ways. While less extreme, tensions between the political right and left in many countries shows how each demonstrates a degree of resilience when out of power that is often seen as frustrating to their opposition.
In the context of communities, the resilience of poverty, and related to that malnutrition and homelessness, demonstrates another system that many people would like to end, but which seems to be stubbornly resilient to effective change (Allison & Hobbs, 2004).. It is a self-organizing system, made up of numerous subsytems that benefit from a poverty regime and adapt with great flexibility to changing government policies and sociodemographic conditions.
To me, the presence of highly resilient, yet morally "bad", systems seems so obvious. To understand resilience, one must understand that it applies to both "good" systems and "bad" systems. I would guess that these are structurally the same, and that in many cases what is good to one person or group of people is bad to another. In addition, in many instances the resilience issue is one of how the "bad" system relates to the "good" system. This is seen in the case of left and right wing politics, cited above, but also in the case of natural hazard disasters and community resilience to deal with them. It is even hard to use the words "good" and "bad" here, as they are simply two systems occupying the same space.
Take for example, human settlements and major weather events, which appear to be increasingly in conflict with one another. Natural events (typhoons/hurricanes, as well as earthquakes and tsunamis) only become disasters when people are harmed by them. People are harmed by them when they settle in locations or build structures in ways that largely ignore the potential damage that may ensue. Climate change is the same. In both of these instances, there is a lack of understanding by the human system of the natural system, which then results in a human disaster. One cannot exist without the other.
Similarly, when we try to assess the resilience of a community's tourism system, we are not making judgments about how environmentally sustainable or socially conscious the system may be. Instead the focus should (in my opinion) be on the ability of the system to effectively navigate or manage the adaptive cycle in response to any perturbations that may arise. Environmental conservation and social equity are (again in my opinion) sustainable development issues, not resilience issues. (See: Sustainability Driven and Resilience Driven Societal Development.) And they can also be highly contentious political issues, where people disagree on what is good action and what is bad action -- and we can assess the resilience of each of those positions.
So, why is it that an online search on "the resilience of bad things" shows only articles and links about how to be resilient against bad things, including "when things go wrong", "bad times" and "strength in the face of adversity"? These results were mostly related to psychological resilience, and appeared on both Google and Google Scholar. The only thing that came close to the concepts that I am discussing here were two articles on the resilience of US Southern culture and on US Southern religion. I am not sure what to make of that! When I changed the search to include the word "community", the results were somewhat more nuanced. There was still a strong emphasis on resilience to bad events, but there were also some critiques of the concept of resilience. Most of these suggest that resilience is poorly defined, and government resilience policies tend to support neoliberal and power elite agendas. (See, for example: What Resilience is Not: Uses and Abuses.)
Many of the proponents of the systems theory approach to community resilience have long claimed that it is non-normative (neither good or bad), and is primarily a descriptive science (Brand & Jax, 2007). I believe that this is true from a systems approach, which is what I am arguing here. When we describe the resilience of a system, and how it maintains (or loses) that resilience, then the normative issues of good and bad are mostly irrelevant. Resilience becomes normative when we try to make a system more resilient. In that instance, we immediately bring in values and, as a result, politics. (See, for example: What to Save? The Normative Dilemmas of Resilience.) This is what the critiques of resilience are focused on, which is a perfectly valid argument because so much of the discussion these days is on how to make communities more resilient, especially to climate change. I also admit there there are some value judgments made in selecting variables to assess the resilience of a system, but again, this is not necessarily a characteristic of resilience, but rather of the epistemological biases of the researcher.
The possibility of neoliberal tendencies in the application and practice of resilience is a topic that deserves attention from sociology of science perspective. Beyond that is the large gap in organizational resilience literature on the resilience of bad (or undesirable) systems, as well as the relationship of bad systems to good systems, however those adjectives might be defined. I think these same issues may apply to psychological resilience (Berkes & Ross, 2013). Most things in life are a balance between preferred and non-preferred options, which can be conceptualized from a variety of ways, including a resilience systems approach.
This story also shows the value of graduate students. Whether purposefully or not, they can force us to think more clearly about the conceptual frameworks and assumptions that we take toward our research. And I am sure that I am not the first person to express the ideas in this blog. However, it is clearly not a very common perspective, and I would suggest is a largely unseen phenomenon. Perhaps putting this out in my own words will help to move this important discussion further along. Comments are, of course, welcome. :)
Alan A. Lew
Dept of Geography, Planning & Recreation
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona, USA
Allison, H.E. and Hobbs, R.J. (2004). Resilience, adaptive capacity, and the “Lock-in Trap” of the Western Australian agricultural region. Ecology and Society, 9(1):3. <https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/article.php/641>
Berkes, F. and Ross, H. (2013). Community Resilience:Toward an Integrated Approach, Society & Natural Resources, 26:1, 5-20, DOI:10.1080/08941920.2012.736605
Brand, F.S. and Jax, K. (2007). Focusing the meaning(s) of resilience: resilience as a descriptive concept and a boundary object. Ecology and Society, 12(1), 23. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss1/art23