What Is Societal Resilience? J. Peter Burgess

    Socio-economy & New Tech


4mins | Article

The concept of resilience is today widely used across the natural, human and social sciences as well as in a wide range of commercial, social and political discourses. In an age of new global risks such as pandemics, financial crises, and rising geopolitical tensions, resilience is more important than ever. The concept of durable resilience also lies on the capability for all groups in society to move forward equally following a shock, making inclusivity an essential subject to tackle for a sustainable world.

The origins of resilience as a tool of social adaptation and transformation

Resilience as a concept emerged in the 1970s in the field of ecology, building on what is known as systems theory, a method used by scientists to understand and analyze phenomena in terms of the system they are a part of, be it mechanical, economic, or, in the case of ecology, environmental. Any system can be described as a basic equilibrium of all its components. The resilience of a system is its ability to return to that equilibrium after a disturbance. For example, an ecological system is considered resilient if, after a fire, flood, drought or other disaster, it quickly returns to its ecological equilibrium.

More recently, the concept of resilience has been applied to the human systems in order to understand the dynamics of individuals in groups, organizations, and communities. The idea of ‘Social resilience’ emerged from this new way of thinking as a way of studying the behavior of a group as a function of the behavior of its individual members. In this context, it has become common to differentiate between the ways that social groups reestablish equilibrium after a shock and the ways that they evolve and change in response to shock.

The concept of resilience has evolved and spread rapidly through the social sciences, but it retains the basic distinction, formulated by first-generation resilience thinkers between adaptation and transformation. As a consequence, resilience has become a common concept for analyzing the impact of a variety of forces on society. Would the group under examination responding to a crisis adapt to remain essentially what it was? Or would it be transformed into something new and different?

Building Societal Resilience

This article is part of an AXA Research Fund publication

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From ‘social’ to ‘societal’: Resilience politicized

On closer view however, the application of the notion of resilience to individuals in society has produced consequences different from those that are produced by its application to technical systems. For social systems, resilience quickly becomes a political question, a question about who needs to adapt their lives to the new conditions brought on by the shock, and who needs to transform their lives. It’s a question of whose life or what kind of life is worth preserving or defending against a given crisis, be it financial, climatic, or otherwise, and whose life must assent to transforming itself. In short, the use of the methods based on resilience puts into question what we imagine society itself to be.

From this important and sensitive issue the idea of societal resilience developed, which has replaced social resilience in some contexts. Societal resilience refers to the resilience of society as a whole, rather than specific individuals or groups. This means the distinct values and traditions of societies: their customs, languages, religions and spiritual heritage, ethnic distinctions, and much more. The question of resilience becomes one of preserving the rights and privileges, dignity, and moral character implicit in entire societies.

The dark side of resilience

Despite increasing awareness of the complexity of resistance-driven social, political and commercial policies, resilience-based strategies for managing disaster risk often become problematic. Resilience-based policies can lean toward a politics of self-reliance, demanding a population with unevenly distributed resources, competence, and capabilities to respond equally to crisis and hardships. There is a clear danger of this thinking transforming into a set of demands on victims of catastrophes to simply ‘be resilient.’

For this reason, resilience strategies must be coupled with policies that encourage inclusive growth, in order to avoid it becoming a mechanism for separating the resilient from the non-resilient. Instead, the forces of cohesion and shared values should always remain in focus to make sure that resilience is a benefit for society collectively.

Societal resilience in the new risk society

Awareness of the societal character of resilience invites us to consider carefully our approach to the evolving risk landscape. The conclusion from this brief survey of the emerging concept of resilience is that the impact or risk management often reaches beyond the specific context in which it is carried out. The new risks — climate change, digitalization, energy insecurity, pandemic — all imply wide-ranging societal impacts and engage the societal values that we hold dear.

Societal resilience can be maintained only by recognizing and addressing the deeply interlinked nature of contemporary society. Risk mitigation measures that impact one part of society, produces impacts across society. All of the major risks highlighted by experts today are systemic. It is impossible to treat individual occurrences without awareness of the general impacts of both the risks and the risk mitigation measures.

The societal character of resilience shows us that we are a truly inter-connect world, for the good and for the bad.

November 2022