vballano / June 15, 2018

What is Resilience in Disaster Research?

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Roots of the Term

Resilience is another popular perspective in disaster research. The term “resilience” has roots in the sciences of physics and mathematics. It is originally used to describe the capacity of a material or system to return to equilibrium after a displacement (Bodin and Wiman 2004; Gordon 1978).

Resilience as a Methor

When applied to people and their environments, ‘‘resilience’’ is fundamentally a metaphor which implies strength, capacity, elasticity, and evolution (Alexander 2013). Although this concept began to be employed as the inverse of human vulnerability in the disaster risk management community in the late 1970s, with increased use in recent years (Birkmann 2006; Gaillard 2010; Torry, 1979), some scholars believe that resilience is not to be seen as the opposite of vulnerability. They accede that both concepts may overlap, but they assert that they can best be understood as discrete concepts; perceiving these as ‘two sides of the same coin’ leads to unproductive circular reasoning (so that no new policy options arise, despite the linguistic turn) (Klein, Nicholls and Thomalla, 2003),(Matyas and Pelling, 2015, p. 54).


Different Names of Resilience

The term resilience has different names. “Ecologists call it an adaptation, economists call it is coping capacity, anthropologists call it bounce back better, and in engineering, it is best known as the capacity of a structure to withstand shock while retaining function” (Dahlberg, et al., 2015, p. 44). The original notion of the term resilience comes from a Latin word which means ‘jump back’ or ‘bounce back’ (Manyena et al., 2011). In the disaster context, resilience can be understood as the ability of people to recover within the shortest possible time with minimal or no assistance (Malalgoda, Amaratunga, and Haigh, 2014).

The United Nations’ Definition of Resilience


Although many interpretations of the term abound in the disasters community, this understanding of resilience has proved to be persistent”. Thus, the United Nations Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR 2009) defines resilience as:

“[T]he ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.”


 The rapid rise of the concept of resilience in the disaster risk management (DRM) policy landscape started with the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015 (HFA), whose subtitle, ‘Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters’, looks to place the concept at the core of DRM aspirations (Matyas and Pelling, 2015, p.51). “The intimate connections between disaster recovery and the resilience of affected communities have become common features of disaster risk reduction programs since the adoption of the HFA. Thus many disaster research is now giving more attention to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster. This highlights the need for a change in the disaster risk reduction work culture, with the stronger emphasis being put on resilience rather than just need or vulnerability” (Manyena, 2006).

The Importance of the Concept to Disaster Research


Resilience as a concept and perspective of seeing disasters has the potential to offer a more systemic and cross-cutting approach to disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and the humanitarian sector. Resilience is an important goal for two reasons. First, because the vulnerability of technological and social systems cannot be predicted completely, resilience—the ability to accommodate change gracefully and without catastrophic failure—is critical in times of disaster (Foster 1997). If we knew exactly when, where, and how disasters would occur in the future, we could engineer our systems to resist them. Since hazard planners must cope with uncertainty, it is necessary to design cities that can cope effectively with contingencies.

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