The idea of resilience has enjoyed a huge degree of success in spreading through different spheres of policy making. Whether it is successful in making a difference in these areas is a matter for debate. Of course the idea of resilience is bound to capture something of the efforts to withstand, recover or adapt to adverse impacts. And like such associated ideas as sustainability, well-being and good governance, it is something we cannot possibly be against. The point is whether there is anything special about the term itself that makes a qualitative difference to the way that we understand the complex problems that we now face and our efforts to deal with them? Is resilience a difference maker? Has it become indispensable to our understanding and behaviour?
In addressing this we might outline three options. The first would be to conclude that resilience is no more than a fashionable buzzword that has little substantial value in its own right. This can be shown by looking at the confusion surrounding the term’s deployment. We find this in policy statements and strategy documents where different views emerge, none of which are elaborated in any significant or coherent way. To overcome these inherent flaws, we now see a proliferation of different types or aspects of resilience to compensate for the lack of a substantial core.
At the other extreme is the argument that resilience represents a whole new way of seeing the world. It brings with it a fundamentally different understanding of how we operate in a world characterised by complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability.
I instead suggest that while it may be more than a buzzword, resilience has little substance of its own, and derives meaning from the wider discourse and practices within which it is located. It is a term, not a concept or a theory. Its explanatory power is dependent on its discursive environment.
This does mean that the idea can be captured by dominant ways of understanding the world, and implies that it is particularly vulnerable to a neoliberal interpretation and deployment. As part of this broader discourse, resilience finds itself bound up with the modification of contemporary forms and techniques of governance that shift the burden of responsibility away from states and legal frameworks and on to individuals and communities.
Understood as a means of framing particular problems, resilience does have distinctiveness. It adopts a fatalistic approach to systemic crises and shocks, makes a virtue of adaptation, emphasises the messy relationship between the social and the individual, and recalibrates our understanding of the human and its capacities.
These represent a shift away from a classical liberal framework of protection and intervention turning instead to the subjective capacity for learning and self-awareness as part of a strategy of adaptation. Given the high costs of intervention, such an approach also makes good sense in an age of austerity. The resilience approach is realist and pragmatic in both a political sense, and in an economic one. Certainly resilience might have more potential than this. But to make it useful in the sense discussed here requires a concerted political struggle.