Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Resilience vs Vulnerability

I recently read a very insightful paper on resilience and it stirred up a lot of thoughts like- when researchers refer to resilience as a societal trait for adaptation, what do they mean?; Is it an individual trait or for a whole group?; can it be measured objectively (can a community totally lack resilience or be 100% resilient)? And so on.

A good number of scholarly articles have pointed out the shortcomings of resilience but does that mean that the concept should be neglected? According to Barrios (2016), the use of the term has gained too much ground to be gotten rid of but what is most important is the appropriate use of the term. Some authors have argued that the widespread use of the term can be attributed to political interests in the use of the term which sometimes in literature places the responsibility for recovery on the affected communities.

Barrios (2016) argued that the focus of disaster researchers should not be on resilience building but on vulnerability reduction. He added that the notion of resilience seeks to maintain structures that create vulnerability and risks; hence, although resilience is all about capacity to cope with risks it seems to ignore systems that create risks and force people to adapt despite the system. It is not okay to emphasize the need for resilience to a vicious cycle of risk creation when efforts are not made to change the systems that create risk.

I posit that resilience is an important term in disaster discourse, however, its usage ignores the root causes of disasters. Barrios (2016) explained that:

“If resilience in the context of climate change becomes adaptation to the atmospheric and hydrometereological conditions created by an anthropogenic process, then resilience means ignoring the root social and development causes of this particular slow disaster. Becoming resilient, in the context of climate change, then, goes hand in hand with the social production of vulnerability rather than vulnerability reduction.” (Barrios, 2016. pp 32)

Although resilience is important because the impacts of climate change are already evident in the increasing frequency of climate-related hazards and undoing this change cannot be achieved immediately, not focusing on mitigation is like postponing the onset of the disaster. A wealth of literature have stated that disasters are products of hazards and vulnerability. Since some hazards (natural hazards) cannot be avoided, our focus should be addressing vulnerability.

While some resilience literature see resilience and vulnerability as opposites, the relationship between the two does not seem that simple because building resilience can in fact indirectly create vulnerability. If careful attention is paid to the quote above by Barrios, building resilience can give the impression that the risks cannot be controlled and that we have unlimited capacity to defeat nature.

Why transformation?

To reduce vulnerability, a significant change and deviation from the status quo is required. Although transformation is concerned with building capacity but more importantly concerned with changing systems that create risk. This concept addressed the shortcoming of resilience while not totally ignoring the need for resilience and adaptation. Transformation is the creation of fundamentally new systems when ecological, economic, social, and political conditions make the existing system untenable (Walker et al, 2004). Scientific research has revealed that a significant change in consumption is necessary to stop the drastic climate change. Likewise, we need significant changes and re-evaluation of socio-economic and political systems for vulnerability to be reduced.

Transformative adaptation addresses the root causes as well as the symptoms (disasters) and it does not place the whole responsibility for change on just a particular group; in fact, everyone is responsbile for transformation. If the issue of increasing disasters is to be addressed, transformation is needed.


Barrios, R. (2016). Resilience: A commentary from the vantage point of anthropology. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 40(1), 28-38. doi:10.1111/napa.12085

Walker, B. et al. (2004). Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2).