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Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis

by on October 30, 2011

In “Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis,” Carl Folke breaks down how science has defined “resilience” prior to C.S. Hollings’’1973 paper, and how Holling’s paper has begun to change that definition.  Folke breaks down the history of the resilience perspective.  Resilience, in the 1950s and 1960s, was known to mean an ecosystem’s ability to resist change and stay in the same state, or as close to the same state as possible.  Holling writes in his 1973 paper that resilience should be seen more as a response to surprise and disturbance in the system, and Folke agrees with this definition of resilience.

Folke argues that people rely on the sustainability of other ecosystems and cultures to keep societal aspects like the economy and the environment in balance.  Because of this, Folke says, we need to change the way environmental policy is created.  We need to be able to handle an environment that “support[s] societal development” (253).  Folke says that creating the policies with mindset of the resilience perspective is extremely difficult, but it should be something for policy makers to strive.  He also makes the argument that science has been looking at the resilience of the environment without considering the human impact, while human ecologists have been thinking about the resilience of human society and culture without considering nature.  He is of the view that looking at both without the other is an incorrect way to make policies and to study either the environment or human societies.   Folke views nature and culture as intertwined.  He believes the only way to study the environment is to study the social-ecological systems, the combination of environment and humans.

Folke’s analysis of revamping the scientific definition of resilience is much like Viveiros de Castro’s analysis of Amazonian indigenous cultures ( Viveiros de Castro, 1996).   There has been a recent upsurge of anthropologists looking at indigenous cultures from a more complex, multi-faceted perspective.  This is much like the resilience perspective because Folke highlights Holling’s notion that there are several interactions and equilibria existing in an ecosystem at the same time, and it is not just one predator/prey relationship that holds together an ecosystem.  Within this line of thinking, it does not matter as much the number of species as the breadth of niches occupied in the ecosystem.  In other words, the diversity of the roles of species is more important to resilience than sheer biodiversity.

I agree with Folke that environmental policy needs to be created with he nature-culture interaction in mind, from the social-ecological perspective.  However, I am glad that he acknowledges the challenge of being able to adequately enforce that type of policy.  He is calling for governance that recognizes constant change in the environment and in humanity; it would be extremely hard to administer a relevant policy.  This article also had me thinking a lot about my definition of resilience.  I see it as the ability to adapt, but I think I imagined that the species would adapt so the overall ecosystem relationships would be able to withstand change.  Therefore, I think I am pulling from both definitions of resilience discussed in this article.



How do you define “Resilience”?  Between the two definitions of resilience addressed in this paper, is there a better one? Why?

At one point, Folke begs the question, “Is disturbance in an ecosystem good and healthy?”  Is there an example in culture where disturbance and change is beneficial?


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  1. Before reading this article, I felt that resilience was static, basic, and a non-complex concept that didn’t require to get the understanding of. In another class I am taking about disasters, we define resilience as “a measure of the capacity to absorb and recover from the impact of a hazardous event”, this hazardous event can be referred to as the “surprise and disturbance to the system” that Holling and Folke agree resilience originates from. After reading Folke’s piece, I came to realize the great complexity that is associated with the idea to resilience. Resilience is quite broad, it has relationships with many entities of culture, nature, and life like aspects of the environment, the ecosystem, the economy, and of course revealing the vulnerabilities of landscapes and societies.

  2. Summer Rose W permalink

    At one point, Folke begs the question, “Is disturbance in an ecosystem good and healthy?” Is there an example in culture where disturbance and change is beneficial?

    I think some disturbances in ecosystems are good, like wildfires (if people did not stop them so often). Wildfires thin the forest, but when humans stop fires (naturally caused) it makes the forest grow more, so when a fire actually happens in a dense forest, the whole mountain burns, instead of only the small bushes. I think it is a similar case for humans. Natural disasters that have effects on people can be beneficial in some situations and not in others. Earthquakes can teach people to build their homes better so they are not as effected by them. At the same time, many people are injured and killed, homes are destroyed because of natural disturbances (disasters).

    When talking about change only within a community, caused by people – not natural hazards that can’t be helped – I still think that change can be beneficial. Maybe not every time, but I don’t really think disturbance in an ecosystem is good and healthy every time either. An uprising or a protest from the people that causes a change in the culture can be beneficial for the people in that community. It can also be negative for some people in the community.

    Overall, I think it is impossible to say that all disturbances and changes are beneficial to culture, but rather that change Can Be beneficial, and disturbances Can have positive impacts in cultures.

  3. alannadore permalink

    I would define resilience the same way that Hollings defines it, and I agree that the way that the environment should deal with culture interaction is by responding to it, rather than trying to hold steady to what once was. I think that in order for the nature culture relationship to successfully exist, it is important for ecosystems to evolve along with cultural changes. This article is one that I found very interesting and agreed with on many levels. I think that in order for the nature culture relationship to be successful and as healthy as possible, we need to consider nature when we make policy. I think that the intertwined characteristic of the nature culture relationship is an extremely important aspect to consider when making environmental policy, otherwise the policy will not benefit both sides as much as possible. In regards to question 2, I think that human interaction wtih nature could only be beneficial if it was not changing nature for the betterment of human kind, but for the betterment of nature itself. I don’t know however, if it is possible for humans to better nature moreso than nature already is within its own raw existence. It is obvious that throughout history, the change of nature has usually been for the purpose of human gain rather than nature gain.

  4. To add to Parker’s comment, the complexity of the resilience approach is fascinating, yet overwhelming because there are so many variables in an ecosystem. It also challenges contemporary natural sciences and our way of thinking — which systems are in an equilibrium and linear state. This concept is difficult for me to wrap my head around. Although, this approach definitely seems more realistic for long-term sustainability purposes and for understanding the changing dynamics of ecosystems. The ability for ecosystems to withstand perturbations, re-organize, and regenerate is an example of how ecosystems evolve creating new opportunities. Assuming everything to be linear and in equilibrium is the static view. As stated in Folke’s article “resilience provides adaptive capacity (Smit and Wandel, 2006) that allow for continuous development, like a dynamic adaptive interplay between sustaining and developing with change” (259). Applying the resilience approach will allow for a better understanding of change in our environment that is rapidly occurring.

  5. The implications of the resilience model are a big change to how people look at and research the environment. After the two readings, I am still a little fuzzy on the science behind the whole process and what it involves exactly. It seems however, that although it looks at the environment and human interaction in a multifaceted way, it would be hard to create environmental policy from it. As it follows the constant change in the environment, making policy that is in constant fluctuation as well might not be implementable. Also, if this model better describes relationships in a more accurate way, why isn’t it widely used?

  6. shanewyenn permalink

    I would argue that both definitions of resilience are equally valid and important, however I think we should put more praise on with Folke and Hollings’ definition because I believe that kind of resilience is crucial to the survival of both individual species and ecosystems, especially now given the direction we are heading in, i.e global climate change, overpopulation etc.. I’m pretty sure these issues were not as common of a topic back in the 50’s and 60’s, so it makes sense that the old definition was appropriate, however times they are a changin’. A major reason why so many species are experiencing major population crashes and extinction now is because they were unfortunately unable to adapt and respond to change. Please note that I am not at all saying that it is their fault, I am just saying that their lack of resilience lead to their demise. So, I think, especially now, Folke and Holling’s definition should be the one we stick to because the old definition is outdated given the increased amount of change going on in the world today.

  7. To go along with the second question, I also kept this proposal in mind as i was reading through both of these articles. it seems as though Pimm and Folke are focusing too much on an equillibrium and linear state of ecosystems and their so called “resiliency” to environmental change. However, i have always thought that change was a part of nature and that no one state of being in an ecosystem is its original or natural state. Since ecosystems are such complex structures already, how could we actually define or be aware of an equilibrium? Environmental change is basically a constant in any given situation, and the ways in which certain organisms react to this change depends on the severity and longevity of that disturbance. Things like volcanic eruptions and forest fires are natural phenomena that are great examples of environmental resistance because we know that these have been occurring much longer than we have been around and yet similar landscapes are still around today, regardless of these natural disasters that took place.

  8. Megan Powell permalink

    I found the discussion on resilience particularly interesting because of its relevance to other fields of study beyond anthropology. In psychology (which is my major) resilience is defined as an individual’s ability cope with adversity which I think could be compared more to Holling’s definition of how much time it take for a given ecosystem to recover from significant disturbances. On the other hand, Folke’s definition of resilience, how much a ecosystem can take before it is no longer that same ecosystem, brings up more of a philosophical question (philosophy is my minor): what constitutes a certain entity? How do we define that entity and how much change can the entity undergo before it is no longer that entity any longer? Personally, I think Holling’s definition has more real-world practicality, but the discussion itself certainly brings up the importance of defining a term if there is to be a productive discourse on the subject — if we’re not talking about the same thing, we won’t make any progress.

  9. 242colleencarey permalink

    I define resilience as the ability to proceed, adapt, and exist no matter what’s thrown are you or at a culture for that matter. So I would lean more to Holling and Folke’s definition rather than Pimm’s or the 1950’s and 60s definition. These older definitions are addressing ecosystems as a thing that will always come back to its previous state; this implies that the ecosystem will never change. That is absurd because everything is always adapting, changing and evolving, especially ecosystems. Therefore I think Folke and Holling’s definitions are more accurate on resilience.
    A disturbance in an ecosystem can be good and healthy, although at first it seems like it isn’t.Sometimes ecosystems aren’t in balance and a way in which they return to balance is through disturbances. An example could be that there are too many palm trees on an island and they are taking over other vegetation which is necessary to a culture’s survival. A hurricane uproots some of the palm trees and in years to come, this enables more vegetation to grow.

  10. vcowdrey permalink

    I agree with Shane’s comment that we are witnessing so many species’ populations dramatically declining or going extinct because of their lack of resilience. It is not their fault; resilience is their ability to bounce back after change and does not depend on whether or not they want to, it is whether or not they can. It is their ability to make adjustments. However, we are changing environments rapidly with our need to exploit nature and use it as a resource, and for most species, ourselves included, we are not given enough time to adapt.

  11. amygraceaustin permalink

    The first time I read this article I was very confused, but the conversations we’ve had in class have made this material become a lot clearer to me. In my academic career I don’t envision myself working in the realm of landscape ecology, however I do still see Folke’s discussion of resilience as relevant to my academic (and personal) explorations. I would like to pick apart two quotes I find particularly relevant to this discussion and to my own research.

    Folke says that Holling’s definition of resilience has,
    “…helped me to think about structures and processes in a dynamic fashion, to move away from a steady-state world where change is looked upon as an exception, to confront complexity and uncertainty, and move further into patterns and processes that you cannot directly observe and
    quantify with available data and it has inspired the generation of many exciting hypotheses, and new ones to be explored.”

    I find this quote to be particularly relevant to all of life. I do not understand why human being are so resistant to change, but I for a fact know that I am. Folke explains how Holling’s definition of resilience can help anthropologists and ecologists alike to see the world in a more dynamic state where change is natural. Accepting the inherent qualities of the world we study will enable researchers to delve more authentically into their fieldwork. Change stemming from globalization is often resisted and seen as unnatural, however Folke points out the multiple layers of complexity that are always present. In addressing the patterns and processes that cannot be quantified, Folke is demonstrating the need for qualitative research in a field which has historically been dominated by hard science.

    I also really like that Folke identifies how this definition can be utilized in reference to human populations. Folke writes that, “It has also been used in relation to social change where, for example, Adger (2000) defined social resilience as the ability of human communities to withstand external shocks to their social infrastructure, such as environmental variability or social, economic and political upheaval.” So many articles we’ve read this semester draw a distinction between cultural theories and environmental frameworks, Folke does a great job connecting the two.

  12. Benjamin N. permalink

    Holling’s definition of resilience makes the most sense to me. The ability to respond and absorb a shock makes far more sense than giving nature a defined “set point” that it’s constantly striving for. We live in a constantly changing, constantly evolving world. In light of this, the idea that there is a set point that nature is constantly striving to get back to just doesn’t make sense. Nature is constantly changing and adapting to allow itself to thrive in the light of human interaction. My only question is how far can we push nature before enough is enough?

  13. I really like what Janelle said about the nature-culture interaction and the social-ecological perspective, because I, too, believe that it’s a hard policy to create, if one is to truly keep both these things in mind. I think that, inevitably, all of these things come into play in regards to social and political ecology, and so on some level, everything must be considered, but there is such a delicate balance between right and very wrong when writing policy about environmental issues that I do think that it has to be treated with the utmost respect. In regards to what Folke said about a disturbance to an ecology/environment being healthy, I do believe this can be possible. I think that, if things stay too stagnant, then problems can occur, just as too much change can cause problems. I think that there is room for a little change, because it allows for growth, which is inevitably helpful for the environment and all the little ecosystems involved. I’m not sure entirely if I have a good example of this in our culture, but I do believe that change is a good thing, so long as it’s not drastic.

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