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“An Exploratory Framework for the Empirical Measurement of Resilience”

by on November 14, 2011

“An Exploratory Framework for the Empirical Measurement of Resilience” by G. S. Cumming et. al. is an article regarding resilience, identity, and the social-ecological system. This piece emphasizes the importance on understanding the complexity and dynamics that come into play when linking ecological and social systems. Their theories and ideas revolve around the concept that resilience can be managed and studied to become predictable, plausible, and manageable. For this article, Cumming and his partners blatantly take the Hollings resilience approach by citing him on the first page. “Resilience has been defined as (1) the amount of change that a system can undergo while still maintaining the same controls on structure and function; (2) the system’s ability to self organize; and (3) the degree to which the system is capable to learning and adaptation” (975).  Cumming et. al. explains that resilience is dependent on the system’s ability to maintain its identity, or the key components and relationships through networks and their consistency or continuity through space and time (975).  The authors then continue to explain policy makers and managers can use their ideas to identify and understand resilience better.

The authors move on to explain the relationship between identity and resilience. The writers believe that common definitions of resilience often lead to inaccurate or distorted ideas, to avoid this, they created there own “novel view of resilience as the ability of the system to maintain its identity in the face of internal change and external shocks and disturbances” (976). Cumming et. al. continues to discuss what identity means. They argue that identity is dependent on four ideas: (1) the components that make up the system; (2) the relationships between components; (3) the ability of both components and relationships to maintain themselves continuously through space and time; and (4) innovation and self-organization (976). They continue to explain that “components that make up the system” include various things that interact with humans. For instance, a range from particular ecosystems and goods/materials used to abiotic variable and knowledge base. This piece also argues that if the identity is maintained and its essential attributes remain the same, then the system can be considered resilient.

The authors then continue to explain their hypothesis regarding the resilience theory. They created an approach with five central elements to fully test their beliefs and ideas regarding resilience and identity. (1) Define Current System: this stage includes a “clear definition of the identity of the system” (979).  They characterize these identities by conceptualizing the four essential system attributes and select variables that are most likely to change within them (980). (2) Define Possible Future Systems—Same & Different Identities: here the authors construct a number of plausible future identities for each study system, creating scenarios that are possible and conceivable outcomes (983). (3) Clarify Change Trajectories: this step is done simultaneously during step 2, but it entails the defining of the main causes of change in the system of properties of interest (983). (4) Assess Likelihoods of Alternate Futures: this step involves assessing the roles and alternative futures that can possibly occur, and analyze any loss to identity and properties to it (984). (5) Identify Mechanisms and Levers for Change: the final stage of Cumming et. al. approach involves searching for a deeper understand of the key factors or mechanisms that determine the strength of resilience at the certain place at hand.


1) Cumming and his partners admitted there is some subjectivity to their approach and on the analysis of resilience in general. Do you think their approach could limit their research results and make the study even more subjective?

2) Do you feel Cumming et. al. attempted to categorize resilience and identity too much, making the complexity of resilience harder to understand?

3) Do you think that the incorporation of the system of identity into the study and analysis of resilience is beneficial to research?


















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  1. alannadore permalink

    In regards to question three, I think that the definition of resilience according to Hollings is dependent upon the incorporation and analysis of identity. The system of identity gives the study of resilience a basis for which to develop their analysis. I thought that though this definition of resilience was extremely structured and therefore somewhat limiting, it was a good way for them to define resilience so as to help them further their analysis of ecological systems’ abilities of maintaining their essence while being subjected to evolution. I think that the incorporation makes sense and that their basis for the definition for identity, the four aspects of it, were supported well in their argument. It seemed like the authors had used the four bases of identity well in order to argue how resilience is defined as the ability of a system to hold to its nature (or identity) throughout change. Over all, I thought this article was a good approach to Holling’s idea of resilience, and that the specificity of their argument fit his well.

  2. In my opinion, reading this article confused me more on the idea of resilience just because there are so many aspects of it. However, I did appreciate the introduction of the idea of identity which cleared up some of my initial overwhelmed confusion. The idea of resilience and its relatively fluid definition make it a very hard concept to grasp but these authors did a pretty good job of laying it out. The table on page 977, when they incorporated a few examples, was helpful in narrowing down the different aspects of their resilience definition as well as the incorporation of identity. Overall, I think that Cumming’s team did a really good job of tying all the aspects of resilience in with the concept of identity in a clearer way than I initially expected.

  3. 242colleencarey permalink

    I think this is an in depth approach and is worth implementing when people are analyzing resilience in areas. Their steps to unveil a place of culture’s resilience is in depth and thorough. As for being subjective, I think their approach will be less subjective because they are taking so many things into account and that leaves less room for opinion and being subjective.
    They lay out their categories of resilience and identity well and clearly. I had no trouble understanding what their view of resilience and identity was.
    I think that incorporating the system of identity is VERY beneficial. When one is talking about the resilience of a place or area, what parts are you referring to? What parts are resilient? Are some more resilient than others? That being said, incorporating what’s being addressed by the four ideas of identity, answers all these questions and provides a more in depth approach.

  4. I thought it was interesting that Cumming admitted that subjectivity is needed in order to construct the identity of the system. I think this point is symbolic of the complexity of the resilience model. There are so many directions in which to go, subjectivity is needed to condense ideas and make sense out of the situation. He states how key it is so create an identity that is different than the components that change the system. Although I agree with him, I feel like the separation is very convoluted and unclear. Maybe that’s why he calls for subjectivity. All and all I think this model would work great in a perfect world, but the complication of the world in which we live along with the complexity of the resilience model don’t quite add up for me. An obvious example is the fact that there are so many ways to go about the resilience model. If everyone is approaching environmental research with their own definitions, will they be able to piece all their research puzzle pieces together?

  5. Summer Rose W permalink

    Reading the article, I became more confused about what resilience is. Remembering back to class when we talked about different definitions for resilience it made sense to me then with the picture example of the springing toy… As confused as I was with the many different definitions of resilience, I felt that the authors did a really good job of writing the article so that it was fairly easy to follow what they were saying. The conclusion really pulled together everything that was said in the article. Though I was confused because of the many definitions of resilience, I think I have a better understanding overall of how it is used in different situations.

  6. Fred Reisen permalink

    I am happy the authors at least made a clear statement on the existence of their subjectivity and did not try to pretend like they were perfect objective researchers. In the article they kept stating that they would focus on particulars areas of interest while determining factors influencing change either negatively of positively and that these areas would be chosen a priori. I have some worries about this approach in that perhaps they might focus on factors that turn out not to matter as much and their time and energy will not be very well spent. I also was concerned with the time scale they are working on and whether or not their research would be useful by the time they came to some strong conclusions. Development in their locations of study are happening so fast around the world that I worry that by the time they finish in one spot the resilience of so many other placing will have already been exceeded and I wonder whether the drivers will change through the next stages of development.

  7. Cumming’s use of identity to simplify an understanding of resilience reminds me of an article I found when doing research for my final paper. It is about a small community in Argentina that uses radio programming to connect their people. They are able to maintain their culture’s history through sharing things like ancestral legends and family narratives; this is an example of maintaining an identity among people who have been spread to other areas.

    The article is:

    Carcamo-Huechante, Luis E., and Nicole Delia Legnani. “Voicing differences: Indigenous and urban radio in Argentina, Chile, and Nigeria..” New Directions for Youth Development . 2010.125 (2010): 33-47.

  8. amygraceaustin permalink

    Cumming et. al. starts the article by saying that, “Deliberate progress towards the goal of long-term
    sustainability depends on understanding the dynamics of linked social and ecological systems.” While I agree with many of my classmates that this article was dense and confusing, I think the complexity of it is necessary because of what he sets out to argue. What I appreciate about this article is how he breaks it down into concrete chunks, or steps. Through combining theory and practice he really outlines what it would take to see sustainable change. I also like how his creates the framework to serve interdisciplinary purposes. He says, “Our approach is transitive, because people can apply the identity framework in Table 1 in other systems to guide the selection of measures that, collectively, should capture system identity and allow quantitative tracking of identity change aspects of the study system are not identifiably separate.” The truth is, questions of identity and resilience are not static within the natural realm. In order for change to happen, theory needs to be transformed into praxis and that is what Cumming et. al. is beginning to do.

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