Resilience is a hot topic

By Liza C. Kurtz

Community resilience as a concept has exploded into the academic literature in recent years (e.g., Adger et al., 2005; Barrios, 2014; Cutter et al.,2008; Cutter, Burton and Emrich, 2010; Fois and Forino, 2014; MacKinnon and Derickson, 2013; Matyas and Pelling, 2015, etc.), providing researchers with a complex theoretical structure for examining disasters. It is also of increasing importance to international agendas, such as the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action, and national disaster management policies, including the United States’ 2010 National Security Strategy and Canada’s National Disaster Mitigation Strategy. These policies can be considered a mandate for emergency and disaster management professionals to consider resilience in their work (Cutter, Burton and Emrich, 2010), yet little research has examined how theories of resilience are used by these professionals, or how community resilience is identified and produced ‘on the ground’ (Aldunce, Beilin, Handmer and Howden, 2014). This article presents preliminary results from an ongoing qualitative study investigating how resilience theory and policy are changing (or not) the practice of disaster mitigation, response, and recovery.

Research Methods

The author conducted nine semi-structured interviews with emergency preparedness and disaster management professionals, as well as those in related professions, in the state of Tennessee, USA. The final sample included emergency managers, an emergency management planner, a city manager, an urban planning director, persons in managerial positions with disaster relief organizations, a deputy fire chief, and a public health official. Recruitment took place through email; a response rate of 43% was achieved after follow-up. The interviews took approximately 60 minutes, and included open-ended questions on the definition of community resilience and queries about how the informant’s organization increased resilience in their area of jurisdiction.

Results

The diverse professional roles in the sample meant that a variety of approaches to community resilience were represented in the data; however, despite the distinct experiences of the informants, several themes emerged from these interviews:

  • Informants couched their discussions of resilience-building in language that was already relevant to the responsibilities of their organizations: thus, for many of them, community resilience was conceptually linked to pre-existing demands for preparedness or continuity of operations. The increase of resilience language in research and policy was not disruptive to the standard model of management—instead, resilience was subsumed into ‘business as usual’;
  • Resilience is often conceptualized in the academic literature as spanning a broad range of domains, including economic and social capital, environment, and governance. Four informants touched on these topics briefly, but only one respondent substantively engaged with them by outlining how their organization meshed with these larger structures. Community demographics, a potentially vital part of measuring resilience (Cutter, Burton and Emrich, 2010), was mentioned by all respondents, but these demographics were framed in terms of vulnerability and preparedness rather than resilience per se;
  • When asked who was tasked with stewarding resilience in their organization, all informants responded that it was the responsibility of “everyone” to foster resilience, but added that there were no formal organizational roles that they were aware of assigned with creating or sustaining community resilience explicitly;
  • Similarly, when discussing how their organizations monitored their community’s capacity for resilience, informants were unaware of any programs in place to assess resilience. This research gap also extended to other areas they identified as related, including preparedness. One informant indicated that, in the current climate of funding scarcity, their organization chose to spend their limited resources on priorities other than data-gathering;
  • Eight of the nine informants, in response to an open-ended question about how community resilience should be prioritized among competing organizational demands, suggested that organizations should be paying more attention to community resilience.

Resilience “On the Ground”: Discussion and Implications for Practitioners

The interviews with this small sample of professionals problematize prior community resilience research:the cohesive, holistic nature of resilience, as defined in the literature, seems to be inaccessible to or simply outside the purview of most emergency and disaster management organizations. The disconnect between theory and practice manifested most when informants were discussing how they addressed community resilience within their organizations. The increasing prominence of community resilience was not perceived as a paradigm shift in the approach of these organizations; instead, informants understood resilience as a secondary function of a more explicit requirement already being fulfilled (such as preparedness). This siloed interpretation is at odds with much of the resilience literature, which emphasizes a highly integrated framework that crosses boundaries between civic life and social capital, environment, and economic structures (Aldunce, Beilin, Handmer and Howden, 2014; Cutter et al.,2008; Murphy, 2007; Norris et al.,2008). Overall, it is clear that, for these informants, resilience-building often takes place after the fact, amidst a patchwork of related strategies, but it is rarely pursued by name. Without further research with practitioners, it is impossible to tell if this fractured approach is due to a conservative, response-based paradigm, or if there are structural barriers— a lack of funding for more extensive programs being the most obvious of these possible barriers. The willingness of informants to prioritize resilience, however, may demonstrate a desire for greater engagement with a broader definition of community resilience in their planning and operations.

Conclusion

Although preliminary, these results provide a glimpse of the contrasts between academic understandings of resilience and the work of disaster management. It is easy to be critical of this academic-practitioner gap, but the divide may create opportunities for collaboration and collective knowledge generation. Problems of practical application and measurement are acknowledged in the community resilience literature (Bruneau et al.,2003; Chang and Shinozuka, 2004; Cutter, Burton and Emrich, 2010; Rose, 2011; Singh-Peterson, Salmon, Goode and Gallina, 2014), and further research with embedded practitioners could help delineate what forms an applied knowledge of resilience might take. Likewise, community resilience’s prominence in policy and research could provide funding, and political will for a reworking of the resilience idea within professional disaster management organizations. In either case, bringing professionals and practitioners into the resilience dialogue is a critical first step in expanding and solidifying understandings of community resilience.

Bio: Liza C. Kurtz is a Global Health PhD student at Arizona State University, working on research related to community resilience, disaster management, and bridging the academic-policy-practitioner divide. She holds a M.A. from Arizona State University and a B.S. from Austin Peay State University.

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