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Systemic resilience: principles and processes for a science of change in contexts of adversity

Michael Ungar, Dalhousie University


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Despite the increasing popularity of discussions of resilience in disciplines as diverse as ecology, psychology, economics, architecture, and genetics (among many others), researchers still lack a conceptual model to explain how the resilience of one system relates to the resilience of other cooccurring systems. Models that explain resilience within a single system are more robust and better studied. Although some researchers argue that both ontological and epistemological weaknesses prevent such an integrated model from being developed (the incommensurability hypothesis), others have carried out metasyntheses using techniques like network citation analysis to identify common principles and processes that are associated with resilience across disciplines. Although useful, metasyntheses have yet to identify sufficient commonalities across bodies of research to account for a single model of resilience. This paper adapts methods used for the thematic synthesis of qualitative data to critically analyze metasyntheses of resilience and identify principles that explain patterns of resilience of different systems (biological, psychological, social, cultural, economic, legal, communication, and ecological systems are all considered). Sixteen purposefully selected published syntheses were reviewed, along with dozens of other supporting peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, supplemented by consultations with knowledge experts. Seven common principles across systems were identified. These include: (1) resilience occurs in contexts of adversity; (2) resilience is a process; (3) there are trade-offs between systems when a system experiences resilience; (4) a resilient system is open, dynamic, and complex; (5) a resilient system promotes connectivity; (6) a resilient system demonstrates experimentation and learning; and (7) a resilient system includes diversity, redundancy, and participation. Where evidence refutes a principle, discordant findings are highlighted. Together, these principles account for resilience as a sequence of systemic interdependent interactions through which actors (whether persons, organisms, or ecosystems) secure the resources required for sustainability in stressed environments.

Key words

common principles; disaster management; ecology; psychology; resilience; social-ecological systems; systemic

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087