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Panarchy, ontological and epistemological phenomena, and the Plague

Sean Geobey, School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development (SEED), University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario
Katharine A. McGowan, Bissett School of Business, Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta


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Building resilience to major economic, social, and ecological crises such as armed conflict and natural disasters is seen as critical to maintaining system integrity. Although studies of system survival can be used to gauge whether or not social systems are resilient, this can only be conducted in retrospect. Contemporary measures of resilience rely on proxy measures that one can argue build capacity for resilience, but are not direct proxies for resilience itself, except in highly subscribed conditions. This leads us to our key research questions: Can the resilience of a system be measured contemporaneously by those within a social system? What can we learn from past efforts to understand the resilience of social systems by those living through their transformations?

To answer these we examine Europe in the second half of the 14th century, during the outbreak and spread of the Plague through the continent. Through an examination of academic research relying on contemporary accounts during this period, we examine the indicators Europeans used at the time to understand changes in their social-ecological systems. We find a time lag between quantitative indicators of system resilience and the systemic shocks introduced by the Plague. However, narratives from the time suggest that those who experienced the epidemic were trying to develop personal understandings of the social changes around them and collective understandings of how to respond to these crises, both in advance of collecting easily comparable data that could be used for broader administrative purposes. The progression from individual narratives, to common understandings, and finally to comparable data is likely a common process that occurs as those within a social-ecological system make sense of a shift of the system from one arrangement to another.

Key words

complexity; measurement; narrative; resilience

Copyright © 2019 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