Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Patrick Sakdapolrak

Patrick Sakdapolrak

Patrick Sakdapolrak is a research group leader at the University of Bonn, where he is currently heading two research projects on the migration-environment nexus. He holds a PhD in Geography from Bonn. His research is concerned with the question of how vulnerable groups live with risk. He has conducted empirical research in Thailand, India, and Kenya. CONTACT

Apr 25th 2015 by Patrick Sakdapolrak

What is Social Resilience?

A single fragile flower grows out of dried and cracked earth. A google picture search for the term “resilience” show multiple variations of this image. If you search for “social resilience” variations of the image of interlocked hands show up again and again. How do these images represent our notion of resilience?

In a recent blog post (“Resilience to Climate Change – Are we talking about the same thing?”), Hartmut Fünfgeld argued that term “resilience” shows up in a plethora of fields and has many meanings. Further, resilience comes with a lot of descriptive baggage: including, engineering resilience, ecological resilience, social-ecological resilience, psychological resilience, cultural resilience, community resilience, livelihoods resilience, among others. For the TransRe project, we’ve chosen to analyze “social resilience.” Through this, we focus on individuals, households, and communities in rural Thailand and the ways they deal with threats. How do the images of the single flower and the many hands correspond to our understanding of social resilience? What do we mean by it?

Two years ago my colleague Markus Keck and I have reviewed the state of the art on social resilience in a special issue on "Risk and Resilience in Asian Megacities" and outlined our understanding of the concept.

Social resilience is about the abilities of social entities
to tolerate, absorb, cope with & adjust to threats

What is Social Resilience?

Social resilience is about social entities and their abilities to tolerate, absorb, cope with and adjust to environmental and social threats of various kinds. The development of the concept of social resilience started with a rather unspecific understanding of social resilience as the capacity to respond, which then evolved to incorporate notions of learning and adaptation to form a composite definition, which includes the acknowledgement of the importance of the roles played by power, politics, and participation in the context of increasing uncertainty and surprise.

Three Capacities of Social Resilience

Three types of capacities are necessary for understanding the notion of social resilience in its full meaning:

1. Coping capacities address “re-active” (ex-post) and “absorptive” measures of how people cope with and overcome immediate threats by the means of those resources that are directly available.
2. Adaptive capacities refer to the “pro-active” (ex-ante) or “preventive” measures that people employ to learn from past experiences, anticipate future risks and adjust their livelihoods accordingly.
3. Transformative capacities encompass people’s ability to access assets and assistance from the wider socio-political arena, to participate in decision-making processes, and to craft institutions that both improve their individual welfare and foster societal robustness toward future crises.

Social Resilience - By What Means?

As social resilience is closely related to the idea of capacity, a crucial determinant of social resilience is the endowment of different kinds of assets, e.g. economic capital, physical capital, natural capital, human capital, etc. However, against the background in which assets are widely acknowledged to be products of social relations, social capital and social networks are recognized as playing a key role in building and maintaining social resilience. It is therefore a key issue which is addressed by the TransRe Project.

Institutions, which are broadly understood as rules and norms that both structure and are structured by social practices, fundamentally determine the structure and distribution of assets and access to them.

Social networks play a key role in building and
maintaining social resilience

Institutions are an expression of (unequal) power relations within a society, and are therefore, another key determinant of social resilience. A crucial aspect is also the power to define what is perceived as a threat or disaster and what is not. When it comes to transformative change and the question of what future sustainable pathways may look like, the question by whom, for what purpose, and with what consequences are important to address.

These are complex notions. So then how does the simple image of a single flower growing out of dried and cracked earth pertain to “social resilience”? Certainly, there are many similarities: the ability to hold ground under adverse conditions; the ability to even grow and propser under these conditions. But to be truly resilient, you do not do it alone. Thus, the additional popular image of interlocked hands may give us insight -- it shows us that many supporting hands are often necessary for growth and prosperity. Understanding these overlapping features helps the TransRe Project understand the “social resilience” of individuals, households, and communities in rural Thailand and the ways they deal with threats, in a more comprehensive and systematic way.

Image Credit: MC Journal; TransRe/Naruchaikusol; Youtube