The Limits of Community Resilience

The last couple posts I’ve made have had a lot of equations or graphs. I figured it’s time to get back to writing about theory, which is really the motivating reason for creating this website.

The scholarly literature has a number of conceptual frameworks of community resilience to disasters (for example, Berkes 2007Cutter et al. 2008; Norris et al. 2008Bruneau et al., 2003;  Paton and Johnston 2001 . After reviewing five popular conceptual frameworks (including some just cited), Kulig et al. (2013) concluded “that several of them are incongruent, needing conceptual clarification and empirical testing or a determination of their usefulness for assessment, and are not suitable for theoretical development of the concept.” (p. 772)

And I thought I was opinionated.

It’s true though.

If we take theory building seriously, most of the frameworks in the literature fall short. It’s not even clear that most of these frameworks are even aimed at theory building. Many of them don’t say this is an objective. (So, yes, the critique may be unfair.) Proper theory building just doesn’t seem to be that popular amongst researchers taking up the subject of community resilience to disasters.

This state of scholarship is concerning because it may ultimately threaten our ability to make us of the idea of community disaster resilience. In other words, eventually the buzz will die out and it won’t even be a buzzword anymore. Granted, my PhD was all about social theory, but I really think that theoretical advancements are needed so that researchers can make more insightful hypotheses and test them more systematically. I promise this will speed development of better practical stuff that everyone is clambering for (or claiming they can deliver)–metrics, indicators, models, policies, etc.

There are many references out their outlining what theory building is and what proper theory requires. Synthesizing my favorite references such as Whetten (1989)  I think theory requires at least four things: 1) The elements (concepts, constructs, variables) that must be considered to explain the theory, 2) how and why these elements relate, 3) the assumptions underlying the theory, and 4) the limitations for generalizing propositions generated from the theory. A strained analogy might be that chess pieces are elements (1), the chess board define the relationship between the pieces (2), and the rules of the game set out the assumptions and limitations about what can happen.

All the rest of this blog (so far) is dedicated to points 1 and 2 above. In short, I think community disaster resilience has two main concepts: communities and infrastructure. I think community is made up of two constructs: well-being and identity  And I think infrastructure is also made up of two constructs: capitals and services  There are many variables and relationships for and between these constructs.

Most of the frameworks in the literature also hit on points 1 and 2, though they don’t always make clear distinctions between the different theory elements. Also, folks tend to focus more on the elements and less on the relationships between them.

Very few or any papers focus on 3 or 4. All of the above frameworks I cited are missing overt statements of assumptions, boundary conditions, or limits to generalizability of their particular framework. These things are critical, though, for moving from concept (just specifying 1 and 2) to theory (specifying all four).

Although, I really like the geeky side of my work—the analysis and modeling—I’m sure you can guess I like the abstract side too. It’s fun and, like I said, ultimately its necessary and useful.

So what do I think the 3 and 4 are for community disaster resilience? What are the assumptions and limiting boundaries? Well…

The theoretical spatial and conceptual boundary of community disaster resilience is a particular human settlement. The United Nations defines human settlements as “the spatial dimension as well as the physical expression of economic and social activity…no matter how small or physically or economically isolated.” A human settlement is not the same as a jurisdiction like a city or a province. Human settlements have overlapping and disjointed governance (including governments).

Human settlements are really a community of communities.

The focus of community disaster resilience are not human settlements because they provide the theoretical boundary. It’s reasonable to assume that human settlements are infinitely resilient to any one hazard event; they just don’t disappear after a single earthquake, hurricane, or bombing. The focus instead is the resilience of communities within respective human settlements and to what degree their well-being and identity changes (positively or negatively) due to those individual hazard events. So obviously care must be taken in any analysis to clearly define the extent of a human settlement and what distinguishes different communities within that settlement.

The temporal boundary of community disaster resilience is one just large enough to represent a particular community’s recovery from a single hazard event—on the order of years up to maybe a few decades. It’s hard to say precisely without adopting a specific definition of recovery. For me, recovery is minimally when supply and demand are in sufficient balance to promote well-being. This definition probably means a smaller time horizon than, say, the length of time to rebuild downtown Christchurch after the 2010-2011 earthquakes.

The point of setting the temporal boundary is to exclude disturbances with incompatible temporal scales from theoretical consideration and, by extension, analysis. For example, to assess the resilience of Los Angeles to the Northridge earthquake, climate would considered to be fixed. Theoretically, climate change resilience and community disaster resilience are completely different, even if they might share some more applied traits.

Lastly, the idea of community disaster resilience only applies to hazard events that change the states, at least temporarily, of some communities within the human settlement under analysis. If you think about this, it means that communities can never be fully resilient and are perpetually resilient to some degree. This is intuitive because there is always some possible hazard event that will require restoration, reconstruction, and recovery. Empirically, this means that hypothesis about community disaster resilience can only be evaluated using cases where a hazard event has impacted a community. In comparing the resilience of two or more communities, all communities must have suffered damage or loss in order to reach meaningful conclusions about the relative resilience of each community.

This limitation may seem unnecessary but it serves to clearly delineate the idea of vulnerability from resilience. These ideas are unfortunately confused or erroneously seen as opposites The fact that a community does not suffer impacts from a particular event does not mean that the community is universally resilient. And if vulnerability increases after an event, it does not mean the resilience of that community also decreases or was even low to begin with. It is entirely possible that a highly vulnerable community recovers efficiently sufficient.

Now that I’ve written all that, its obvious that these are one amongst an infinite set of assumptions and boundary conditions that can underpin a theoretical framework. This is what makes sense to me and what I see from the literature is necessary to make good progress with implementing and applying the idea of community resilience to disasters. It fits the theoretical elements I discuss on this site and in my published work. This might not be suitable for other conceptual frameworks, but without adoption of this set of assumptions and boundaries or explicit statement of a different set, we’ll continue to fail to build theories of community resilience to disasters.

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