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Resilient mind, body, organization, or social landscape all together? Guest blog by Guven Peter Witteveen


In 2016 I traded my ethnographic toolbox for one in the field of disaster planning and emergency management. Most practitioners come to this field from other starting points, so I am in good company here in rural west Japan. Some of the research centers here and elsewhere on the planet identify resilience as their main subject and disaster risk reduction as something that follows from this primary pursuit. A prominent example is the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, and in Japan there is the Resilience Research Council of Japan,, for example. In USA at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, there is the Security and Resilience Studies program. And the international meeting place for government and non-government groups concerned with building up community resilience is online at The word roots go back to the Latin, from re- “back” + salire “to jump, leap.” Like the flexibility contained in the word roots, the flexible ways that people use the word resilient stretches from literal elasticity to figurative ability to rebound in an abstract sort of way. In February 2017 a research article appeared and reviewed dozens of publications in which resilience is a central subject, “What Do We Mean by ‘Community Resilience’? A Systematic Literature Review of How It Is Defined in the Literature.” This article sheds light on the spectrum of this concept. The nine lexical fields that overlap in the 615 surveyed publications are (in no particular order) (1) local knowledge, (2) community networks and relationships, (3) communication, (4) health, (5) governance and leadership, (6) resources, (7) economic investment, (8) preparedness, and (9) mental outlook. These dominant meanings for “resilience” are what I will look at during my recent foray into Japanese society and disaster response planning and practice.

Analytically it seems that the qualities bound up with the concept of resilience can be isolated, measured, and strengthened as components and thus to boost the whole. One can begin by identifying the physical elements that comprise resilience for a group of people belonging to a given environment or who are facing a particular challenge: material resilience includes things like sustenance, shelter, communication and medical care. Next there are organizational elements that go into the resulting level of resilience: things like leadership, reserves of memory and goodwill to work with others, whether stranger or friend. Finally, there are mindset or outlook and attitudes that layer together with the physical and organizational (or social) elements that comprise resiliency: things like hope, confidence, ability to visualize a good ending. The upshot of the article, above, is that “resilience” by itself is too broad and multi-sided to be helpful in understanding the several phenomena meant by “resilient.” Beyond the meanings alone, perhaps it is necessary to factor in the risk peculiarities that face the group of people since each kind of risk will cause them to use up their reserves in different ways: for example, the group of people may be well resilient to changes in climate, livelihoods, or tone of discourse that is circulating in the news media. But taken all together in combination, perhaps the resiliency goes down. Or in another situation perhaps adversity against individuals in the group can be countered collectively, but a broad attack on the whole group may result in less rebound and recovery than it would be for individual members. In any case the conditions to build up resilience are worth examining, as are the types of things that degrade resilience of a community at the level of household, neighborhood, or entire city district.

In the middle 1990s my fieldwork on local history museums led me to work with a citizen movement in rural west Japan as they engaged the local city government to make sure the budgeted museum creation was not steered off course by the mayor at the time. There was scandal that took me into the field of civil society, where I learned the 3-way distinction of ‘hardware’, ‘software’, and ‘heartware’ [Japanese-made English terms written in katakana]. These correspond to the physical, social, and mental/emotional elements of a project. In contrast to the typical interaction of citizen group to city hall in Japan, the people that I worked with expressed great reserves of resilience: at the individual level more were middle age or older, with life experiences widely engaged in various sectors of the society, and most had professional and/or college education. So the two dozen most active people in the group were well equipped in terms of cultural capital (fluent communication in persuasive meanings, symbols, styles, examples), social capital (bank of contacts to call upon; procedural knowledge for Japanese society in general, and the local town’s figures in particular), emotional capital (well-adjusted and able to speak out publicly or privately, according to conditions), and financial capital (wherewithal to pay incidental costs relating to the citizen movement; some latitude in using their time). Having breadth and depth of cultural resources, social and language know-how, available time and money, and the mental/emotional capacity for sustained effort despite obstacles and adversity all added up to the group bringing the scandal to its conclusion, the befouled mayor fleeing the field, and one of their own taking his place. Eventually the local history museum was completed, a new system for Freedom of Information requests was put in place, and support for all NPO (non-profit organizations) around the city was increased with a view to making government more transparent, decisions more accountable to citizens, and involvement by citizens more vigorous. In many ways the legacy of the late 1990s has persisted now into 2017, although some of the bad old ways have crept back in as leadership has changed and high-handedness comes into play occasionally by elected officials.

What is true for a group of people in a citizen movement also is true for responding to disasters. In both cases the group of people and their reserves are challenged by circumstances. Being able to recognize that there is an attack, communicating well both internally and externally, organizing available resources and remedies, and then persistence to overcome the difficulty (either by sheer sustained efforts and commitment, or by creatively reframing and trialing work-arounds) are the things needed for successfully facing the problem and rebuilding the reserves for resilience. Readers may perhaps look at their own household or workplace and find this same experience of resilience is true, as well: expending one’s reserves, but building back better with help from others and in the fullness of time. This constant ebb and flow of challenges and response are hallmarks of social life on a planet of many seasons and ecosystems. What maybe is different now is the pace of changes to society, livelihoods, physical mobility and communication bandwidth (exposed to more, able to reach out a long way, expectations for quicker results). The organizing principle of “extreme weather events” can be applied equally well to the social climate – disruption, dislocation, discomfort have been with us before, but now these are more frequent and they occur in at a bigger scale in our separate lives and in our collective lives. So it is worth understanding the roots of resilience and how to grow them better than before.

Links List:

Security and Resilience Studies program at Northeastern University,

Resilience Research Council of Japan,

Zilient , NGOs, INGOs, academia, government, and the private sector]

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience,

What Do We Mean by ‘Community Resilience’? A Systematic Literature Review of How It Is Defined in the Literature FEBRUARY 1, 2017

What Do We Mean by ‘Community Resilience’? A Systematic Literature Review of How It Is Defined in the Literature

Guven’s Biography:

Outreach is the third part of the university mission for creating knowledge (research), maintaining it (teaching), and using it (service; practical application). This engagement between expertise and the wider public is Guven’s career road: he is building a systematic approach to the work of outreach education to discover the relative merits of each form it takes in order to improve the visibility, usability and results among the communities being served. His training in ethnographic methods, documentary skills at producing multimedia and his work with museums and international centers provides a map for this career path. He is eager to assess and advise organizations about how better to reach out to their audiences.

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