Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience

New LUCID research article in Science AdvancesGraphic by Kevin Black

Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience

Lennart Olsson, Anne Jerneck, Henrik Thorén, Johannes Persson, David O’Byrne

Science Advances 22 May 2015:
Vol. 1 no. 4 e1400217
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400217

Resilience is often promoted as a boundary concept to integrate the social and natural dimensions of sustainability. However, it is a troubled dialogue from which social scientists may feel detached. To explain this, we first scrutinize the meanings, attributes, and uses of resilience in ecology and elsewhere to construct a typology of definitions. Second, we analyze core concepts and principles in resilience theory that cause disciplinary tensions between the social and natural sciences (system ontology, system boundary, equilibria and thresholds, feedback mechanisms, self-organization, and function). Third, we provide empirical evidence of the asymmetry in the use of resilience theory in ecology and environmental sciences compared to five relevant social science disciplines. Fourth, we contrast the unification ambition in resilience theory with methodological pluralism. Throughout, we develop the argument that incommensurability and unification constrain the interdisciplinary dialogue, whereas pluralism drawing on core social scientific concepts would better facilitate integrated sustainability research.

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