An Social Ecology of Resilience
· Fast Food
· Reckless Safety
· Machine Learning
· Human Factors
· Resilience Engineering
Our language gives away our semiosis (construction of meaning) and in such word blends we see some phenomenal contradictions. If we are going to discuss resilience we really need to be using metaphors and language of social ecology, culture and organics.
Social ecology is about relationships. The idea of resilience is better served by the metaphor of an ecology or rhizome (see Deleuze and Guattari, (1987) a thousand plateaus, capitalism and schizophrenia, p. 12ff). A human social ecology is about a complex ‘matting’ of human inter-relationships. I discussed this metaphor recently (https://safetyrisk.net/like-a-rhizome-cowboy/) to help understand the hyper-complexity (wickedity) of human relationships and risk.
So this discussion is about a social ecology of resilience in contradistinction to the reductionist and positivist notion of ‘resilience engineering’. The idea of ‘resilience engineering’ and its mechanistic discourse, is not the only way to understand resilience. Indeed, to criticize the commonly accepted safety understanding of resilience (eg. Hollangel and resilience engineering) is understood as some kind of evil in the church of safety. You can read further about a human and social ecology of resilience in
Bateson, G., (1970) Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity
Bateson, G., (1987) Steps to an Ecology of Mind
Reich, J., et. al., (2010) Handbook of Adult Resilience
Ungar, M., (2012) The Social Ecology of Resilience, A Handbook of Theory and Practice.
You won’t see these reading on the WHS reading list, Safety doesn’t know how to look outside of its restricted and narrow paradigm. To look outside a systems/engineering paradigm would require a trans-disciplinary approach to education and that isn’t about to happen soon in safety.
Bateson understands human relationships cybernetically and particularly, the constraints that systems and technology place upon humans in relationship. Bateson (p. 412) explains the cybernetic method of negative explanation and raises the question: Is there a difference between “being right” and “not being wrong”? Should we say of the rat in a maze that he has “learned the right path” or should we say only that he has learned “to avoid the wrong paths”? This is the challenge of a social ecological understanding of resilience. Bateson proposes that in the face of exposure to a toxic environment humans often seek to return to a state of homeostasis. A social ecology of resilience understands that humans ‘emerge’ and ‘become’ learning persons through an existential dialectic. Resilience needs to be framed through a definition of personhood not the lens of systems.
In response to the post by Phil La Duke I would like to offer some challenges to the safety industry when thinking about resilience. Whilst the work of Johan Bergstrom is helpful and on a good trajectory, there are a number of critical points about resilience that are missing in the blog.
It is good to see that Bergstrom is out there advocating the complexity of Risk Management as a social problem indeed, that risk is a social problem. Most of the models about tackling risk indeed, Risk Management itself, is mostly understood as a mechanical reductionist problem. Just review the work of Risk Management Australia (http://www.rmaaustralia.org/) and you find very little about people and culture. Everything is viewed through the lens of systems. It’s the same old mechanistic/engineering focus like Safety – compliance and control, objects and governance. So, nice to see someone like Bergstrom raising the social flag.
Unfortunately, Bergstrom only understands risk from a notion of complexity rather than an understanding of risk as a ‘wicked problem’. Unless we see risk as an unsolvable problem, a ‘messy’ problem or an intractable problem, we will continually apply the discourse of ‘solutions’ to it as does Bergstrom. In such an approach, in hindsight bias, all accidents and incidents are preventable. Don’t you love it on TV when something bad happens and someone gets up and says; ‘this accident or event was avoidable’. Of course, always easy to be wise after an event, a wonderful denial of the realities of fallibility.
It is good to see that Bergstrom understands unpredictability as essential to understanding risk and that resilience is essential to such an understanding. However, thinking that ‘solutions’ can be found in unlimited preparation and ‘get ready’ campaigns is again a denial of fallibility, randomness and mortality. Risk is not a mathematical problem and resilience is not an engineering problem. The idea that one can ‘engineer resilience’ is a nonsense. Such language is absurd if one understands risk as a social ecology, social-psychological, socio-political and wicked problem.
It is interesting in Berstrom’s talk that he defines resilience as an ‘optimistic belief’. Again, great to see someone recognize the religious and faith-based nature of the risk management sector. All risk requires a ‘leap of faith’ otherwise the action to be taken involves no risk. If the outcome is known, then there is no risk. Uncertainty, randomness and fallibility are what turns risk into learning. Fallible people in a random world need risk in order to live and learn, if humans had all knowledge then there would be no risk in the world and we would no longer be human.
So what is a Social Ecology of Resilience? Here are just a few ideas worth consideration.
· The first thing to understand about an ecology of resilience is that individualist and systemic models of resilience alone don’t make sense. Unless one understands resilience as socially and culturally situated, it will always be the message of ‘bounce back’, ‘better systems’ or ‘pull yourself up by your boot laces’. Without a social, communal and cultural understanding (see Real Risk http://www.humandymensions.com/product/real-risk/) individualist and systemic strategies in resilience will always avoid the elephant in the room – people and personhood.
· A social ecological understanding of resilience doesn’t understand resilience as some capability to ‘bounce back’. There is no ‘bouncing back’ rather; there is only change, learning and maturation. Resilience develops through an existential dialectical (Ellul), or as some philosophers describe it, as a process of ‘non-return’. Experience and ‘becoming’ are never about a return but rather about learning and maturation. In all dialectic the negative (cybernetic) is understood as contributing to the shaping and movement towards something new. In a social ecology of resilience the idea of ‘failure’ from a position of having ‘arrived’, doesn’t make sense. In a social ecology there is no ‘drift’ only emergence (see Letiche and Lissack, (2011) Coherence in the Midst of Complexity, Advances in Social Complexity Theory).
· Resilience is developed ‘through’ adversity and ‘in’ adversity not prior to adversity. The adversity doesn’t ‘prove’ resilience but rather the event is most often the ‘making’ of resilience. This is why resilience can’t be engineered and why such a metaphor as ‘engineering’ is a strange metaphor to use in understanding human resilience. (see further Ricoeur, P., (1975) The Rule of Metaphor).
· The tools for a social ecology of resilience are opposed to ‘technique’ (see Ellul and the quest for total efficiency) in all its forms. Being present with people in adversity isn’t about ‘controlling’ or ‘resourcing’ but rather about ‘presence’ and ‘emergence’. This is where the importance of the community and communality come in. Resilience develops best when one understands maturity as an emergent quality that is socially situated.
· We know that tightly coupled systems constrain the development of resilience (Weick) and make organizing more fragile. Why then do Hollangel, Wood and Leveson (2006) advocate tightly coupled systems (p. 348) as a method for resilience engineering??? Similarly the preoccupation with redundancy is also a strategy for fragility??? How does a tightly coupled metaphor with a reductive focus (engineering) foster thinking about adaptability through loosely coupled systems to evolve in anti-fragility (Taleb)?
· An ecological understanding of resilience resists the deterministic assumptions of positivism most common in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) knowledge. If safety continues to look for strategies in STEM knowledge, nothing will change, just more of the same with better spin. This is why a trans-disciplinary approach to safety offers hope for the industry to one day become professional.
There is much more that could be discussed in the notion of a social ecology of resilience but I might leave that for another blog.
I would like to finish with a quote from Ungar (p. 21) with a much better definition of the nature of resilience through personhood than through systems.
Behaviors we associate with resilience (like staying in school, or associating with non-delinquent peers) are a function of the person and his or her strengths and challenges expressed within a complex ecology. The emphasis on both strengths and challenges makes explicit findings from studies of resilience that show it is a combination of personal advantages and disadvantages that influence life trajectories … By theorizing resilience as a social ecological construct, this same post-positivism and subjectivity can be accounted for. Thinking ecologically, researchers studying resilience acknowledge variability in the definition of what constitutes the individual’s environment (does the researcher include measures of family functioning, school engagement, community cohesion, neighborhood stability, or political empowerment?). The individual’s strengths and challenges are also understood as contextually dependent for their definition as they are expressions of culturally embedded values that influence the co-construction of what is meant by successful coping and risk’.
We see here such a different form of language, discourse and thinking about resilience than the model proposed by the engineering worldview. Perhaps one day we Safety might discover the value of making systems serve people rather than people serve systems.