Resilience – A More Discursive Topic Than It Might Seem

Martin Hinz, Institute of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland

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The afternoon of the second day of the TRAVAS workshop was structured by the use of interactive group work in the style of a World Café, where various virtual tables were used to discuss resilience, vulnerability and their connection to ancient studies. In the process, different formats for the visualisation and processing of the topics emerged. The following essay summarises the results of one of these tables, although this is not done in the form of a strict results protocol; rather, I have tried to paraphrase and summarise the discussion domains and topics.

Resilience of What and for Whom

At table 1, we discussed the concept of resilience and aimed to sort through and dissect the known definitions. The most commonly cited definition is that of the ability of a system to withstand external shocks while maintaining the basic functioning of the system in its present form. It is thus clear that the term ‘resilience’ is to be understood in the context of responses to these external shocks. In our discussion, we have found that it is not so much the shock itself that causes a reaction. Rather, it is, above all, the uncertainties that arise from the changed conditions due to the influence of such unforeseen events that make a reaction of any kind necessary and provoke it. If this reaction is caused by the experience of such an event, and this can thus be understood as a historical or learning process, then this reaction will first and foremost result in ways of acting that make it possible to operate successfully despite uncertain circumstances (fig. 1). These individual reactions can be understood in the sense of an agency of the acting entities, since in many cases the reactions refer to the specific preceding event and anticipate the same event as a repetition, but often lead to an adaptation of the overall system, which can consequently increase its resilience to events of a comparable nature.

Fig. 1a: Storehouses built on stilts to cope with recurring changes of water levels on the shore of the Nidelva River, Trondheim, Norway (Melina Kiefer, unsplash).

Fig. 1b: After the storm: beach houses on stilts and flood-damaged shore area on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, USA, 2021 (Yohan Marion, unsplash).

Furthermore, the character of ‘resilience’ was discussed. We concluded that resilience is neither a purely epistemological nor a purely essentialist object. It is essentialist in the sense that it is a collection of different acquired or pre-existing characteristics tied to an entity that gives rise to and enables comparable coping strategies under comparable conditions. At the same time, however, it is also an epistemological object, since resilience as such is neither tangible nor observable, but can only ever be derived from the reactions that are created and their success in the face of uncertain situations. It follows that an evaluation criterion depends on the outcome of such coping, and the evaluation of this outcome can only ever be subjective. Therefore, objective measurements for resilience can only exist as an epistemological tool.

In general, as already indicated by the most commonly used definition (see above), the entities for which resilience can be postulated are usually seen as systems. In our discussion, we agreed that such a perspective may be justified in the case of collective entities but, even in this case, it is not always the appropriate approach. Emergent phenomena are difficult to do justice to under such a perspective. In contrast, discrete entities (which can be equated with individuals in most cases) should only be understood as systems under special conditions. In an area with this level of granularity, psychological effects have a very strong influence on the individual courses of action and strategy choices that are used to cope with crisis situations.

Resilience in the Context of Scientific Discourse

Another point of discussion was the question of the conceptualisations and possible descriptions of different trajectories of individual entities concerning the historical dimension of a crisis management situation. In discussing these possible directions of development, we used, but also questioned, the common range of terms such as resistance, resilience, transformation, adaptation. Due to our common scientific background, currently dominated and determined by a ‘Western’ perspective, these terms and their meaning were very familiar to us, although we were aware that this can be seen and understood completely differently by others with different/various backgrounds. In addition, we note that these terms are difficult to apply to abrupt changes in the sense of qualitative radical changes or stagnation processes, and that these processes have so far been given too little consideration in the current discussion in the historical sciences. This is certainly due above all to the fact that in a historical perspective the temporal scales are often very coarse, so we are usually tempted to assume a continuous development between the individual data points that are available to us.

The concept of adaptation, in particular, gave rise to some potential for discussion. We agreed on the view that adaptation is located in a field of thought that has evolutionary, in the worst case targeted evolutionary, foundations. Such a perspective, and such a philosophical background, can strongly influence, narrow and steer the assessment of a situation of a historical process in a certain direction. From an evolutionary perspective that is so much more targeted, the adaptation process would then be seen as progress. And if we consider the interpretation of historical circumstances in terms of adaptation, it becomes clear that it is precisely this idea of progress that often has an influence here. If, on the other hand, one does not want to understand evolution in a goal-oriented way, as, incidentally, modern biology usually does, then adaptation can rather be placed in a word field together with the term ‘persistence’. This is where adaptation and resilience become adaptive to each other. Conversely, one must be aware that resilience means more than balance. However, this term is often used in connection with notions of equilibrium, and thus stability. However, since resilience represents the persistence of an entity under changing circumstances, it is questionable whether such equilibrium thinking is applicable at all. 

Research Strategies Towards Resilience 

In the study of resilience, two opposing research strategies are possible: either one starts from the drivers of insecurity situations and examines what impact these can have on historical trajectories, or one starts from the vulnerability of individual entities and looks at how these have led to different outcomes in the course of history. In considering both strategies, we were unable to reach a clear decision for or against one or the other. As is often the case, the appropriate research strategy depends on the given research questions, the available data and other strategies in the research environment. In this context, the view from the drivers promotes deterministic thinking, and this must be critically assessed and questioned accordingly when interpreting the research results. The focus on vulnerability, on the other hand, strengthens the individual and the individual process in the interpretation but suffers from the difficulty that a subjective evaluation plays an even greater role here compared to the other strategy. In both cases, it is, therefore, necessary, if possible, to take the other perspective as well.

Another area of debate is the question of the extent to which quantitative methods, models and interpretive approaches adopted from other sciences are useful and promising for the study of resilience. The tenor was that the use of such models can have a positive structuring effect on investigations, because they require relational and specific thinking at the same time, and they thus make it possible to place the individual historical case in a larger context and make it usable for the investigation of higher-level phenomena. On the other hand, such prefabricated structures of investigation always bring presuppositions and preconditions into the interpretation. In addition, they naturally promote an etic point of view and can have the effect that the evaluation patterns of those affected by insecurity, who represent the ‘object of investigation’, are given less influence in the interpretation. It is precisely here that care must be taken to ensure that no colonial structures are built up or reinforced by such patterns of enquiry. Therefore, the models used must be applied appropriately and only under appropriate conditions. On the other hand, especially in the field of historical science, and archaeology in particular, it is very helpful to find blanks in our data, especially when it comes to non-material phenomena, to which resilience very obviously belongs. But it is important to remember that there is no truth in historical research, nor in the application of models in particular. Truth as reality can  only be experienced by those affected by an insecure situation and in their coping with it. Thus, if models are very helpful in contextualising individual observations in an overall web of realities, the models themselves must also be contextualised in the various realities of different affected persons/researchers/recipients.

Perception and Migration – Undertheorised Aspects of Current Resilience Research in Ancient Studies?

In this context, the concept of perception is also important. As already mentioned, the immediate reaction to a challenge is always related to the perception of that challenge. The coping strategies that are chosen depend not least on evaluation frames. This aspect of perception is particularly difficult to grasp when we are lacking testimonies from those affected, as is often the case in archaeology. Another field that is often not taken into account, or that cannot be seen, is anticipation. This can also be understood as part of perception. From this, it can be safely stated that although there is the materiality of resilience, many of its essential aspects elude materialisation and can only be derived indirectly.

Fig. 2: ‘We are all immigrants’: A crowd of people at the ‘Lights for Liberty’, a vigil to end human detention camps and protest against US immigration politics on Friday July 12th, 2019 (Maria Oswalt, unsplash). 

Finally, another important point is the assessment of migration. We agreed that migration is a valid resilience strategy because the assessment of the impact of a resilience strategy can only be made based on the acting entities. And these acting entities are not settlements, cities or states, but discrete entities or individuals. From this perspective, locality, or the change of locality, is not a sign of failed coping (Fig. 2). Migration must also be understood as more than a purely adaptive strategy, as it always presupposes multi-layered intentionality. Dealing with the tension between resilience and intentionality is another interesting focus of attention that we have not been able to deal with in-depth in the time available. Here, it would be worthwhile to think further, especially since intentionality as a key concept for many phenomena of human action opens up a multitude of new possibilities for interpretation and research questions. A similar event in the future could pick up where this workshop left off and look at this aspect in greater depth.

Suggested Readings

Adger, W. N. (2000). Social and Ecological Resilience. Are They Related? Progress in Human Geography, 24, 347–364.

Bradtmöller, M., Grimm, S., & Riel-Salvatore, J. (2017). Resilience Theory in Archaeological Practice. An Annotated Review. Quaternary International, (446), 3–16.

Christmann, G. B. & Ibert, O. (2012). Vulnerability and Resilience in a Socio-Spatial Perspective: A Social-Scientific Approach. Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 70(4), 259–272. 

Conolly, J. & Lane, P. J. (2018). Vulnerability, Risk, Resilience: An Introduction. World Archaeology, 50(4), 547–553. 

Sterly, H., Ober, K., & Sakdapolrak, P. (2016). Migration for Human Security? The Contribution of Translocality to Social Resilience. Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, 3(1), 2016, 57–66.

Wilson, G. A. & Wilson, O. J. (2019). Assessing the Resilience of Human Systems. A Critical Evaluation of Universal and Contextual Resilience Variables, Resilience. International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 7, 126–148.

Author Information:

Martin Hinz: Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Departement for Prehistoric Archaeology, and Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Switzerland. Email:

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