Ecology and Society: Focusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience: Resilience as a Descriptive Concept and a Boundary Object – Brand and Jax (2007)


Home | Archives | About | Login | Submissions | Notify | Contact | Search
 E&S HOME > VOL. 12, NO. 1 > ART. 23
Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.
Go to the pdf version of this articleThe following is the established format for referencing this article:
Brand, F. S., and K. Jax. 2007. Focusing the meaning(s) of resilience: resilience as a descriptive concept and a boundary object. Ecology and Society 12(1): 23. [online] URL:
SynthesisFocusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience: Resilience as a Descriptive Concept and a Boundary ObjectFridolin Simon Brand 1 and Kurt Jax 21Institute for Landscape Ecology, Technische Universität München, Germany, 2Department of Conservation Biology, UFZ-Environmental Research Centre Leipzig-Ha
AbstractIntroductionA Typology for Definitions of ResilienceCategory I: Descriptive conceptCategory II: Hybrid conceptCategory III: Normative conceptResilience as a Descriptive Ecological ConceptResilience as a Boundary ObjectDiscussionResponses to this ArticleAcknowledgmentsLiterature Cited
This article reviews the variety of definitions proposed for “resilience” within sustainability science and suggests a typology according to the specific degree of normativity. There is a tension between the original descriptive concept of resilience first defined in ecological science and a more recent, vague, and malleable notion of resilience used as an approach or boundary object by different scientific disciplines. Even though increased conceptual vagueness can be valuable to foster communication across disciplines and between science and practice, both conceptual clarity and practical relevance of the concept of resilience are critically in danger. The fundamental question is what conceptual structure we want resilience to have. This article argues that a clearly specified, descriptive concept of resilience is critical in providing a counterbalance to the use of resilience as a vague boundary object. A clear descriptive concept provides the basis for operationalization and application of resilience within ecological science.
Key words: boundary object; definition; descriptive concept; ecological resilience; resilience; sustainability; typology.


The concept of resilience is one of the most important research topics in the context of achieving sustainability (Perrings et al. 1995, Kates et al. 2001, Foley et al. 2005). First introduced as a descriptive ecological term (Holling 1973), resilience has been frequently redefined and extended by heuristic, metaphorical, or normative dimensions (e.g., Holling 2001, Ott and Döring 2004, Pickett et al. 2004, Hughes et al. 2005). Meanwhile, the concept is used by various scientific disciplines as an approach to analyze ecological as well as social-ecological systems (Anderies et al. 2006, Folke 2006). As such, it promotes research efforts across disciplines and between science and policy.

However, both conceptual clarity and practical relevance are critically in danger. The original descriptive and ecological meaning of resilience is diluted as the term is used ambiguously and in a very wide extension. This is due to the blending of descriptive aspects, i.e., specifications of what is the case, and normative aspects, i.e., prescriptions what ought to be the case or is desirable as such. As a result, difficulties to operationalize and apply the concept of resilience within ecological science prevail. This, in turn, impedes progress and maturity of resilience theory (cf., Pickett et al. 1994:57). The success of the concept in stimulating research across disciplines on the one side and the dilution of the descriptive core on the other raises the fundamental question what conceptual structure we want resilience to have.

This article is divided into four parts. The first section offers a typology to structure the numerous definitions of resilience proposed within sustainability science. Using this typology as a background, the second section investigates in more detail a descriptive, ecological concept of resilience viewed from both a formal and an operational perspective. Subsequently, the third section examines the use of resilience as a rather vague boundary object and points to some chances and pitfalls. The fourth section concludes with final thoughts on the recent conceptual development and a fruitful conceptual structure of resilience.

continues in source: