Posted: March 21, 2022

This brief article considers the concept of resilience through a social justice lens, asking how and whether resilience promotes socially and spatially just communities and societies that can equitably and effectively serve all people.

By Justine Lindemann

Climate change, economic instability, and crises such as those in the public health sector or in the political sphere have deep impacts on our daily lives, whether we are immediately aware of it or not. All parts of nature (human and nonhuman) as well as integrated environmental, social, political, economic and spatial systems are consistently faced with challenges, shocks, and disturbances, acute, chronic, and unimaginable. Individuals within communities are often asked to be, or to become, more resilient to these ongoing crises and disturbances and their attendant risk and uncertainty. This brief article considers the concept of resilience through a social justice lens, asking how and whether resilience promotes socially and spatially just communities and societies that can equitably and effectively serve all people. Another way to ask this is does the concept of resilience contest or preserve the current social, spatial, political, and economic order of things?

Social justice is one of those concepts, like resilience, that has as many definitions as people who might define it. From John Stuart Mills’ theory of utilitarianism to Rawls’ writings about distributive justice and Iris Marion Young’s response to Rawls (in which she argues that a “logic of distribution” does not adequately address many aspects of justice, including power and oppression), social justice is a subjective concept at best. In this article, social justice will be understood as the conditions that guarantee all people equal access to the full spectrum of human social activity: economic, political, religious, family or community, and otherwise. Spatial justice emerges from the idea that we are not just social beings, but also spatial beings. That is, no space is devoid of social relations and social relations shape, inform, and “produce” space. The idea of socially produced space is exemplified by the reality that there is a “wrong side of the tracks” in many communities. Practices such as placemaking or place-based community development illustrate the importance of considering space in our day-to-day lives.

Social and spatial justice (or socio-spatial justice) within communities is often an elusive goal. One that runs up against both obvious and more insidious barriers, including the “stickiness” of physical infrastructure, longstanding histories of racism and classism, and the tendency for capital investment to reinforce spaces of privilege and affluence, thus reifying socio-spatial injustices.

There are scholars who argue that the very concept of resilience also reinforces inequitable capitalist structures, or that “resilient spaces are precisely what capitalism needs” (MacKinnon and Derickson 2012:254). In other words, some understandings of resilience promote a return to equilibrium that places the burden on individuals to bounce back from shocks and disturbances. MacKinnon and Derickson argue that this kind of resilience is embedded in our capitalist economic system and associated structures. They argue it is “achieved at the expense of certain social groups and regions” that are periodically forced to adapt, restructure, or reinvent themselves to overcome whatever crisis presents (2012:254).

Of course, crises of capital are not the only crises that demand resilience within communities across the urban-rural continuum. And without trying to argue that everything boils down to economics in the end, it is true many of the acute and chronic crises within society (climate change, the covid-19 pandemic, housing instability, maternal mortality, the racial wealth gap, and others) are refracted through or amplified by capitalist social and economic relations. Similarly, solutions are often rooted in that same system, such as short-term cash infusions into communities or quick-fix technologies like cost-effective pumps that push water out of roads after storms but do not address the long-term impacts of degraded infrastructure.

So, the question begs: is there a way to pursue “outside-of-capitalism" resilience? That is, while community resilience may not completely transform the economic system, communities may be able to build systems and structures that protect them, to some degree, from ongoing crises of capital. This type of resilience within communities might focus on alternative ways of organizing social life: cooperative, collaborative, mutually supporting, and interdependent ways of being. Resilience is perhaps not the best word for this way of being. And here we run up against the “multiple and competing definitions of resilience” that some scholars posit is one reason to not use the concept at all.

Some scholars use the concept of antifragility to explore how individuals, communities, or systems might become less fragile or stronger from constant disturbances or disorder. MacKinnon and Derickson deploy a new term (or an old term in a new way) - resourcefulness - arguing that this concept works to unseat and “problematize both the uneven distribution of material resources and the associated inability of disadvantaged groups and communities to access the levers of social change” (2012:263).

While we can argue over terminology, the questions remain: can a community work to transform inequitable systems and structures around them as they also build resilience? Does achieving a socially just society necessarily entail the collapse of capitalism, which many argue is an inherently unjust system, and is, itself, quite resilient to the crises and shocks that it weathers?

I don’t know whether it is more effective to co-opt the term resilience to refer to the pursuit of self-determined, radically democratic, and socially just communities or if it the discourse itself should change to emphasize personal and community agency or alternative community structures? Regardless, the debate about resilience and socio-spatial justice is not just about language. It is about the materiality of individual and community lives, and the continuous work that it takes to transform systems and structures. The language we use often has material implications and can impact the outcomes not only of policies and programs, but also of people’s understanding of the agency they have in the face of systemic and structural barriers to advance and implement socially just initiatives addressing seemingly intractable or wicked problems.

As you will read in the other articles in this report, resilience, resourcefulness, and antifragility are perhaps best found in our individual and collective capacity to recognize and respect each other's humanity and difference, to acknowledge our interdependence, build sustainable relationships, and to learn and innovate together. This multi-scalar (individual and collective) resilience may be the best source of our capacity to improve and grow in the face of continuous transformation across social/natural systems.

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