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‘Resilience’: what's in a word?

By Chris James - posted Friday, 29 April 2011

Words fall in and out of vogue often without a glimmer of public notice; yet, particular words can have a very powerful influence over ideas and human behaviour especially when they come from the past and become embedded into everyday narratives. These kinds of words generally work because they touch the senses and trigger the emotions. Market analysts call them ‘key words’. The word ‘resilience’ has become a ‘key word’ that has gathered a wide domain and a lot of ambiguity. ‘Resilience’ has become a primary component in the idea of sustainability, but we need to ask, how legitimate is the notion of ‘resilience’ and what is being sustained?

In 1620 [ from the Latin resiliens ] ‘resilience’ meant  ‘to rebound’, and/or ‘recoil’; ‘bounce’. ‘Resilience’ was later applied to metallurgy, in which it defines one of the properties of a metal able to resist shock. In physics ‘resilience’ means the potential elasticity a material has when deformed. Another word for this might be malleability. In ecology ‘resilience’ is the tendency of an ecosystem to return to its original condition after some kind of intervention. Many disciplines use the word ‘resilience’, but it is from the field of French psychology that we have derived the most current understanding of the term. In psychotherapy, for instance, ‘resilience’ can be used to describe how someone might respond positively to trauma, anxiety or stress, but this is in no way a fixed definition.

Neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Boris Cyrulnik [1937] is regarded as the first person to have used ‘resilience’ in the psychological context. He drew on his own traumatic experiences to find a precise meaning. Il est éthologue, neuropsychiatre et psychanalyste. For Cyrulnik ‘resilience’ explains being able to extricate oneself from the past in order to recover from injury; or put differently, to ‘bounce’ back. Cyrulnik kept faith with the original meaning of the word. The term found particular prevalence during the Second World War where it was used to describe a stoicism required of the British people in the face of military aggression. Here ‘resilience’ was used as propaganda. Indeed, it paved the way for temporary class unification and prompted women to respond to requests that they throw out their pots and pans, which were then melted down for the manufacture of arms and the war effort.


The notion of ‘resilience’ has over time, become deeply embedded into the west’s industrial and military landscape. Army personal have to build up their ‘resilience’ to war if they are going to survive in combat. During the European Holocaust residents in a number of German towns had to build up ‘resilience’ to the death camps. It became a ‘bystander culture’. Today, ‘resilience’ might also be regarded as encouraging a ‘bystander culture’ if it causes public attention to be drawn away from resolving serious global social problems.

Post-War ‘resilience’.

A brief look at post-Second World War history tells us that language and context go together. In 1945 at the end of the Second World War there were approximately 60 million refuges in Europe and a number of different ethnic groups. The task for the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods was to design the models that would bring about appropriate post-War economic ‘resilience’ whilst maintaining security. The First World War had been followed by extreme poverty and unemployment, the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Second World War recovery was aimed at creating adequate capital for long-term growth, thus averting threats, especially from the developing nations. ‘Resilience’ therefore became associated with building boundaries for national protection.

Resilience’ and the Welfare State.

In the days of the post-War recovery it was believed that poverty lead to dissidence, crime and violence so the welfare of people was seen as vitally important to security. This led to welfare payments for breadwinners who were aged, sick, unemployed and so on. However, the welfare initiatives of the Bretton Woods conference, aimed at alleviating social tensions were said to be the cause of the 1980s debt crisis. What followed was a further need to make capital ‘resilient’. This time capital took priority over people.

Capitalism’s low ‘resilience’.


The Great Depression of the 1930s gave rise to questions over the validity of capitalism and whether there should be restrictions on the maintenance of private power. Socialism was on the rise and capitalism looked to be on shaky ground. At the end of the Second World War when the economies of Europe were bankrupt there was also a rising instability in south East Asia involving communist insurgents. In 1949 Russia [then the USSR] challenged the military power of the U.S. by detonating an atomic bomb. In the same year Chairman Mao Zedong established the Peoples’ Republic of China. The U.S. President Truman’s policy, which was included in the European Recovery Plan, [also known as the Marshall Plan after U.S. State Secretary George Marshall], was in effect a war against socialists and communists. It became a struggle between the super-powers - east and west - known as the Cold War.

At about the same time radical French philosophers and cultural researchers began to look closely at language and its power relations. There was a growing interest in how words, ideas and images were used to manipulate the masses. The main topic of this inquiry was colonisation. The result, put in very general terms, was an understanding of how governments used discourse [and key words] to beguile and mislead the people. In particular, these studies revealed how the people in the pre-modern world had built up a ‘resilience’ to their own oppression. However, knowledge is power and this ‘resilience’ was soon destined to turn to resistance.

Macroeconomic expansion.

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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