Oh resilience is so vague! But maybe that’s a good thing …

By Joern Fischer

I recently had the pleasure to sit on an examination panel for the PhD thesis of Sebastian Strunz, at Leuphana University Lueneburg. His thesis looked into the economic insurance value of ecosystem resilience.

One of the chapters of his thesis investigated the potential ‘vagueness’ of resilience. So many people use the term now, and it seems to mean a million different things, depending on who you ask. Has the term become so vague that it’s useless? Or, as Sebastian Strunz asks: Is conceptual vagueness an asset?

His paper on this, based on the thesis chapter, just came out in Ecological Economics. I really enjoyed it when I read it, so I’d encourage you to also take a look at it (you can download it here). Here is some of the basic gist, as I understood it.

The paper starts with a great quote:

‘But is a blurred concept a concept at all?’ — Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 71)

And things go from there. Sometimes, precision is valuable — this is in line with the scientific method, enables hypothesis testing, and concepts can be scrutinised well for the validity. But on the other hand, vagueness can be valuable, too. For example, it enables inter- and transdisciplinary communication, it can encourage real-world problem solving, and it may foster creativity, leading to a series of additional, new ideas, flowing from the original, vague idea.

Sebastian Strunz goes through these various potential advantages of precision and vagueness, respectively, drawing on various philosophers of science whose arguments lend support to the different facets.

What I really like about the paper is that I really find it hits the nail on the head regarding existing disagreements in science. There’s a school of thought of those who ‘only do precision’ — they need formulas, they need models, preferably they need formally optimised, quantitative answers. And those often can’t stand resilience and see it as potentially dangerous fuzzy nonsense. But then there’s those who come up with one new idea after the other, all stemming from the notion of resilience.

The paper ends with some tangible recommendations for how resilience thinking can be framed to take advantage of its vagueness without forgoing precision where it matters.

Very neat stuff, and nice to read something that actually encourages some critical thinking!

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One thought on “Oh resilience is so vague! But maybe that’s a good thing …

  1. Thanks for highlighting this paper. I think it’s highly relevant to current research issues in Integrated Environmental Modelling. Quantitative modelling is clearly firmly rooted on the side of precision, but the literature is now quite aware of the need to engage with all stakeholders and work with the vague concepts they might hold.

    In this context, it is not a question of compromise between vagueness and precision, but rather of managing the transition (back and forth) between them. It is easy for modellers to make the jump in one direction, but they often abandon and replace the vague concept entirely in the process.
    I think a key open research issue is how to assess whether the precise concepts appropriately capture the vague concept, for modelling purposes. In particular, how can modellers react quickly to change in the precise definitions, and how can they contribute back to the discussion of the vague concept.

    I agree there are many who ‘only do precision’, but I also know of many who don’t do modelling, maths or quantitative methods. In the spirit of transdisciplinarity, we could probably all benefit from thinking about how we communicate across the vagueness/precision ‘boundary’, looking past the desire to eliminate wishy-washiness on one side, or narrow-mindedness on the other.

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