What is community resilience?

18 May 2020

Pete Seaman discusses resilience in communities in relation to the challenges of public health and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog was originally published on 13th May 2020 on the Policy Scotland blog.

Here at the GCPH, we have routinely returned to the resilience concept to understand what insights and actions the concept can offer to address the challenges of public health; most recently the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our initial approach to researching resilience, we responded to the growing popularity of the term as an individual level attribute; as something individuals possess or something that can be taught. In our 2014 review of literature, we were critical of such a perspective, blind as it is to the fact that challenges and stressors are not equally distributed throughout society and that the resources we call on in time of stress – money, networks, power and knowledge – are key in determining how successfully we adapt to challenge.

Rather than dismissing the resilience concept due to a popular understanding of it as an individual level attribute, we found after a deeper dive into the literature that the origins of resilience are profoundly social and therefore it did have usefulness as a theoretical tool for helping us understand how communities, societies and individuals respond, and crucially adapt, to challenge. Understanding resilience is as much about understanding the qualities of networks and groups and individuals’ ability to access them. If action is indicated, it is in developing and investing in community capacity so it is there in times of crisis to act as the ‘first responder’.

Enduring, adapting and generating new ways of thinking

Communities support resilience when they offer the population the capacity to endure, adapt and generate new ways of thinking and functioning in the context of change, uncertainty or adversity.

In the current phase of the COVID-19 emergency we are at the ‘enduring’ stage when responses are focused on protection. Discussion, and importantly action, focuses on protecting the population groups who are at greater risk or the workers who increase their exposure to risk. However, these vulnerabilities were present before the crisis through socio-economic disadvantage, lack of power or political choices not to invest in certain services and community infrastructure.

Our report Resilience for public health included a series of recommendations in the form of underlying principles for action to increase the likelihood of the city, its communities and people thriving in the face of challenge. We also explored how the resilience concept could be used to reframe thinking in four key areas of policy and strategy in the city: the economy and work; culture; governance; and infrastructure.

In all four areas we stressed the importance of using the strengths which already existed in the population as a source of support both in times of crisis, but also for when new ideas and solutions to changing circumstances were required. This led to the empowerment of communities being stressed as a key resilience action. The more voices and perspectives we have in shaping decisions, the more we are likely to have better decisions and reduce the marginalisation and vulnerability of certain groups. 

Alongside the debates around what we collectively got wrong in relation to COVID-19, there is also conversation around what we may be getting right and how society has been able to adapt to offer protection.

What is coming to the fore is the value of the social in both material and relational terms. The material dimension has seen the provision of social protection in the form of government backed furlough schemes, a relaxing of the conditionality attached to welfare benefits and a focus on the infrastructure and services we all rely on in times of crisis. But alongside this is an understanding of the importance of the relational components of resilience; of how vital our social connections and networks become in supporting the capacity of those around us to endure.

Our work has also had to adapt in this new context. In my recent blog I share how we are focusing our efforts in this time and work we’ll be sharing in the months to come. 

Find out more about our work on community resilience. 

Watch our short animation on resilience and communities.

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About the author

Pete Seaman Interim Associate Director

Contact
1414409528

Pete is currently the interim Associate Director of GCPH, providing leadership and strategic direction towards the Centre’s core aim of generating insights and evidence, supporting new approaches and influencing action to improve the city’s health and tackle inequality.

Pete also oversees the operational running of the Centre whilst maintaining research priorities within the Centre’s programme of activity on innovative approaches to improving health outcomes. Interests include processes that support community resilience and developing responses to racialised under-representation in the Public Health workforce and data. His works supports the shift in policy and practice towards prevention and the development and use of community and individual assets. 

Since 2005, Pete has worked in variety of roles within the Centre including programmes of work encompassing community engagement, resilience, social capital and the role of alcohol across the life-course. Previously, he worked in research roles at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, gaining a PhD at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

Read all articles by Pete Seaman