New publication: a critical review of the resilience engineering literature

Dear readers, today I am happy to announce the publication of a paper that has been a work in progress for the last 15 months, a paper entitled On the rational of resilience in the domain of safety: A literature review, which will be included in the upcoming special issue on resilience engineering in the journal Reliability Engineering and System Safety.

During my time as a guest researcher at Griffith University in Australia I studied Foucauldian discourse analysis and archaeology together with my great friends and colleagues Roel van Winsen and Eder Henriqson (the three of us once shared an office at Lund University). When the special issue on resilience engineering was announced we decided to apply some of the techniques of discourse analysis in a critical review of the field. This is the analysis that we have now gotten published.

So, what did we do? Well, to summarise, we gathered our data based on the systematic literature review-methodology. We identified the journals in which the scholars of resilience engineering typically publish their results, and then conducted broader searches in those journals. We also searched beyond those journals and then with more specific searches. We ended up with 71 papers to study and after an initial exclusion procedure we had 52 papers to include as data in our study.

What we then looked for in these 52 papers were descriptions for the rational of resilience study (i.e. why the focus on resilience was seen as important), descriptions of objects of resilience (i.e. what is resilience?) as well as subject of resilience (where/who/what function guarantees resilience?). In different tables we collected significant statements and motivated how we positioned the 52 papers in categories depending on what we found when looking for answers to these three questions.

The next step was, based on our findings from studying the papers based on the three guiding questions, to make an analysis of what our findings mean in terms of the heading for resilience studies and what consequences this heading might have for how resilience is advocated and enhanced. In our analysis we highlight the following three ethical questions that we believe the safety science will need to tackle in the future:

  • Is resilience the ability to thrive despite or because of risk? We believe that the relationship between resilience and risk is one that needs to be considered in future research. If resilience is the ability to thrive in situations of great risk then resilience essentially implies great risk taking. Is this fair to the subjects from which we ask to guarantee resilience of the systems in which they are located? Or should they not even need to be resilient in the first place?
  • Should resilience be used as a basis for moral judgement? Here we highlight the risk that we see with many other safety science constructs and theories: the risk that we, in the wake of failure or accident, hold people of the failed system accountable by implying that they have not followed our theory. With resilience engineering being the argument that safety and risk origin in the same kind of organisational processes we are even more worried (suggesting our take on answering the question) when we see academic accounts of failure explained by a lack of resilience.
  • How much should resilience be seen as the trait of an individual? We were surprised to find how many studies that located the ability of a system to be resilient at the level of the individual person (typically an operator guaranteeing the resilience of the system by his/her adaptive capacities). The ultimate risk of this is that we foresee a future in which inherent frailties of a system or organisation gets accepted through appeals to the individual operator to sort the situation out by his/her adaptive capacities. How does the field of safety science, and specifically resilience engineering view the connections between micro, meso and macro scales of the system? 

I really hope that this paper will offer interesting reflections to those initiated in studying resilience, as researchers or students. I also hope that we can be part of a fruitful debate in which not only this critical review of resilience, but also this critical review of cognitive constructs or this critical study of the notion of safety culture can form a critical language for academic self-reflection. Ten years since the resilience engineering perspective took off I think is a good point for such a discussion.


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