Resilience as a Boundary Object


An Opinion Piece from GMU MPA Student and C-RASC Graduate Fellow, Alexandra Albright

In a 2013 article from the Guardian, resilience was called “the sexiest new buzzword in international development.” Yet, the growing popularity of the term without a single cross-cutting definition often draws criticism about whether resilience can move beyond buzzword status to achieve measurable outcomes. I believe resilience offers scholars and practitioners a way of to move forward in a world of increasing uncertainty and disruption. Resilience concepts have evolved separately within the silos of different disciplines. An engineer’s definition of resilience will be different than a social scientist’s definition which will be different from a community organizer’s definition of resilience, and so on. The reality is that resilience does not and will not mean the same thing to everyone. Instead of focusing on the need to develop a singular definition, we can use resilience as a bridge to explore similarities and differences across disciplinary silos.

In my opinion, a useful way for C-RASC to approach the concept of resilience is to understand it as a boundary object. In other words, resilience can be meaningfully understood and conceptualized within disciplines, while serving as a conceptual link and platform to leverage convergence between disciplines. While some may consider resilience as it was defined by Holling (1996) as a return to stability and equilibrium following a disruptive event, others may focus more specifically on ecosystem resilience, absorbing disturbances and changing to a new steady state rather than the previous equilibrium. As a public administration scholar, I often turn to Wildavsky’s concept of resilience as “the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back” (1988, p.77). Moreover, practitioners in the field may focus more on applied resilience frameworks rather than resilience theory. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation defines resilience as “the capacity of cities (individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems) to survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

These differences in the conceptualization of resilience can be unique among disciplines/sectors while still sharing some common understandings, allowing resilience to act as a boundary object for convergence. This is the goal of many resilience platforms operating at the functional level by governments and community leaders. At Mason, one of C-RASC’s major goals is to facilitate these kinds of convergent, transdisciplinary research approaches using sustainability and resilience as a boundary objects. The tension between well-defined resilience concepts and a more flexible boundary object created through transdisciplinary work is still being negotiated by scholars. By recognizing the challenge and creating shared goals using resilience as a boundary object, C-RASC and likeminded organizations are able to start looking toward a future where resilience is truly transdisciplinary.


Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual review of ecology and systematics4(1), 1-23.

Holling, C. S. (1996). Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. Engineering within ecological constraints31(1996), 32.

Wildavsky, A. B. (1988). Searching for safety. Transaction Publishers.