Resilience Projects

UCDAR Steering Committee 

Resilience: Diversities, Theories and Practices 

Concept Note, January 20, 2019 


Hanan Sabea

Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Egyptology, and Anthropology

American University in Cairo

Since the 1980s resilience has become a catchall category that spans various fields of inquiry and policy intervention domains. The vastness of its deployment also marks its oscillation between the micro- and macro levels, the individual and the collective, as well as the progressive and the conservative. Indeed as Mark Neocleous contends: 

“‘Resilience’ has in the last decade become one of the key political categories of our time. It falls easily from the mouths of politicians, a variety of state departments are funding research into it, urban planners are now obliged to take it into consideration, and academics are falling over themselves to conduct research on it. Stemming from the idea of a system and originating in ecological thought, the term connotes the capacity of a system to return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back after a crisis or trauma” (2013: 3). 

Though initially wedded to ecology and the environment, the category traveled various fields and domains, loosely applied without rigorous conceptualization to fast shifting grounds. While certain articulations prioritize the “bouncing back” (Sarah Bracke 2016) or more concretely the ability to return to an earlier stage after absorbing shocks, other formulations describe a process of survival, adaptation and compromise. Another set of conceptualizations, favors the creative ability to produce alternatives to overarching inequalities, vulnerability and structural constraints (Bouchard 2013; Lamont and Hall 2013). this project aims to engage with these histories and current deployments of resilience by conducting an interdisciplinary investigation of the meanings and uses of resilience through a comparative analysis in four countries in MENA, namely Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates. 

The four domains outlined as nodes for this interdisciplinary research represent core social fields through which communities re-make themselves and are made by conditions and forces outside of their control. 

1) Livelihood and making a living: how do men, women and children create venues for ensuring their socioeconomic survival, carve out spaces and sites for future maintenance, while addressing shifting and uncertain daily constraints in securing jobs, finding domains of work, and earning money and other socio-cultural forms of income. Where do they work, what constitutes work, how do they access it, and what potentials for alternative practices of work and making a living are possible and do emerge? Who do community members revive practice and skills once presumed to have been dead in the struggle to find a space for themselves in contemporary eroding conditions? What mechanisms do they deploy in accessing, reaching their work, such as infrastructure, transport, need for economic, social and cultural capital, and how do they navigate the initiatives aiming at their integration, while increasing their indebtedness to overarching structures of power. Who works where, when, and how are the returns distributed? How do consumption patterns vary in such conditions? 

2) Urban housing and heritage: with the increased dispossession and removal of local communities in the name of urban renewal, heritage protection, and the creation of the modern city, how do men, women and children strategize to fend for their homes, lands, social networks and working conditions? How do they negotiate their access to alternative forms of housing? What social networks and economic strategies are followed to make this possible? How do they redefine their relation to what is classified as heritage? Are their spaces for vulnerable communities in the real estate and social housing market or are they foreclosed to the vulnerable? What forms of novel social housing compounds are created with what kinds of effects on the lives of vulnerable communities?  

3) Public Space: how has the scope and meaning of public space been transformed and how do communities create their own understanding and means of access? How do men, women, youth and children navigate the city whose public spaces are systematically denied to them? What can different uses of public space (through the arts for instance) open up the possibilities of redrawing the boundaries of access and redefining the geographies of cities to be more inviting to diversity rather than exclusiveness? 

4) Wellbeing and making a good life: access to health and nutrition, finding ways to fend against pandemics, and dealing with ordinary diseases are diverse aspects of making a good living. How do members of vulnerable communities negotiate access to food with the systematic increase in prices and areas of access? What do people eat and who consumes what, and how do they have access to it? What strategies are deployed to redefine good health and with what implications? Do members of vulnerable communities have access to the different initiatives that are undertaken by local governments and international and national NGOs to ameliorate rough conditions under which they are living, and how?