Keep resilience language simple!

Kelman, Ilan | September 8, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

What's in a word? | Image by Ilan Kelman

Many resilience academic paradigms use complex language, even though it is not needed. Here, I provide thoughts and interpretations on some common phrases:

The words ‘panarchy’ and ‘consilience’ have been used for over 150 years, yet are still not common English vocabulary. They require extensive hand-waving and complex diagrams to convey their core points and meanings.

The phrase ‘adaptive capacity’ does not mean much by itself. Detailed explanation is required.

Regarding ‘social-ecological systems’, ‘social’ broadly means society, ‘ecological’ broadly means living organisms interacting with their environment, and ‘systems’ broadly means a connected collection or combination. For me, a connected collection or combination amongst society, living organisms, and the environment is usually termed ‘reality’.

All these phrases are difficult to explain to non-specialists in English. They are also difficult, sometimes impossible, to translate into many other languages and cultures. Moreover, such vocabulary is not particularly needed.

I have yet to meet a taxi driver who did not understand the basic realities conveyed by the terminology above. I have yet to meet a taxi driver who I am certain would understand these specific words and phrases.

To work with people on the ground, I do not and cannot use this vocabulary. When the same concepts and meanings can be conveyed in an understandable manner–not the case for many scientific fields–why is it so important for resilience academics to use the complex versions in academic journals?

Let’s avoid, as the joke goes, appearing to be so intelligent only because no one can understand what we are saying.


Ilan Kelman is a reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London. You can follow him on Twitter @IlanKelman.


MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/keep-resilience-language-simple/

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  • John Weyland

    jsfarnsw and John Sykes: problems arise when people try to convince others to engage: it’s the talker with the intent, not the listener.

    if people have a problem, are working on it, and find someone to help them with that problem, then they will want to understand and will ask questions, and will persist.

  • Tim Davies

    As a engineering-trained ordinary person with a long experience in scientific writing, trying to contribute to reducing future disasters, I find it incredibly frustrating to pick up a paper on, for example, “operationalizing resilience”, and be completely unable to grasp the concepts therein. Obviously there are profound and subtle ideas being set forth, but they remain completely obscure to me. I am sure the same thing happens the other way around. When we know that disaster reduction involves communities and officials as well as scientists it seems that a fundamental deficiency is our ability to talk to each other, exemplified by the communication difficulties between different brands of scientists. I think Ilan has illuminated a very large elephant that we have been avoiding for many years – similar in size to the population growth beast as a factor making disaster reduction ever more difficult.
    If you see what I mean…
    Tim Davies

  • Rachel Carson knew how to write and get complex ecological ideas across to the reading public. She, among all science writers has been the most influential. Tim Jackson, Elizabeth Kohlbert, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibbon, James Hanson, Rob Hopkins – these are all people who have managed to get the complexities of our situation across in plain language.

  • Lisa Schipper

    I agree with you Ilan, that the new terms are incredibly frustrating and the arguments about what means what seems to overtake getting to work on reducing risk and vulnerability. But some of these concepts are so crucial that you cannot just lump them into one existing word. I have thought about this frustrating situation for a long time, as you know, and my conclusion is that we NEED these different terms because they each express a new nuance in the general idea of risk reduction. I think people need to be better educated about what these different concepts contribute and that helps them understand how complex the task of reducing risk and vulnerability actually is!

  • jsfarnsw

    I leap to the defense of “consilience.” A great word, with roots in the Latin “salire,” meaning “to leap.” Add that to con/com, and it means “to leap together.” Which is exactly what needs to happen for consilience to happen.

    Perhaps the problem is not the words themselves, but how they are articulated?

  • John Sykes

    Time and time again, I read that the average citizen actually believes our climate scientists. However, by using the technical lexicon of science, many quickly tune out. Metric v English is a good example. Here in the States, we think in terms of degrees F, not C, leaving the necessity of a conversion to F required to truly get the meaning of what was written. About 30 years ago, I managed a technical information group for a high tech company. Given that most of my writers were degreed and field experienced engineers, I thought it important for me and they to learn how to write for the general population of technical folks. I was amazed to hear that IT folks generally read and speak at a 7th grade level. I had always prided my self on my writing ability but was quite dismayed that I was writing at a level that just wasn’t of interest to my intended audience. If we are trying to convince the masses to take our science seriously, we have to get their attention and keep it. Increasing their reading level ain’t in my job description and misses the intent of the information.