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Disentangling the Range of Responses to Threats, Hazards and Disasters. Vulnerability, Resilience and Adaptation in question

Démêler l'éventail des solutions contre les menaces et catastrophes. Vulnérabilité, résilience et adaptation en question
Magali Reghezza-Zitt and Samuel Rufat


The succession of hazards, threats and disasters management and reduction international frameworks since the 1990s coincides with the promotion of new notions. The emergence of these notions frames the debate: are semantic evolutions modifying practices at the margin, paradigm changes or performative tools allowing practice maintenance? A retrospective view shows that these notions succeed each other as management actors encounter obstacles to yielding practical content. There are constant dialectics between the academic and operational spheres. The purpose of this article is to explain the performativity of the concepts, to identify the contradictions and to contemporize the effects of counter-productivity. The articulation of vulnerability towards resilience and then adaptation is presented as a solution to the problems posed by uncertainty and the difficulties of dealing with complexity. However, those new frameworks lead to a triple displacement of the problem, in time and space and on individuals instead of actually addressing it. These limitations and some theoretical contradictions lead to counter-productive measures. The purpose of this article is to overcome these by focusing on the notion of response. The goal is to build a median proposition between two poles: the socio-technical paradigm of vulnerability and the socio-ecological paradigm of resilience and adaptation. Vulnerability, resilience and adaptation are considered tools enabling the response’s orientation. The response then becomes operationalized into different objectives and measures. We then propose to reconstruct a response in a non-contradictory way, by taking out non-commensurable frameworks. The notion of response enables us to find a middle term between an all-encompassing framework, which retains the relevant orientations of the previous frameworks, but that is not contradictory. Responses are not a set of global solutions, large strategic plans or textbook prescriptions, but a vast project undertaken to mobilize more robust tools and understand risk as socially produced and constructed.

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1Since the 1990s, the international community successively adopted various action frameworks (Yokohama, Hyogo, Sendai) in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Concurrently, the Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) international community has also been promoting a succession of action frameworks (Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Sustainable Development Goals, Adaptation Futures). Over the last decade, both academia and the international community have been accelerating efforts to make DRR and CCA converge (Birkmann et al, 2010). This convergence is bringing forward the same little set of notions and concepts in DRR and CCA (adaptation, mitigation, adjustment, vulnerability, resilience, etc).

2However, a retrospective look reveals that the key concepts of DRR are succeeding more and more quickly, both in the frameworks of actions and in the work of scientists. One reason for this succession is that practitioners have difficulty giving practical content to concepts produced by scientists or simply validating them. There is indeed a constant dialectic between academic and operational spheres. International organizations and policy makers combine notions and frameworks as guidelines for their action plans. Conversely scientists update conceptual frameworks to account for governance and policies at different levels (from global to local). They also consider how these frameworks are translated – or not – into management devices and actual action.

3Conceptual evolutions do not automatically imply a transformation of practices. However, such a succession of references and frameworks allow for each term to retain various superimposed meanings. Resilience is the most studied example of such terms mobilized with different or even contradictory meanings in conceptual frameworks (Cutter 2016) and leading in turn to divergent – if not conflicting – public policies or action frameworks (Cutter et al. 2008). Whilst on the surface the frameworks might give the impression of converging, they tend to make use of the same terms in quite different and sometimes contradictory ways (Reghezza et al. 2012). Most scientific research highlights the polysemy of terms, sometimes calling out the catch-all nature of ‘portmanteau words’ and their usage ‘in diverging ways, for different purposes and sometimes out of their original theoretical frameworks’ (Gaillard 2010). The transition from the theoretical to the operational is thus diluting the meaning of terms. This might help promote consensus but leads to a loss of meaning and a lack of clear frameworks. It also lowers the efficiency of the theoretical tools. This dilution of meaning is counterproductive, both in the operational and scientific fields, especially since the various concepts are taken up by international frameworks and national or local strategies and transformed into imperatives. Semantic vagueness does not allow practitioners to appropriate the concepts and does not lead to an evolution of practices that would allow a significant improvement in DDR. On the other hand, scholars observe that notions with high heuristic potential are reduced to buzzwords. They also criticize the political consequences of the normative application of concepts initially used by scientists for purely descriptive purposes (Weichselgartner & Kelman 2015).

4This increasingly rapid succession of concepts and notions to get around operational hindrance is a major issue. The purpose of this article is twofold. First, disentangling the various frameworks, the different meanings of the notions, concepts, and their operational translations. The aim is to explain the performativity of the concepts, to identify their contradictions and to contemporize the effects of counter-productivity. This reveals the notion of response as the common thread: vulnerability, resilience and adaptation are considered as tools to allow the response’s orientation, which then becomes operationalized in different objectives and measures. Subsequently, the paper aims at reconstructing the notion of response in a non-contradictory way. A DRR and CCA response framework should also avoid the incommensurability issue, i.e. when scientist and practitioners can be talking past each other in the absence of common measurement, while comparisons and validation are muddled by confusions about terms, contexts and consequences.

Building up responses to threats and disasters. String of notions and modulation of actions

5The emergence of new notions has sparked debate in DRR and CCA: should they be interpreted as semantic changes that modify practices at the margins, as paradigm shifts, or as performative tools, which work from within and inflect the dominant paradigm while enabling its perpetuation?

From risk mitigation to vulnerability reduction

6The promotion of vulnerability in DRR marks the convergence of two paradigms, whose history has been extensively described (Fig. 1). Well into the 1950s, disaster studies were focused on the impact reduction of extreme events, mainly tackling physical processes. The dominant paradigm was founded on technical responses, aiming at risk mitigation though heavy infrastructure and the erection of protective barriers justified by cost-benefit analysis. This logic peaked in the 1980’s, as disaster management focusing on emergency relief became ‘institutionalized’ and ‘internationalized’ over the years, leading to an emphasis on emergency and humanitarian assistance (Revet 2011).

7In parallel to this dominant hazard-centric paradigm, a social paradigm was focusing on the causes of disasters as opposed to their outcomes or impacts, considered as resulting from given society’s response to the hazards created by their interactions with their environment (Kates 1971, Burton et al. 1978)). The ability to cope was thought to determine vulnerability, a concept introduced in the mid-1970s (White & Haas 1975). Vulnerability allowed the denaturalization of disasters and the charting of social conditions enabling disasters (Wisner et al. 1976).

8Proponents of a critical – or even radical – approach were then able to highlight the ‘root causes’ (Blaikie et al. 1994), pointing development inequalities. Disasters were thus understood as the result of failures of political and economic systems, through the production of inequalities, marginality, constraints on action and capabilities (Eakin & Luers 2006). Rather than a rupture, disasters were interpreted as the product of the established order (Hewitt 1983). In this radical approach, disasters could no longer be explained by technical failure: they are anchored in a system of complex and dynamic causalities, interacting with social and environmental inequities (Cutter 1996).

Figure 1. Two converging paradigms towards disaster risk reduction (DRR), M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

Figure 1. Two converging paradigms towards disaster risk reduction (DRR), M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

The ambiguous percolation of vulnerability into international frameworks

9Through the course of the 1990s, the concept of vulnerability has been percolating into international frameworks, leading to an apparent convergence of the two paradigms, at the expense however of some dilution in its meaning.

10The ‘Yokohama Declaration’ of 1994 heralded the inflection from the protection, mitigation and emergency relief triptych towards an action framework oriented towards prevention, disaster preparedness and mitigation of its effects. Vulnerability was established as a key concept, allowing for the convergence of technical, physical, and social approaches (Cannon 2000). In practice however, vulnerability is used in a very ambivalent way: proponents of each paradigm seem to keep employing it within the context of their own modalities. The dominant paradigm refers to physical or biophysical vulnerability (Brooks 2003), aggregating the characteristics of the hazard, the sensitivity of the elements of risk and exposure to explain susceptibility to damage. Academics from the critical paradigm refer to social vulnerability in accounting for the structural causes of disasters (Blaikie et al. 1994), calling in particular for a complete reorientation of development policies. In 1999 the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) was created, reasserting the objective of vulnerability reduction and highlighted preparedness and coping capacity building to operationalize it.

11The concept of vulnerability became paradigmatic, allowing the pragmatic integration of approaches and practices from different backgrounds (Fig. 1). However, this increasingly broad use of vulnerability carries many ambiguities. While both paradigms characterize vulnerability as a key among conditions that lead to disasters, such superficial consensus hides strong opposition not only at the theoretical level but also regarding the political consequences, creating some strain in the attraction of international funds and the existence of very different operational responses.

The resilience turn

12Resilience promotion in DRR and CCA has been studied at length (Reghezza et al. 2015). Its success lies in the fact that it can be presented as a quasi-miraculous solution, making it possible both to overcome the failure of disaster prevention policies and to prepare societies for climate change. The resilience objective was promoted by the “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015” enjoining to act “for nations and communities resilient to disasters” (UNISDR 2005) and reasserted in the “Sendai Framework for Action 2015-2030” (UNISDR 2015) while advancing DRR and CCA convergence in setting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

13The interpretation of this sliding from vulnerability to resilience at the turn of the century varies according to whether resilience is considered an outcome defined by the ability to bounce back or a process involving both self-organization and learning (Adger 2000, Folke 2006, Manyena 2006). Some authors consider resilience a component of vulnerability (Turner et al. 2003), linked to the ability to cope with adverse events (Pelling 2003). For others, notably members of the Resilience Alliance, resilience is the flip-side of vulnerability (Folke 2007). Some researchers completely eliminate vulnerability when defining resilience (Walker et al. 2004).

14The term ‘resilience’ remains extremely nebulous and malleable, making its incorporation into quite differing paradigms possible. At least three concurrent definitions are in use (Dixon et al. 2014). ‘Absorptive resilience’ refers to the technical-engineering paradigm emphasizing the status quo, equilibrium, and the rebound or return (Holling 2001). It is usually associated with the “resist, maintain, rebuild, recover” objectives. ‘Adaptive resilience’ focuses by contrast on emergence and reorganization (Gallopin 2006), leading to flexibility and adaptability objectives. Whereas ‘transformative resilience’ emerges from reconstructions based on learning capacities, raising the issue of the bifurcation of systems (Alexander 2013). Equilibrium, emergence or bifurcation, the breadth of meanings reveals how problematic the use of the term ‘resilience’ has become to inform international action. The first definition has been framed engineering resilience, and the two-following socio-ecological resilience.

15The promotion of resilience obliterates the “paradigm of extremes” (Gaillard 2007) emphasizing the exceptionality of disasters and events causing them: as a response to a disruption, it allows tackling brutal shocks as well as slow pressures and chronic stresses. In this sense, it reinforces the vulnerability paradigm by pointing to the invisible, non-hazard-specific, daily root causes. At the same time however, resilience obfuscates the effects of context, since it is presented as a property of the individuals or communities and expresses itself at the time of the disruption and during the recovery process. The shift to resilience also alters the meaning of prevention from disaster mitigation to crisis management. While vulnerability action plans were promoting a behavioural culture based on information, resources, education and preparedness, resilience action frameworks are advocating reconstruction and rehabilitation, enabling the absorption of disturbances, but also acclimatizing populations to overcome, by themselves, critical situations, no longer though as mitigable or avoidable.

16Ultimately, the new array of a lexical change results in both recycling of the old discourses and practices and simultaneously a deep inflection of aims, ideologies and frameworks. Such inflection continues with the re-emergence of a further concept in DRR and CCA: adaptation.

Vulnerability / adjustment vs. resilience / adaptation

17President Obama declared in 2014 at the COP20 Climate Conference “We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid”. Over the last decade, the “climatization” of debates within international arenas has accelerated the convergence between CCA and DRR (Aykut et al. 2017). This convergence is reflected by the circulation of vulnerability and resilience between DRR and CCA theoretical frameworks and action plans and by the conjunct promotion of adaptation, as an injunction rather than as an analytical tool.

Adaptation, an old response to a new problem

18Adaptation has long been around in the hazard’s tradition. In the study of how societies, nations, communities and individuals were ‘coping with disasters’, a temporal criterion was set to distinguish adjustment from adaptation:

“Adaptations can be thought of as long-term responses that are deeply embedded in human biology or culture (...) Adjustments are short-term responses to hazard purposefully or incidentally adopted” (Kates 1978: 7).

19Adjustments are usually reactive, iteratively implemented and specific to a given hazard (Pelling 2011). Adaptation is, by contrast, a non-linear, proactive process, even if it is based on lessons learned from past events (Wilbanks et al. 2010). It incorporates the various adjustments but also refers back to structural reconfigurations, at times with a thorough system reorganization resulting in its bifurcation. Adaptation re-emerged with accelerating efforts to make DRR and CCA converge (Smit & Pilifosova 2003, Adger 2006), first as the counterpart of mitigation. After the failure of the Kyoto protocol and with the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) increasingly bearing the weight of the climate and disasters injustice issue (Kates et al. 2012), the mitigation objective receded and was gradually superseded by adaptation (Pielke et al. 2007, Biesbroek et al. 2015).

20Over the past decade, adaptation has become the new answer to a major issue. Numerous threats are increasingly difficult to tackle as ‘risk’ and scientists and practitioners are progressively considering them from the uncertainty framework, i.e. with indeterminate, invisible, unpredictable, irreversible consequences, not because of their unpredictability but because of the complex systems dynamics (Bassett et al. 2012). Such a slide is interpreted as that of a ‘risk society’ (Beck 1986) towards a ‘threat society’. Adaptation is hence presented as a response to the instability of the world and uncertainty. For some authors, adaptation is seen as a new paradigm (Schipper 2004) when others rather use it to integrate previous notions (Jansen et al. 2006, Gallopin 2006, Smit & Wandel, 2006).

The resilience of adaptation

21Several studies have recently attempted to formalize the relationship between vulnerability, resilience and adaptation in CCA and DRR (Lei et al. 2013). Common points usually include the (re)mobilization of adaptation with different meanings according to the underlying fields and paradigms, the gradual disentangling of adaptation from vulnerability, and concurrently its increasingly strong imbrications with resilience.

Figure 2. The semantic evolution of vulnerability, resilience and adaptation, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

Figure 2. The semantic evolution of vulnerability, resilience and adaptation, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

22Adaptation can be considered in three different ways: cope, adjust, and transform (Dixon et al. 2014). These three facets relate to different paradigms (Fig. 2).

23Cope is related to the hazard tradition. In this approach, adaptation is embedded in the coping capacity that defines vulnerability (Burton et al. 1978). Adjust is related to the social paradigm: putting forward the vulnerability / adjustments coupling, the ability to adapt is viewed as a component of the coping capacity (Blaikie et al. 1994). In CCA, adjustments reducing vulnerability were considered in the 1990s as the starting point of adaptation (Smit et al. 2000). During the 2000s, adaptation tends also to be confused with adjustment, losing its temporal specificity (O’Brien 2012). Connections to vulnerability and coping progressively receded in the definitions and the use of short- and long-term adaptation is allowing for adjustment to become part of adaptation. Transform concurrently relates to the increasing association between adaptation and resilience, either as process to achieve resilience (Walker et al. 2004, Folke et al. 2010), or a as goal achievable through the development of resilience capacities (Paton et al. 2001, Tierney et al. 2007).

24This development is part of the slide from engineering resilience, based on stability and a return to the status quo, to socio-ecological resilience, moving from coping capacities to adaptive capacities. Adaptive resilience is no longer a matter of resistance but rather of flexibility, encompassing a succession of adjustments both reactive and anticipatory. Some authors go further and call for ‘transformative resilience’ (Kates et al. 2012), fundamentally redefining the relations of societies to their environment.

The resilience / adaptation pair, a triple distancing of the problem

25Uncertainty and complexity have been ‘turned into an opportunity’ to promote that resilience / adaptation pair (Kuhlicke 2010). Such a new framework leads however to a triple distancing of the problem instead of actually tackling it.

The return of technique

26The promotion of the resilience / adaptation combination tends to paradoxically reinforce the ‘technicizing’ of action plans (Reghezza-Zitt et al 2015). Vulnerability had enabled the gathering of the technical and social aspects of prevention within the same framework. In practice, mitigation and protection have remained the main recipients of investments, projects and funds. Adaptation has two components: technological adaptation and behavioural adaptation (Kates et al. 2012). Technological adaptation refers both to actions and infrastructures of mitigation (ie hazard events mitigation, greenhouse gas reduction), and to the technological evolutions backing the behavioural changes (Smit et al. 2000). Behavioural adaptation encompasses change of practice at individual, collective and institutional scales. Technological adaptation keeps taking precedence over behavioural adaptation because adaptation, at least in its incremental sense, recycles the modernist belief of a resorption of societal issues through the progress of science, innovation and technology.

27However, the continuous implementation of major development projects to overcome the failures of previous protection programs based on technical engineering and major infrastructure works can be seen as fighting fire with fire. Crisis after crisis, disaster after disaster, there is no negative correlation between the volume of concreting operations and fatalities, there is however a positive correlation between the volume of concreting and damages. Furthermore, these infrastructures also lead to a false impression of security, which encourages the concentration of populations and property in exposed areas.

A distancing in time and space

28While the vulnerability / adjustment pair was based on ‘acknowledgment’, i.e. a diagnosis of the present situation (ex ante) and/or lesson learned (ex post), the resilience / adaptation pair foster projection into a mid- to long-term future. The two notions imply an acceptance of disturbances (resilience) or threats (adaptation), allowing to “maintain rather than challenge the status quo” (Reid 2012) rather than advocating for urgent treatment or radical transformation. The mechanisms for hazards mitigation and vulnerability reduction are part of a ‘here and now’ approach, concentrating solutions on a given space, at a given moment. By contrast, adaptive resilience (or incremental adaptation) is based on learning, capacity building, planning and/or continuous adjustments. It pushes back the structural reconfigurations defining transformative adaptation to a distant and nebulous future (Pelling et al 2015). The ‘re-technicizing’ of solutions also plays a part in this movement by allowing a ‘play for time’.

29At the same time, the resilience / adaptation pair allows for a distancing in space. Civil engineering solutions such as dikes or cofferdams move the focal point upstream of the basin, while large urban centres end up evading transformational adaptation (Wilbanks et al. 2010). Distancing in space occurs from urban centres to less urbanized or rural margins, and from more developed countries and areas to the least developed ones, without questioning or challenging the spatial and functional organization giving rise to the current issues. Moreover, focusing on crisis management, resilience in its transformational acceptance often leads to the displacement of vulnerable populations (Colten et al. 2008).

A deferral of responsibility and costs to the individual

30While the adjustment / vulnerability approach allowed the “endogenization of disaster causes” (Quenault 2015), the adaptation / resilience approach is fostering an internalisation of causes, shifting the emphasis from society to individuals, and responsibility from the state and public powers towards communities, local powers and individual. In the previous framework, the most deprived bore the brunt of the vulnerability but it could be anticipated and reduced by aid schemes largely based on collective solidarity and public involvement. By contrast, the injunction towards resilience / adaptation supports the current limitation of international and public interventionism and transfers responsibility for costs and disasters to individuals.

31Capacity building has been strongly criticized as a way of shifting responsibility for under-development to the victims – framed as lacking sufficient skills or competence (Folke et al. 2005) – all the while imposing ready-made solutions, discarding alternative, and supporting mainstream practices (Banks et al. 2001). Several questions remain unanswered: who defines the capacities that communities need and why? What control do local communities exercise over the capacity strengthening process? And who defines a strong or capable community? Applied to disaster reduction, adaptive capacity was introduced in the shift from a relief and aid to helpless victims’ managerial approach to the promotion of policies highlighting the responsibility of individuals and community self-organization (Gaillard 2010). Time and again, all the notions boil down to intrinsic and fixed attributes. Vulnerability is therein described as a state linked to erroneous attitudes or strategies rather than as a process whose structural causes should be deconstructed. The resilience framework then leads to the indictment of all that does not fall under the definition of ‘good’ practices: those who do not enjoy the desired resilience attributes or who do not participate enough in the resilience process are stigmatized without questioning the causes of their apparent ‘passivity’ (Rufat 2011).

32DRR and CCA frameworks and action plans eventually become a compilation of incantatory recommendations and injunctions. Their effects are pushed back to ever more distant horizons, ‘re-technicizing’ solutions despite the ‘transformative’ discourses, displacing issues in time and space instead of tackling them, and ultimately shifting costs and responsibilities to the most exposed and/or more vulnerable.

Reconstructing the full range of responses to threats, hazards and disasters

33The vulnerability / adjustment framework coexists and interacts with the resilience / adaptation framework in DRR and CCA. In order to overcome the limits and contradictions of both frameworks, we suggest refocussing on the notion of response. The aim is to define a median proposal between two extremes: the socio-technical paradigm of vulnerability / adjustment and the socio-ecological paradigm of resilience / adaptation. (Re)focusing on the full spectrum of responses allows to find a middle ground. It provides a new basis to build an encompassing framework, retaining the relevant orientations of previous frameworks, while overcoming internal contradictions, implicit and counter-productivity issues. Response is not understood here as a comprehensive toolkit solution, large strategic plan or a textbook ‘one size fits all’ prescription.

34How can individuals, groups and communities cope with hazards, threats, climate change and disasters? This central question of human and political ecology should not overlook the fact that coping with a damaging event depends first and foremost on the responses implemented before, during and after the impacts. These responses are behavioural, technical, legal and organisational. They can be institutional or non-institutional, individual or collective, reactive or proactive, anticipatory or adaptive, chosen or constrained. Such responses can be studied through at least three different lenses:

  • Institutional responses as revealed by planning documents, frameworks for action and strategies. They are subsequently translated into operational measures and concrete actions according to a top-down approach.

  • Community responses are intermediate level responses. Whilst they are partly derived from injunctions and norms issued by institutional stakeholders, they also depend on the production and appropriation by local actors of their own resources, skills and capital. They cannot be reduced to the sum of individual responses but involve significant capacities for self-organization.

  • Individual responses are defined by the actions, decisions, and measures taken by people at risk to ensure their safety, capacities and recovery in the face of a disaster. Such responses can contribute to reducing vulnerability and increasing the resilience both at the individual and community levels.

35Post-disasters lessons learned consistently highlight that practitioners and risk managers have a difficult time turning good practices’ guides into concrete action. Risk and crisis management are still a collection of piecemeal solutions, therefore more on the plane of adjustment (Pigeon et al. 2016). Despite progress in risk knowledge and warning systems, the lack of anticipation and preparedness lead to essentially reactive responses, which are actually ad hoc technical solutions or improvised emergency measures (protective infrastructures, improvement of building strength, zoning, mass evacuation, etc.). With climate change and increasing uncertainty, political actors and managers are shifting towards adaptation and proactive resilience.

36Reponses cannot be limited to a purely technical-engineering and administrative approach: on the contrary, they must be seen as the implementation of solutions that are recognized as socially constructed and that reflect the social production of risks, crises and disasters. First, the recognition of the role of societies cannot lie in the political and moral displacement of responsibilities (Pugh 2013). Empowerment of local communities is crucial, but this cannot substantiate the shift of responsibilities from politics to morality, from the collective to individuals. Secondly, considering individuals is essential, but this does not mean that DRR, CCA, vulnerability reduction or resilience enhancement, should depend solely on individuals (Alexander 2013). Approaches based on capacities building, understood as developing intrinsic aptitude and pre-existing properties, ignore the constructed and dynamic nature of the socio-political processes that create hazardous situations, produce risk and lead to disaster. Finally, while considering the long term can be a lever to develop the response, it cannot justify postponing actions to be undertaken or transferring the costs of inaction from current generations to future generations.

Responses: refocusing on processes and interactions

37The reconstruction of the full range of responses must take into account the shift from risk society to that of uncertainty, and its effects on management practices and choice modalities. Rather than attempting to introduce uncertainty into the risk frameworks, it is critical to assert that uncertainty is irreducible to risk and the unprecedented nature of the challenges it poses. Uncertainty arises from non-linearity, which itself emerges from the complexity and interdependence of processes and the multiplicity of interactions at different scales. Whilst these notions are often mentioned, they only have little actual effects on practices, or even on paradigms.

38Asserting the central position of uncertainty leads to a double disenchantment: on one hand, leading to acknowledge the end of universal solutions and one size fits all toolkits, on the other, accepting the limitations, sometimes even the counter-productivity, of purely scientific and technical solutions. While these limits have been known since the ISDR decade, we still have to draw the consequences. The first is the definitive refusal of the confiscation of decision-making and choice by technical expertise, civil engineering and technical solutionism. Decision-making cannot be constrained by technical expertise – bounded choice is not a response nor can it be moved to a more or less distant future – nor is delayed choice. The second is to overcome the binary property / process opposition by recognizing that vulnerability and resilience are dynamic constructions in perpetual evolution.

Figure 3: Rebuilding the response in equidistance of the two paradigms, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

Figure 3: Rebuilding the response in equidistance of the two paradigms, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.

39Responses cannot therefore be universal solutions, built "above ground" and outside the social, economic, political or even ideological context. On the contrary, they must be based on reflexive choice (fig. 3). Reflexive choice is distinguished from rational choice by a feedback on the actors, on the context of the decision and on the consequences of the resulting actions. Reflexive choice does not invalidate the relevance or legitimacy of rational choice. However, it restores the individual freedom and democracy, by preserving the possibility of expressing contradictory points of view and deciding between several options. It refers to Habermas’ project of discursive democracy. Habermas suggested the institutionalization of procedures allowing such reflexivity: "The theory of law based on discussion conceives the democratic rule of law as institutionalization, operated by means of the legitimate right of procedures and communicational conditions allowing opinion and will to be formed through discussion, which in turn allows both the exercise of political autonomy and the legitimate enactment of the law" (Habermas 1997: 466). Unlike the socio-technical paradigm, reflexive choice is not constrained by technique or expertise alone. It is not one-off, it is long-term. It becomes a continuous process, with permanent corrections according to the concrete or foreseeable consequences, which allows a closing between reflection and action. Reflexive choice thus implies changing the temporality of the response. This can neither be a short-term adjustment or a long-term horizon. Responses are built on the mid-term time taken to concurrently enable the mobilization of populations, the democratic dialogue with citizens and collective learning.

40This has led us to derive from response, uncertainty, non-linearity and this medium-term approach the equivalent of the main notions from the two main paradigms (Fig. 3). They allow for the reconstruction of response in a framework equidistant from those paradigms. Acknowledging uncertainty and non-linearity, response leads to a refocusing on interactions and processes, putting in turn forward the notion of relational. In a relational framework it is decisive to understand reality or a system in such a way that the positions and other properties of objects are only meaningful relative to other objects. In the hazard and disaster field, there are three different relational aspects: interdependence which produces complexity, shifting in turn the focus from risk to uncertainty; interrelationship which allow for the democratic construction of the decision-making – or co-construction of the decision; multi-scale and trans-scale processes which explain that a decision taken at the n-1 level affect the n+1 and vice versa. Using a relational approach, we can move away from the pyramidal vision of the technical paradigm and adopt a systemic understanding, both dynamic and holistic, of complexity. It also makes it possible to adopt multi- and trans-scalar understandings of the spatiality and temporality of threats (November 2013).

41Finally, the notion of response leads to consider the short, medium and long term. Stressing the median time when dealing with a crisis allows to move away from the immediate reactions to the shock, to integrate lessons from feedback and the constant evolution of societies and risks. It makes also possible to (re)open-up the public debate and thus integrate the democratic time without hindering action. Despite uncertainty, transformation of threats and unprecedented nature of their consequences, (re)focusing on median time allows to build a strategy on a case-by-case basis but not on an ad hoc basis. Adjustments can be designed to produce incremental or even transformational adaptation. Risk and crisis managers are rarely able to implement past experience or even tried and tested practices, as current crises are less and less likely to have already occurred or to recur similarly (Beck et al. 1994). Coping with complexity and acting in an uncertain context therefore implies to consider feedbacks, learning and memories of past events, but requires above all to develop a specific response rather than the selection from existing bookshelf, without resorting to a recipe, a routine, a habit, or even a belief or tradition. Such focus on the median time and reflexivity are taking past experience feedback and social and political relational processes into account, enabling the construction of a particular, specific, and expectantly adapted response.

Responses: refocusing on choices and negotiation

42Responses understood as reflexive choice cannot be considered a given. If risk and disaster are a social product, the response can only be understood as the implementation of solutions that are also socially constructed. In that respect, the response is political. Contrary to the message increasingly conveyed by resilience, reflexive choice is not to be considered at the individual level, where it conveys the ideology of the free and sovereign subject, master of his condition and his thought (Bourdieu 2001). Reflexive choice and response have to be analyzed at the level of social practices, which are constantly revised in the light of the information that emerges as to their concrete effects (Beck 1986). More broadly, the response must be approached as a strategy (Fig. 3). The strategy is not just about choice; it relies on a medium-term vision negotiated with citizens, the associated arbitrations, the actual means of assent and the inscription of choice in the relevant territories.

43The emphasis on choice and negotiation aims at restoring the full range of responses (Fig. 3). Frameworks are not dealing with subjects and objects here, but with citizens. The choices therefore result from negotiations at societal level and tinkering at an individual level. These different negotiation processes feature conflicting interests and trade-offs: bringing them to light is crucial. When they do not take place, this can be the symptom of some recourse to once again distancing or diluting the problems rather than managing them.

44Responses lead to a focus on political imperatives to arbitrate between the interests that come into conflict. Refocusing DRR and CCA on politics and uncertainty leads to (re)considering justice as a criterion in revealing the triple distancing of problems in time, space and towards individuals. Such criterion also helps determining whether choices and strategies are really aimed at the root causes brought to light by the radical approach. However, the aim is not to reconstruct the notion of response in a fair way, but in a non-contradictory manner. From this point of view, the notion of justice serves as a central criterion, serving to uncover the issues of discourse coherence, or non-commensurable frameworks – as is the case of the integration of the radical approach paradoxically leading to naturalization, or integrating vulnerability to biological adaptation. It is primarily because action and choice are considered in contradictory frameworks and slippery notions that the implementations lead to impasses. Only the reconstruction of a full range of responses can lead to a non-contradictory framework.

45Response response must therefore be understood as a negotiated strategy based on reflexive choice. This presupposes the ability to overcome the zero-risk bias (Ball 2002), acknowledging that there is no such thing as zero risk, and thus building up risk acceptance. It is not simply a matter of recognizing the irreducibility of risk or advocating fatalism, but of understanding what it takes to accept to live with threats. Questioning if and how risks are accepted even by the most exposed populations and more vulnerable or deprived groups leads to social and environmental justice issues (Fig. 3): Can a society define the acceptable level of risk in a fair and democratic way? Who is defining such a level of risk and for whom? Who defines the resulting distribution of costs, benefits, and negative externalities? Can the cost of collective and individual security be fairly spatially and socially distributed? The emphasis should therefore be on risk acceptance among the most exposed and vulnerable populations, and on the prospective negotiations – or conversely lack of actual debate – and resulting spatial and social distributions of costs, benefits, and negative externalities.

Responses: refocusing on the idea of justice

46The problem is then shifted from the engineering of solutions to the representations and the politics of risk – finally acknowledging that the acceptance of risk is a societal choice (Douglas 1992). Research on risk presentation shows that social and spatial justice is key to risk acceptance (Slovic 2000). Responses to threats, crises and disasters cannot be understood by focusing on cognitive dissonance alone, as they are embedded in social and political inequities, possible negotiations, tensions and conflicts. Contractualism (Rawls 1971) offers a perspective to link risk acceptance and social and spatial justice: responses should be accepted first and foremost by the most exposed populations and the more vulnerable groups. Since disasters are indicative of inequalities, such negotiated responses should address this problem head-on without waiting for forthcoming crises. As social and ecological inequalities are linked (Dobson 2003, Klein 2015), if the response is to provide a metric, it is not so much that of radiant future resilience as that of environmental justice. This means, for example, focusing on the social and territorial dynamics trapping populations exposed to risk, in other words, moving from equal opportunity policies to equal risk choices (Beck 1986). As a result, responses, DRR and CCA actions should not be analyzed and framed through the resilience imperative lenses but rather through environmental (and social) justice.

47Refocusing on the idea of justice also takes up the contributions of the radical approach by reemphasizing the role of “root causes” (Blaikie et al. 1994). Roots causes are to be sought in inequalities and the wider political, social, economic and legal context. Approaching DRR and CCA through the notions of response and thus justice also requires addressing the role of individual and collective choice. This leads to consider whether responses and choices are publicly debated, and collectively assumed, and the role of individuals within collectives. Instead of considering if individual actions are consistent with previous collective choices, it requires to focus on their actual ability to choose, even to make “bad choices” or to perpetuate “bad practice”. Conversely to resilience and adaptation, easily sliding towards injunction, obedience, and the transfer of legal and moral responsibility (Chandler 2014), such a construction of response imposes a focus on the possibility and conditions of choice. Another metric of the response, along with justice – the spatial and social distribution of costs, benefits, and externalities – is therefore the preservation or restoration of the capacity for action. Capacity building helps to diversify the options available to individuals, thus expanding the range of possibilities, choices and responses (Pelling 2007). It aims to restore people's capacity for action, by giving them access to capital (financial, social, cultural, environmental, etc) and resources (institutional, legal, economic, political, etc) and by developing their skills, knowledge and faculties. Responses can be considered from a proactive and adaptive perspective, with a central focus on monitoring the capacity for action over time and across space, the actual possibilities of all stakeholders to choose freely, join the negotiation and weigh on the choices.

48Such a refocusing on justice and choices can be based on the notion of capability, introduced by A. Sen to assess the well-being of individuals (Sen 2010). Capabilities describe the unique combination abilities, resources and context. Transferring the capability approach in DRR and CCA makes it possible to consider the individual level by reconciling personal characteristics, resources and assets at one's disposal and the environments in which one operates (Benitez 2018). “[Capabilities] are not just abilities residing inside a person but also freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social and economic environment” (Nussbaum 2012: 20). Capabilities are not to be reduced to faculties or skills (capacities as an intrinsic aptitude). Nor do they refer to the fact that the person was able to perform the action he or she wanted and satisfy their needs or to achieve well-being (capacities as a result). Capabilities make it possible to emphasize the importance of choice: the same action, the same behavior can be intended or constrained. The capability approach is based on the idea of freedom, in order to respect the autonomy of citizens (and no longer just actors), who determine what they want to achieve. Attention is focused on the concrete freedom to do this or that, in terms of possibility and not according to a specific project on the proper way of organizing a society. The capability approach is not interested in what a person ends up achieving, but in what they are really able to do, whether or not they choose to do so (Sen 1985). It is therefore necessary to examine the actual conditions under which individuals exercise their rights and freedoms. These remain mere potentialities if we do not consider them in relation to the personal characteristics of individuals, to the external and environmental factors wherefrom they make their choices and to the multiple dimensions of wellbeing (Sen 1992).

49The capability approach is correcting the excessive focus on the means by insisting on the actual possibility of realizing the ends and on the effective freedom to reach these reasoned ends by focusing on the real possibilities, even if they remain potential, and on the actual limits of the ability to choose, but without prejudging the choice. With this in mind, A. Sen proposed a reformulation of the notion of sustainability: “the maintenance, and if possible the extension, of the real freedoms and capabilities that people enjoy today without compromising the ability of future generations to have a similar or superior freedom” (Sen 2010). At the collective level, the capability approach must be combined with a reflexive choice. Building a positive adherence rather than a coercion, that will always be bypassed, or an incentive, that will always be a windfall effect, is a necessity. Governments must therefore create the conditions for a free and informed choice of populations. They also must ensure that social and spatial justice is extended over time, to avoid shifting the burden to future generations. But the urgency to act or uncertainty do not invalidate the need to build, now, individuals and communities’ capabilities to cope with current and future threats and hazards.

50Transferring the capability approach in DRR and CCA helps avoiding both temptations to focus mostly on technical solutions, and to define universal rules, guidebooks and principles. It also requires moving away from the essentialization of vulnerability and from the naturalization of resilience, as they derive from reducing capacity to an intrinsic faculty. By emphasizing the contexts allowing vulnerable people to act and achieve an objective, it reveals the limits preventing citizens from making a free choice, all without prejudging their actual choice. Combining the capability approach, justice, relational interactions and reflexive choice in a response framework (Fig. 3) brings to light whether responses and choices truly resolve or alleviate the problem, or if they only serve to displace it, by highlighting the triple displacement in time and space, from the collective to individuals, and from the tense present to future generations.

51Such a DRR and CCA response framework calls for some caution, however. In implementing a response to crises and disasters, while coercion might always be bypassed and inducement might always create a deadweight effect, a negotiation and a positive agreement might reach its objectives over the medium to long term. Monitoring the conditions for free and informed choice among local populations while assessing the issue of social and spatial justice over time are therefore critical to reveal whether the issues are being tackled, or displaced, or the burden postponed on future generations. Citizens must also be given concrete opportunities to acquire the effective capacity to face present and future threats and challenges. This necessitates the application of principles, such as those of responsibility or precaution, and attributes, such as resistance or resilience, to the appropriate processes; learning from feedback imparted by consideration of capabilities; the empowerment of local populations and the production of new collective choices that ensure risk acceptance and the most relevant social transformations in the medium and long term in each territory.


52The accumulation of theoretical research in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) keeps shifting from one concept to the next as we fail to overcome the challenges to translate them into operationally effective action plans. Lacking a coherent and consensual framework, it is a succession of shifting generalization surges and ‘one size fits all’ practical guides, boiling down to a compilation of incantatory recommendations and injunctions, pushing back the effects, costs and responsibilities in time and space, from the centres to the margins, from the current policy makers to the future generations, from the centres of power to the individuals, especially the most exposed and most vulnerable.

53The main issue is that concepts and frameworks do have performative effects. It is the physical understanding of vulnerability and resilience that still imposes technical solutions in the pursuit of physical protection. These notions or at least some of the uses they allow are counterproductive. Modifying the theoretical toolbox and constructing more robust notions is decisive to pave the way to less contradictory alternatives, other perspective that might avoid the pitfall of distancing issues in time, space or towards individuals instead of actually tackling them. The process of choice must be (re)placed front and centre of the analysis, in order to take stock of nearly half a century’s worth of research demonstrating risk as a social product and construct.

54This leads to reconstructing the whole range of responses and building a middle ground response framework. Such an effort has been demonstrating at least three things. First, there is a gap between the two poles of vulnerability and resilience, a space rarely rendered visible. Second, this space can be (re)invested with notions less connoted or implicit – without a priori or value judgements – derived from the notion of response. Third, the resulting response framework reveals bottom-up processes, handiwork and choice processes, in other words shifting the issue of territorial risk management from a (re)naturalization towards a (re)politicisation. This effort opens the door to a heuristic mobilization of responses, a reinvestment of these notions into a new framework of analysis, indeed in reaction to the increasing uncertainty challenging territory management by making visible the active forces at work and not just inequalities and inheritance (vulnerability) or discourse and incantatory recommendations (resilience).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Two converging paradigms towards disaster risk reduction (DRR), M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.
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Title Figure 2. The semantic evolution of vulnerability, resilience and adaptation, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.
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Title Figure 3: Rebuilding the response in equidistance of the two paradigms, M. Reghezza & S. Rufat.
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Electronic reference

Magali Reghezza-Zitt and Samuel Rufat, « Disentangling the Range of Responses to Threats, Hazards and Disasters. Vulnerability, Resilience and Adaptation in question », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [Online], Environment, Nature, Landscape, document 916, Online since 03 September 2019, connection on 04 December 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Magali Reghezza-Zitt

Maître de conférences habilitée à diriger des recherches, École normale supérieure (PSL), Laboratoire de géographie physique de Meudon (LGP – UMR 8591), France

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Samuel Rufat

Maître de conférences habilité à diriger des recherches, Université de Cergy-Pontoise, France

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