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Rural community resilience: the ‘everyday’ and the ‘emergency’

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Blog picture:  Rural community resilience: the ‘everyday’ and the ‘emergency’

During the winter of 2015/16, the North East of Scotland faced the worst flooding in recent history. The ongoing Long-term implications of flooding1 project that I’m co-leading focuses on the impacts on people and communities of flooding over a three-year period. We chose two case study areas in Aberdeenshire as the focus of the research: firstly, Garioch, as repeated flooding events have been experienced here in recent decades and, secondly, Ballater, as the 2015/16 flood event was the first high-magnitude flood to have affected the community in living memory. Our expectation was that because Ballater had no recent experience of flooding, individuals and the wider community would have struggled to cope before, during and after the flood event, whereas Garioch residents would be better equipped to cope with the emergency situation, due to frequent flood events in the past. I’ll tell you more about what we found later on.

To understand if communities are acting resiliently, we need to understand what the term means. Other ongoing research2 is examining the concept of rural community resilience and has demonstrated that resilience means many different things. A review of academic literature has highlighted that resilience is a hazy concept, understood to mean a variety of things that can vary according to the author’s background. Academics currently define rural community resilience as the ability of a rural community to survive long-term and gradual decline that affects everyday rural life (the closure of key services and facilities, demographic ageing, etc.). Rural community resilience also involves the ability to move forward to create a new situation and recognises that this process involves the ability of people to work together in a community to make transformational change to overcome rural decline. When examining this definition of rural community resilience with non-academic stakeholders, including representatives of rural communities, agencies and organisations working with rural communities and policy-makers, we found that they had different understandings about what ‘resilience’ was and how it applied to rural communities in other ways. Indeed, policy rhetoric around resilience in Scotland focusses on a community’s ability to plan, respond to, and bounce back from extreme events or an emergency (e.g. flooding, fires, terrorism, etc.).

Although other understandings of resilience may exist, we have identified at least two different dominant understandings of what resilience means in the context of a Scottish rural community; the everyday and the emergency as described above. Ambiguity may occur because conceptualisations of rural community resilience have evolved within rural communities, and in an academic context from the social science literature, to focus on responding to and dealing with long-term threats to the sustainability or viability of rural communities (i.e. the everyday definition). The emergency definition may originate from natural sciences where resilience is about shocks and recovery; this is more akin to the definition of resilience applied in policy targeted towards resilient rural communities. Rural community resilience as a term is now being applied in two quite different ways which has the potential to cause considerable confusion.

Flooding in the centre of Ballater during Storm Frank in 2015/16

The fact that understandings of rural community resilience differ is important. If policy-makers typically adopt the emergency understanding of resilience, but rural communities think that resilience applies to the everyday context, policy goals may not be achieved and those working with and in rural communities may become frustrated and unable to meet their goals. However, preliminary results from the Long-term implications of flooding project suggests that the ‘emergency’ and ‘everyday’ are not mutually exclusive within the context of rural communities. Instead, they appear to be inter-twined, forming an over-arching, and more complex understanding of what rural community resilience is. Our results showed that because Ballater has had to deal with other problems in the past it was able to respond well to the flooding. This led us to explore what resilience meant and how it manifested in these communities. In my opinion, the community in and around Ballater has largely recovered positively following the winter 2015/16 flooding despite not having had prior experience and confounding our initial expectations. We found evidence that everyday resilience had been developed which provided a framework through which the community could then base an effective response in an emergency situation. Findings from interviews conducted with members of the community, including those involved in community groups and organisations, indicate that the experience of responding to an emergency may enhance the future everyday resilience that this community could enact. Therefore, in this case, emergency resilience which was made possible by strong everyday resilience capacity in the community has, in turn, instigated everyday resilience by bringing together different sectors of a population and facilitating people to play a more proactive role within their communities.

When thinking about resilience, we need to be mindful that the term resilience has multiple meanings and this can cause uncertainty and ambiguity when applied in a rural community context. Nonetheless, if we are open to multiple understandings of resilience, and the way in which they might contribute to creating or strengthening each other, we may uncover more effective ways for rural communities to overcome the challenges they may face in the future, which we hope to be able to further examine in our ongoing research.

Annie McKee, SEGS, the James Hutton Institute
Annabel Pinker, SEGS, the James Hutton Institute
Elliot Meador, Rural Policy Centre, SRUC
Rob McMorran, Rural Policy Centre, SRUC

Jayne Glass, Rural Policy Centre, SRUC
Lorna Philip, Department of Geography and Environment, University of Aberdeen
Gillian Dowds, Department of Geography and Environment, University of Aberdeen


1 The Long-term implications of flooding project is funded through the Centre of Expertise for Water and the Local Assets, Local Decisions and Community Resilience project is funded by the Scottish Government.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.