Digital resilience


<Image by Rev Dan Catt>

Reading some of the posts and papers from Joss Winn and Richard Hall brought the concept of resilience to my attention. I'm probably deviating from their intended use of the concept, but it has been a useful way of thinking about how academia responds to the impact of digital, networked and open technologies and approaches. I was also struck by Joss' comment at Open Ed: "Resilience does not mean withstanding" (Scott Leslie also liked this). This is a useful way of thinking about how new technologies (and more importantly the approaches they facilitate) can influence scholarship, as often the reaction is to think about what we will lose and set about resisting, or withstanding, change. The argument I have been making in my book is that engagement with technology is the key to maintaining ownership of scholarship.  I have used it in one section of the concluding chapter of my book, so thought I'd share this here.

In his 1973 paper on the stability of ecological systems, Holling defined resilience as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” It is a perspective that has been evolved beyond the ecosystems Holling applied it to, and has found particular relevance to sustainable development and climate change. Hall and Winn (2010) have applied the concept of resilience to education, and open education in particular. Walker et al (2004) propose four aspects of resilience:

  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.” 
  4. Panarchy:  the influences of external forces at scales above and below. For example, external oppressive politics, invasions, market shifts, or global  climate change can trigger local surprises and  regime shifts.

This is a useful means of considering the response of academia to the potential impact of new technologies. This applies across four levels where digital scholarship is relevant:

  • Governmental, national agency, research councils
  • Discipline
  • Institutional
  • Individual

Taking these four levels and the four aspects of resilience gives us a ‘digital scholarship resilience matrix’ as shown below. Completing this is an exercise you might like to attempt for your own discipline and institution, and a relevant research council or agency. For each box enter the degree to which that example meets resilience factor, for example if you work in a very traditional discipline, such as law, you may decide that it is very resistant to change.


National agency
























How you complete each entry will vary considerably depending on discipline (medical research for instance is arguably less precarious than historical research) geographical location (venture capital funding for technology research will be easier to come by in San Francisco), institution (Cambridge University is likely to be more resistant to change than a modern one) and recent events (universities in Ireland and Greece for example will be subject to the panarchic influence of recent years).

Building on Holling’s work resilience is now often defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” (eg Hopkins 2009).

It is this focus on retaining function and identity that is relevant to scholarship I would argue. To return to the point above, this does not equate to resistance. Indeed, a high resistance, is not necessarily a benefit to an ecosystem, as Holling observed some insect populations fluctuate wildly depending on environmental factors, but overall they are resilient.

In terms of scholarship resilience is about utilising technology to change practices where this is desirable, but to retain the underlying function and identity which the existing practices represent. It is a mistake to think of the practices themselves as being core scholarship, rather that they are the methods through which we realise them, and these methods can change. Peer review for example, is a method of ensuring quality, objectivity and reliability. But it may not be the only way of realising this, or at least its current incarnation may be subject to change. A resilience perspective would seek to ensure these core functions were protected, and not just resist at the level of the method.



  1. Antoesp says:

    Hi Martin,
    I am looking forward to reading your new book on digital scholarship and in the meanwhile I can appreciate your “news highlights”. I found it very interesting your ‘digital scholarship resilience matrix’ and the related excercise you suggest: it is useful to think of resilience variables of different settings (and boundaries?) which digital scholarship affects and challenges. Even if just digital scholarship to a degree allows to overcome contextual factors, for instance enabling an individual researcher (in a disadvantaged context) to join a “virtual” research network or a research team to foster interdisciplinarity.
    I like your focus on “the underlying function and identity which the existing practices represent”, highlighting what I intend as “primitives” of research practices, which can be shaped due to co-evolution of methods, technologies and norms.
    I wander if within the notion of resilience we could also include both the capacity to create forms of legitimation of new research practices and the capacity to manage the compresence of traditional and emerging modes of knowledge production and communication. In particular I refer to Gibbson et al.’s (1994) framework of Mode 1 (traditional, disciplinary) and Mode 2 (emerging, interdisciplinary, strongly dependent from digital environments) of knowledge production and communication. According to Houghton et al. the Mode 2 supplements but doesn’t replace Mode 1:
    “There are then many interdipendencies, which suggest that Mode 1 and Mode 2 research will continue to exist in parallel, and enough funamental difference to suggest that the absorbtion of either one by the other will be difficult” (p.10).
    Thanks for sharing your work,
    Gibbson et al. (1994), The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies, SAGE.
    Houghton et al.(2004), Changing Research Practices in the Digital Information and Communication Environment.

  2. Martin says:

    Wow, thanks for a really thoughtful response and some good references. Absolutely we should include the legitimisation of new research practices and dissemination – much of my book is a long whinge about this :) resilience, to me, means remaining relevant and also using new technology to develop new approaches which enhance scholarship.

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