Resilience and the “Engineering Mindset”

In a recent article in Risk Analysis, Park and several colleagues argue that recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have renewed interest in “resilience” in system design. I strongly recommend this article to readers, as it offers an interesting take on catastrophe management and mitigation from the perspective of systems engineering (systems engineering is concerned with managing complex systems throughout their life cycles – including during crises; when the concept is applied to communities [i.e. understanding a community as a system], a system engineer seeks to plan for the community in such a way that it fails minimally and recovers quickly). One thing that is of particular interest to our readers is their argument regarding the engineering mindset, and its relevance to “resilience” versus traditional hazard mitigation approaches. In the words of Park et al., engineers tend to look for “problems to be solved rather than conditions to be managed” (2013, 360). While the engineering mindset is clearly crucial to disaster preparation and response, it is not necessarily (or always) the best, and certainly not the only mode of response. That is, the engineering mindset is useful and important, but it should not animate the sole voice in any design or response situation, including disaster situations.

Resilience is typically defined as “the capacity to adapt to changing conditions without catastrophic loss of form or function” (pp. 356). Park and colleagues argue, however, that resilience is not a property that system has or lacks (as the preceding definition suggests), rather, they suggest that resilience is an emergent property – an “outcome of a recursive process that includes: sensing, anticipation, learning, and adaptation” (pp. 356). That is, resilience is a dynamic property like risk itself, a function of the system. Resilience derives from the basic elements of a system, and the interplay between those elements. Thus argue Park et al., systems (whether a household, a bridge, a city, etc.) should be engineered not to be disaster-proof, but rather to survive and effectively weather a disaster (think fail-safe versus safe-fail; a “fail-safe system is one that can never fail, a safe-fail system is one designed to fail safely (as opposed to catastrophically) in the event of a failure). A resiliency-oriented system, then, is one whose designers recognize that it is genuinely impossible to build something that is truly fail-safe, or “disaster-proof”, and to instead emphasize the importance of designing and building systems that can fail without imposing massive harm to people or infrastructure.

I’ll try to clarify with an example of the “engineering mindset” from research conducted by the editors of this blog (and published here, if you’re interested in reading further) [note that this is a military-engineering mindset, not a perfect representation of the presumptive “typical” engineering mindset]. In post-Katrina New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with cleaning up debris in wrecked portions of the city (the Corps had many tasks, this was only one of them). The Corps pursued this objective with vigor that one would expect from a militarized bureaucracy. Unfortunately, in their haste to fulfill their demolition mission, the Corps ran roughshod over citizens’ due process and property rights, routinely violated its own administrative procedures, and consequently demolished a large number of homes before home owners were able to make any claims as to whether they were actually so badly damaged that they actually need to be demolished. Many property owners claimed that their homes or businesses should never have been destroyed – and some were destroyed before the owners were allowed to return to the city to view the damage. The Corps claimed that the work was necessary for the health and safety of people of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the work was done so quickly that we’ll never know which of these claims is true (or how true each is). For these and similar reasons, the Corps was subject to numerous lawsuits from citizens and activists seeking relief from the Corps’ ardor for its task.



Figure 1 shows the number of demolitions conducted in the Lower 9th Ward (black bar) as compared to the total number of demolitions conducted in all other neighborhoods combined (gray bar). The data presented cover all months from February of 2006 through September of 2007.

This is not intended to disparage the Corps, per se, but rather to point out that engineers, including the Corps, also create unintended consequences with their laser-like foci on “solving problems.” In post-New Orleans the Corps could have avoided some major headaches by slowing down, thinking about due process and property rights issues, the importance of community in places like the Lower 9th Ward, and so (not only would they have avoided violating peoples’ rights, they also would have obviated more than a few lawsuits).

This example is a modest departure from the core concepts I’m discussing here. In physical terms, the New Orleans flood-protection system was theoretically engineered to protect the city from a direct hit from a hurricane; for many well-documented reasons, that system failed. In reality, it is almost certainly impossible (and is certainly cost-prohibitive) to build a flood-protection system around New Orleans that is truly “hurricane proof.” If the Corps would heed the advice of Park et al., they would of course take pains to protect the city from flooding, but would also invest in resilient infrastructure designed to weather inevitable flooding disaster. The example I offer though concerns social resilience. Specifically, the Corps’ collective “engineering mindset” motivated it to solve a physical problem without thought of the non-physical costs of its activities.

In short, I am inclined to think that the rising tide of resilience-oriented systems (both social and physical) reflects a positive step in the development of disaster management and mitigation techniques and theories. The work of Park et al. (2013) offers a cogent and accessible case for resilience, and is well worth reading for individuals interested in disaster and emergency management – perhaps especially from a political perspective.



Park, J. et al. 2013. “Integrating Risk and Resilience Approaches to Catastrophe Management in Engineering Systems.” Risk Analysis 33(3): 356-367.

Hatcher, Laura J., Logan Strother, Randolph Burnside and Donald Hughes. 2012. “The USACE and Post-Katrina New Orleans: Demolitions and Disaster Clean-Up,” Journal of Applied Social Science 6(2): 176-190.

See also:

Aguirre, B.E. 2007. “Dialectics of Vulnerability and Resilience.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy 14(1): 39-59.

Book Review: The Sympathetic State by Michele Landis Dauber 1

Over the summer I read the wonderful book, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State. The author, Michele Landis Dauber is a professor of law as well as the Bernard D. Bergreen Faculty Scholar at Stanford University. While I have never met Professor Dauber, she and I have been traveling in overlapping scholarly circles through the Law and Society Association for several years. When I moved from property and takings into studies of disasters and law, I quickly stumbled upon her work. When the University of Chicago Press released her book last year I bought it and put it in my pile of work-related reading. I finally got to it — and wish I had gotten to it earlier.

Dauber’s argument is that disaster relief and the “disaster narrative” is central to the development of the American welfare state. What she means by “disaster narrative” is especially interesting to me as these narratives (i.e., stories we tell about disasters and their victims) have major impacts upon public perceptions that feed into public policy. For Dauber, the disaster narrative she is primarily interested in is one developed during the New Deal that “fashion[ed] a story against the backdrop of an existing moral economy that would constitute a compelling case for aid” (p. 11). This “compelling case for aid” may have started in narratives around natural disasters, but Dauber argues that during the Depression it was stretched to include other social problems. Unemployment, according to Dauber, became a “disaster” that had to be addressed through legislation. The chronic unemployment that characterized The Great Depression is often attributed to drought, but quite likely is more closely linked to the mechanization of farming. Whatever its underlying causes, it was framed as a “disaster” by the Roosevelt administration in order to provide a moral basis for providing aid through Congressional legislation for those migrant workers, farm laborers and sharecroppers who found themselves deprived of the jobs they had customarily held. Dauber examines the development of this disaster narrative in US welfare policy beginning at the founding, and moving through the New Deal era. Her argument is wells documented and very persuasive. Indeed, Dauber’s account of how the attempt to stretch “disaster relief” to include unemployment at the national level is one of the great achievements of this book.

In addition, making extensive use of archival work, Dauber provides some interesting content analysis to support her view that not only did a disaster narrative develop in national political institutions, but that non-political actors such as citizens who had suffered unemployment and other economic hardships, deployed the disaster narrative in their attempts to receive assistance. She uncovers the characteristics and structure of this narrative through extensive research not only into governmental documents, but also materials such as the letters requesting aid from President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

Along these lines, one of Dauber’s most interesting research strategies includes a careful content analysis of letters to Eleanor Roosevelt. Hundreds of thousands of letters were written to Mrs. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. This large body of material, combined with other official documents such as the census, provides Dauber with a rich dataset for exploring the way those seeking assistance imagined what requests would be granted. Both they way these letter writers conceived the government as well as their own situation are on display in these letters. Dauber explains the writers of these letters were ordinary people seeking assistance, who, she writes are “[u]nlike the judges, politicians, lawyers, artists, writers, and PR men [discussed earlier in the book] the writers…had only those persuasive resources they could mobilize over the kitchen table,” (p. 187). Dauber closely analyzes a random sample of 529 of these letters, then did additional analysis on a subset of 267, for whom she was able to find additional information. Fascinatingly, Dauber uncovers what she calls “the underlying moral order” that informed the writing of these letters. She uses them, as she explains, as “accounts” – which has a fairly specific meaning in social science: “as efforts by social actors to explain otherwise discrediting or inexplicable situations as a way that will make sense to their audience and purge their behavior of troublesome aspects” (p. 191).

As Dauber further explains, such accounts provide indicators of “shared understandings about what constitutes a good explanation of behavior, and indeed of what requires an explanation in the first place” (p. 191). In these letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, then, we learn that many, many of the letter writers felt the need to explain not only their current situation but why they could not support themselves. They did, indeed, provide excuses for seeking help. For the social scientists among my readers, Dauber explains that historians have treated these letters differently, seeing them as evidence of the hardship and need of the writers, or as autobiography of sorts (p. 192-193, citing Robert McElvine and Robert Cohen). Dauber uses the letters with a different goal in mind. Drawing on the insights of C. Wright Mills, she sees “a vocabulary of motives.” So many letters employ such similar strategies that, Dauber explains, the letters contain strong evidence of “a widespread expectation that these were the excuses and justifications that would be ‘honored’,” (p. 192). In other words, these were the reasons for the situations that were understandable and would elicit sympathy from the audience for the letters.

What makes her analysis particularly interesting is that Dauber pays attention to both the details in the letters and the details of the letters. Among other things, we learn they are very uniform in length (running to about 400 words). They often contain the same basic information (current employment status, and a very brief description of the difficulties faced by the family). By cross-referencing the letter writers’ names with the 1930 census data, Dauber could determine whether their home was classified as urban or rural, which supplemented the basic information already in the letters such as the occupation, gender and basic family structure of the writer. Dauber went a step further and located the manuscript census form for the letter writers when she could find them (she was successful over half the time). For these writers, Dauber was able to add great detail yet, such as the value of their homes or monthly rental costs, whether there was more than one generation of the family living in the home, and even whether a family owned a radio (p. 194). Such information allowed her to determine how unique these writers were, while also making clear the limitations her data contained.

These sorts of limitations always exist in any dataset, though it is not always the case that we can see them as well as Dauber can present them because of the multiple data sources she has. For example, Dauber reports that she was more likely to find information on rural letter writers than urban, and certainly more likely to find those who had not changed their name since the 1930 census. She points out that while there may be bias in her subsample of 267 letters, she is able to take these limitations into account. The one limitation I wish she had discussed more seems to be the middle class status of most of these letter writers. In terms of bias in their perception, the fact that they are not the poorest members of the population leads me to wonder whether there would be a class difference in the way requests for assistance would be made; that is, would the moral economy of social welfare provision look different if they were addressing not their own needs, but more destitute victims of unemployment and economic hardship? That said Dauber does, indeed, do a very good job in both noting various issues and carefully not overstating her findings. I would not be able to raise the question about the class status of these letter writers had she not so carefully parsed both the language of the letters and the writers. Her findings do provide us with a remarkable sense of what the shared understandings of these letter writers were, and why they believed they deserved help from the government. After carefully examining them, Dauber concludes her analysis of the letters:

These letters are replete with evidence of a shared sense of entitlement, if a peculiarly American strain. In order to qualify for help in this system, the test is neither loyalty nor need but losing out through no fault of one’s own… [M]ost writers had an employed bread-winner. They asked not for food or shelter but often for quite frivolous things; nice clothing, vacations, summer camps, help paying off chattel mortgages so that they would not their rugs and furniture to repossession. They wanted to get out of debt, start businesses, and send their children to college. While many asked for loans, most expected to receive a gift and expected to be able to spend it as they saw fit, free from the scrutiny of gossipy neighbors and the interfering do-gooders down at the local relief board.

From the perspective these writers, disaster had struck, the government’s obligation to bring relief was activated and the citizen correctly sought to enforce the social contract.  (p. 222)

Ultimately, Dauber says that these letters demonstrate a “broadly held understanding of the American moral economy of social welfare provision” (p. 223). This is quite likely true. One of the things, however, I wanted to understand better was whether these, often middle class letter writers, maintained the same beliefs about others who had been much less fortunate. Did they see families with no breadwinner that were suffering from the weather-related disasters (including the drought) or economic hardships such as a bottomed-out market in soybeans or corn – did these same writers extend their belief about this moral economy of social welfare provision to the much less fortunate? Based upon earlier chapters in her book, the link between the unemployed and a “disaster” was pecularilarly difficult to produce inside of governmental institutions and at the national level. Yet here she shows that many middle class individuals embraced it.

My questions, not answered by this book, are these: if Dauber is correct, how did middle class individuals, suffering and requesting aid by writing to the President and his wife, perceive the needs of others? How did their perceptions concerning social welfare provision fit into the moral economy of social welfare provision for the much more poor? How did their beliefs about aid structure their voting behavior? And in turn, did this influence the way legislators structured our welfare policy? This strikes me as the next step in this work, to link the letters back into the policymaking process. Broadly, it is an issue that scholars interested in poverty and social welfare in the United States have taken up, but with Dauber’s work we have new insights into the way disaster relief played a role in the development of the New Deal social welfare programs and insight into the understandings of social welfare prevalent among some of the members of the society at the time. By reconnecting the public’s perceptions in these letters to the policymaking process, we may be able to understand even more fully the contemporary politics of welfare as well as the continuing power of disaster relief narratives.

Full cite to Dauber’s Book:

Dauber, Michele Landis. 2013. The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL).


Cohen, Robert, ed. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

McElvaine, Robert S. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the “Forgotten Man.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Mills, C. Wright. “Situated Action and Vocabularies of Motive.” American Sociological Review 5, no. 6 (1940): 904-13.

Scott, Marvin B., and Stanford M. Lyman. “Accounts.” American Sociological Review, 33, no. 1(1968): 46-62.