Hazards and risks have many faces: unemployment and social decline, floods and heat waves, negative images and stigmatisation of cities and regions, financial and economic crises. Notwithstanding the fact that concrete threats differ considerably between the abovementioned fields, their perception and the ways they are handled tend to follow similar patterns. A hitherto stable system is thrown off balance due to shifts in framework conditions and must change to regain stability.
The extent to which certain shocks or gradual changes are able to throw a person, the global climate, or the financial sector off track is largely a question of vulnerability. At the same time, counter measures – like the renaturation of rivers or the taking out of insurance – may help to increase resilience. From 2010 to 2012, several IRS departments cooperated in the exploration of the perceptions and handling of hazards as well as the strategies to deal with them. While the concepts of vulnerability and resilience had hitherto been outlined in field such as developing countries research and ecological studies, IRS scholars have reformulated these concepts from social and spatial science perspectives. This complementary pair denotes a complex conceptual bundle that integrates a number of social, individual and natural factors. The IRS approach is characterised by three key aspects: social constructedness, a dynamic perspective and the overcoming of contradictions in the understanding of the infl uences of natural vs. social factors on vulnerability and resilience. This is shown in research on emblematic cases conducted within the department “Dynamics of Communication, Knowledge, and Spatial Development”.
Th ere is broad consensus among natural scientists that climate change will result in rising sea levels. While Poland and the Netherlands are both confronted with the danger of fl ooding, the latter is particularly vulnerable on grounds of its landscape’s topography. Thinking purely in physical geographical exposure to growing hazards does not, however, provide a complete definition of the vulnerability of coastlines and their inhabitants. IRS researchers have found that perceptions of risk differ considerably with regard to cultural spaces. For example, Poland is considered to face a high degree of risk, as it largely lacks traditional knowledge on how to deal with fl ooding. By contrast, the Netherlands have coped for centuries with such risks and, as a result, rising sea levels provoke less fear. Risks are therefore defined by both natural and social factors. They are modifi ed by our own actions and, as a consequence, become real only by way of perception and identifi cation.
Th is example helps to demonstrate the potential of the system-oriented framework developed by the IRS to examine vulnerability and resilience. The integration of ecological and social science explanatory approaches may help to foster interdisciplinary dialogue. Moreover, it serves as a sound basis for developing more effective political reactions to threats and strategies to mitigate negative impacts. This edition’s featured topic provides an overview of both these concepts’ theoretical development and their application in numerous fields, from labour markets to river basin management.