Assessing the distribution of social-ecological resilience and risk: Ireland as a case study of the uneven impact of famine

Eoin Flaherty

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    Explanations for the causes of famine and food insecurity often reside at a high level of aggregation or abstraction. Popular models within famine studies have often emphasised the role of prime movers such as population stress, or the political-economic structure of access channels, as key determinants of food security. Explanation typically resides at the macro level, obscuring the presence of substantial within-country differences in the manner in which such stressors operate. This study offers an alternative approach to analyse the uneven nature of food security, drawing on the Great Irish famine of 1845–1852. Ireland is often viewed as a classical case of Malthusian stress, whereby population outstripped food supply under a pre-famine demographic regime of expanded fertility. Many have also pointed to Ireland's integration with capitalist markets through its colonial relationship with the British state, and country-wide system of landlordism, as key determinants of local agricultural activity. Such models are misguided, ignoring both substantial complexities in regional demography, and the continuity of non-capitalistic, communal modes of land management long into the nineteenth century. Drawing on resilience ecology and complexity theory, this paper subjects a set of aggregate data on pre-famine Ireland to an optimisation clustering procedure, in order to discern the potential presence of distinctive social–ecological regimes. Based on measures of demography, social structure, geography, and land tenure, this typology reveals substantial internal variation in regional social–ecological structure, and vastly differing levels of distress during the peak famine months. This exercise calls into question the validity of accounts which emphasise uniformity of structure, by revealing a variety of regional regimes, which profoundly mediated local conditions of food security. Future research should therefore consider the potential presence of internal variations in resilience and risk exposure, rather than seeking to characterise cases based on singular macro-dynamics and stressors alone.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)35-45
    Number of pages11
    JournalEcological Complexity
    Early online date07 May 2014
    Publication statusPublished - Sep 2014


    • resilience
    • Cluster Analysis
    • complexity
    • entitlements
    • famine
    • Ireland
    • commons

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