In the last two decades, contemporary debates and theoretical reflections across several disciplines have contributed to drawing historians’ attention to issues of risk, security and resilience. These issues all involve the perception of threats, uncertain futures and the management of risks.1 Historically, the interest in security and risk prevention peaked after periods of turmoil such as the Napoleonic Wars, or in the aftermath of natural disasters. The importance of risk, security and resilience increased during the Cold War and, more recently, in the post-9/11 world. The proliferation of crises (the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, the European debt crisis, the intensification of terrorist attacks, the Syrian civil war and the global refugee crisis) consolidated the importance of risk, security and resilience studies.

There are at least three reasons why the notions of risk, security and resilience are attractive for historians. First, they play a crucial role in current political discourse and, for this reason, draw public attention and give access to academic positions and research funding. Second, historians use the concepts for theoretical inspiration. Third, they are deeply linked with notions of time and changing perceptions of the future, topics that have regained momentum in recent historiography.2 Despite the fact that the notions of risk, security and resilience evolved within different academic disciplines and can be approached in different ways, there is shared interest in threat perceptions and strategies to cope with real or potential threats and with their impact on societies. This interest offers a common ground.

In this article, we give an account of current historical research on risk, security and resilience. We will explore the programmatic elaboration of this rapidly growing field of studies and discuss the empirical results by comparing large-scale research programmes on risk, security and resilience in historical perspective. What are the objectives of this research, which topics are highlighted and why? What do the conceptions of risk, security and resilience offer to historians, and what might they learn from them? We argue that there is a common interest, not just in processes of modernization, especially state building, cultures of prevention, and the increasing importance of scientific knowledge, but also in changing perceptions of time, especially the future. In the following, we provide several possible answers to the open-ended question about the extent to which studies on risk, security and resilience can reassess traditional narratives on modernity and historical discontinuity.

From ‘Late-Comers’ to Overburdened Words?

For a long time, historians have written about topics relating to the management of threats and risks. They have studied, for example, the consequences of urban floods and fires, as well as food crises and epidemics; but they did not use ‘risk’ as a category of analysis.3 Similarly, historians have traditionally written about war, diplomacy, revolution and international security systems, but without developing a conceptual framework for security or resilience and without historicizing these concepts. The concepts of risk, security and resilience are not new. That of risk, for example, originated in the field of maritime history, and its use can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Risk was a key notion in the emerging insurance business in the early modern period, and it was closely related to health issues during the Industrial Revolution. Recent studies emphasize that the improvement of insurance methods and the development of risk regulation regimes and safety responsibilities were a fundamental precondition for the modern organization of society and the rise of capitalism.4 Since the 1950s, the concept of risk has been applied to different aspects of society, for example frequent crop failures, the development of the welfare state and the trivializing of information in mass media.5

In the 1980s, sociologists became increasingly involved in risk research, most prominently Ulrich Beck, Niklas Luhmann and Anthony Giddens. Beck’s Risk Society was published just a few months after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986. This tragically timed book became an international bestseller, and the thesis of Risk Society had an immediate impact on research questions in the field of environmental history, as well as in the history of technology. However, the term has been deployed with growing frequency in historical research only in the past two decades. The development of notions of security has followed roughly the same pattern. The term security already emerged as a key concept in political discourse during the seventeenth century and became even more prominent after the Congress of Vienna in the early nineteenth century and in the interwar years (1919–1939).6 Again, it was the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror after the turn of the millennium that stimulated more interest in security studies.7 Recently, scholars such as Eckart Conze have also highlighted the potential of the concept of securitization for historical research on state building and the communication of security issues.8

While security and securitization emerged from the fields of political science and international relations, the wave of resilience thinking has advanced from its origins in psychology and ecology to become a relevant topic discussed across a wide range of disciplines. Resilience is a more recent concept than risk and security and now plays a major role in the fields of anthropology, human geography, sociology, and, as of late, historiography.9

An indication of the state of affairs in 2019 illustrates this. In the past few years, several vast research projects relying on a single specific concept or a combination of the conceptual frameworks of risk, security and resilience have been founded by major research foundations all over Europe. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is currently funding the Collaborative Research Centres ‘Threatened Orders – Societies under Stress’ at the University of Tübingen and ‘Dynamics of Security: Types of Securitization from a Historical Perspective’ at the Universities of Marburg and Gießen. In addition, the DFG is funding the research group ‘Resilience: Phases of Societal Upheaval in Dialogue between Medieval Studies and Sociology’, hosted by the University of Trier. Other major German research foundations, such as the Leibniz Research Alliance and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, are currently supporting research programmes that are closely related to the field of risk, security, and resilience studies, such as ‘Crisis in a Globalised World’ at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt and ‘Security and Future’ at the Centre for Literature and Culture studies in Berlin.10

The booming research on risk, security and resilience is not exclusively a German phenomenon. The Stockholm Resilience Centre, founded in 2007, focuses on sustainable development and also conducts historical research. In France, the research programme ‘History of Industrial Accidents and Risks’ brought together a group of international researchers in order to gain a better understanding of the rise of industrial risk during the Industrial Revolution.11 The Swiss National Science Foundation is currently funding the project ‘Global Cultures of Risk’, which examines the institutional and cultural conditions of globalization through the perspective of the history of insurance. This project is hosted by the Universities of Basel and Hull, and this fact underlines once more the international relevance of current research on risk, security, resilience, and related topics. Last but not least, the European Research Council (ERC) is contributing to this trend in the humanities. Among many other ERC grants related to risk, security and resilience, there are three particularly interesting historical research projects established after 2014. Two of them are hosted by the University of Utrecht: the project ‘Securing Europe, Fighting its Enemies’, which examines the making of a security culture in Europe in the long nineteenth century, and the project ‘Coordinating for Life’, which analyzes the success and failure of Western European societies in dealing with crises and disasters in the early modern period. Finally, the ERC project ‘Disasters, Communication and Politics in South-Western Europe’, hosted by the University of Naples, is investigating the development of emergency response policies in early modern Italy and Spain.

This brief overview of recent research projects demonstrates the rapidly increasing interest of historians in risk, security and resilience across a number of European universities and research institutions. It reflects the general tendency towards the internationalization of research as well as the growing importance of interdisciplinary theory.

On the following pages, we will explore in more depth some current research and recent publications that have emerged from this booming field of studies. We will examine the changing perspectives and, by contrast, the persistence of schools of thought related to these new research paradigms. How and to what extent are risk, security and resilience merely new labels for some of the most popular issues of historians, such as revolution, modernization or crisis? If we follow Reinhart Koselleck, the concepts of revolution, change, fate, progress and development are complementary to the new idea of history, which emerged as a result of an alteration of the concept of time during the transitional period between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century (Sattelzeit).12 Are risk, security and resilience the result of contemporary concepts of history that have arisen since the turn of the millennium?

Risk and Threat: Dealing with Uncertain Futures

The notion of risk refers to potential harmful events in the future. It can apply to many different phenomena in different fields of human activity, including technology, economy, social relations and the environment. The expectation of something that might happen in the future and its consequences and the uncertainty about what will really happen are constitutive of the notion of risk. The concept of risk also implies the idea of being able to shape the future, and that means being able to decide whether to take a specific risk or not.13 Thus, risk depends on decision-making related to the future and on dealing with the future’s contingencies.14

According to Ulrich Beck, a new type of risk production and a new way of dealing with risks emerged in late modernity. This moment of crucial change regarding risk production, perception and management took place in the 1970s. Even though Beckhad a realistic understanding of risks, he acknowledged that they are ‘open to social definition and construction’ through communication.15 This tension between cultural constructions on the one hand and their actual material and physical manifestation on the other is inherent to the notion of risk. Beck was especially interested in a new kind of risk resulting from modernization that demands a new form of risk management. Other authors assume that there is rather a rising demand for security within modern societies.16 Both interpretations highlight a rising awareness of risks and security issues in contemporary societies that has resulted in an increasing need to negotiate about threats and to create institutions in order to reduce and to manage these risks.

Beck’s theories had a widespread but controversial impact among historians.17 They initially historicized Beck and his analysis in the context of the 1970s and 1980s, when industrial modernity and the economic boom of the post-war era went through a difficult patch and the belief in progress and modernity was undermined in public discourse.18 Even though historians focused principally on risk perception and communication, environmental and social historians also looked at the materiality of risks. They pointed out that the risks produced in modern societies by science and technology are not that new. Historians such as Franz-Josef Brüggemeier and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz clearly demonstrated that the risk of death or illness because of environmental pollution, workplace accidents or traffic accidents was extremely high in late nineteenth-century Europe, whereas these risks were on the decline at the beginning of the 1970s.19 Another criticism is directed at Beck’s claim about the democratization of risk.20 Historians analyzing disasters and accidents pointed out that those who are or have been socially or materially marginalized are still more likely to be affected by a social or technological risk or disaster.

The impact of the risk society on the development of modern governance and state building is a major area of interest of current research programmes on risk and security. One of them, the Collaborative Research Centre ‘Threatened Orders’, prefers the term ‘threat’ to risk but shares some common assumptions and approaches with the historiography of risk. The participating scholars are interested in the question of what happens to social cohesion when society’s members perceive its structuring elements as threatened by something or someone. The core question of the collaborative research programme concerns the resulting uncertainty about the future. Order is understood as the paradigm that shapes and reshapes social relations and institutions as well as the expectations and actions of society’s members. When an order is threatened, options to act in the future become uncertain; members of that order perceive their routines as in question and think that they cannot rely on each other.21 The research centre aims at historicizing the contemporary diagnosis of crises and understanding the modes of social change. Instead of master narratives, they look for gradual and open-ended developments and assume that there are premodern elements in modernity, just as there are modern elements in pre-modernity.22 This means that there is a fundamental difference between ‘Threatened Orders’ and most sociological theories about risk, as the latter always assume that there is a fundamental gap between modernity and pre-modernity and usually regard risk as characteristic of modernity, meaning socially differentiated societies.23

The project ‘Threatened Orders’ is embedded in a semantic field that contains the ‘contingency of negative events in the life of individuals and social developments’.24 The concepts of risk, security, uncertainty, vulnerability and resilience belong to this semantic field.25 By choosing to focus on the notion of threat, the participating scholars take the perspective of those who are or feel confronted by something or someone. According to Niklas Luhmann, risk refers to a possibility in the future resulting from our decisions, whereas threat is used when there is in fact a danger that can cause damage independently of our own previous decisions.26 The notion of threat places the subject in the position to react to a given situation, whereas risk also includes a proactive part: one decides to take a risk because it also includes the possibility of chance and success. However, the scholars of ‘Threatened Orders’ are also exploring the close relationship between threat and chance. When an order is threatened, it becomes destabilized and receptive to new ideas and opportunities. It is also a question of perspective, for what may be a threat to one person can be an opportunity for another.27 Although the Tübingen scholars claim that the notion of threat is used in a neutral way,28 the attribute ‘threatened’ implies that the object in question is in need of protection or preservation. While these scholars seem to privilege social change, researchers who study race relationships in the US suggest a critical approach: the repeated threatening of a regime can contribute to its stabilization because those who are interested in preserving the social order are motivated to defend it and thus adapt it to challenges.29 Communicating about potential future events that are perceived as negative, as a threat, can help either to legitimize an existing regime or to destabilize it. This leads to the questions of when and why a social order can become destabilized and thus open to fundamental social change. ‘Threatened Orders’ shares some basic ideas of risk research: for instance, the idea that the consequences of existential threats such as disasters or social conflicts can bring to light structures of societies that are usually hidden, thereby making them negotiable and thus apparent.

Historical Accounts of Security and Securitization

Risk and threat on the one hand and security on the other are closely related to each other as counterparts. They take specific perspectives on similar questions, such as the importance of ‘looking forward’ and communicating about threats in modern history.30 According to the Copenhagen school of security studies, the discourse of securitization has to fulfil three criteria: It ‘(1) claims that a referent object is existentially threatened, (2) demands the right to take extraordinary countermeasures to deal with that threat, and (3) convinces an audience that rule-breaking behaviour to counter the threat is justified.’31 Historians generally aim at historicizing theories and conceptions, and this is an important corrective for rather ‘static’ accounts of security in political science.32

‘Dynamics of Security’ and ‘Securing Europe’, the two major research projects on security, have chosen a broad definition of this concept, including not only ideas and practices but also ‘cultures’ of security. Research on security examines the materialization of threats as well as their perceptions; it deals with short-term answers to urgent security problems and with long-term transformations of cultures of security. Eckart Conze has suggested that the notion of securitization ‘provides answers on how security problems emerge and why societies perceive certain issues as relevant in terms of security’.33 He emphasizes that state building, the formation of social and cultural identities, and political communication are the main areas of research for historians working on security.34 Thus, the research programmes on risk and security share a common interest in perceiving and communicating about threats and dangers. They are also interested in examining the institutions that socialize risks or promise to prevent threats, particularly the modern state. In addition, actors beyond the state play an important role for the governance of risks and securitization, including voluntary actors at a local level, as well as commercial and transnational actors.35

Current research on security aims at providing new insights into the ongoing debate about the compatibility of liberty and security as well as the controversial relationship between security and violence on the one hand and the gradually dissolving boundaries between collective and individual security on the other.36 The historians Beatrice de Graaf and Eckart Conze recently pointed out that the Congress of Vienna was a fundamental turning point in the history of processes of securitization and new security cultures.37 After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, national security and international stability were perceived as overlapping. In early nineteenth-century Europe, security emerged as a key concept in political discourse, not only as a result of top-down, state-sponsored decisions but also as a consequence of the widespread debate on security in the expanding public sphere. Remarkably, ‘Dynamics of Security’ and ‘Securing Europe’ are both particularly interested in the transformations of the security approach during the nineteenth century: from the cooperative Vienna system, based on the balance of power, to the competing system of alliances in the Belle Époque.38 Other historians focus more on the change in the perception and meaning of security after the end of the Cold War. They trace the emergence of human security and the disappearing borders between internal and international security since the early 1990s.39

Similar to the research on risk, current research on security aims at rethinking the traditional chronological and conceptual boundaries between modern and premodern history. Already in 1973, the sociologist Franz-Xaver Kaufmann pointed out that, as an analytical instrument, security is inseparably connected with narratives of historical time and the future.40 Following this approach, Cornel Zwierlein stresses that the history of security should not include only political institutions and social structures but also the history of time or, in other words, the historicization of security thinking.41 Whereas security studies tend to focus on political history and international relations, Zwierlein juggles with the dual conception of cultures of risk and security. He highlights that the improvement of insurance methods and obligations against some risks was a fundamental precondition for the modern organization of society and capitalism between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century.42 Both Zwierlein and Emily C. Nacol, as well as the previously mentioned research projects, use an extended concept of security that transgresses the political sphere.43 There is a tendency in research to emphasize the perception of uncertainty that creates new cultures of security and prediction. The historian Jamie L. Pietruska has demonstrated that contemporaries in late nineteenth-century America increasingly looked forward and established different prognostic methods in order to reduce ‘the spectre of uncertainty’.44 The emerging culture of security and dealing with risks had a major impact not only on state building and capitalism but also on the changing perceptions of time and the future. This led to the ‘first’ discovery of the future even before the era of paradigmatic modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth century.45

From Response to Resilience: Another Buzzword for the New Millennium?

According to the sociologist Ulrich Bröckling, whose studies are increasingly popular among historians, resilience ranks among the key concepts of the twenty-first century.46 Bröckling argues that resilience thinking is closely related to the changing perception of an (uncertain) future. Similarly to risk and security, resilience studies examine the development of macro- and micro-strategies for dealing with present and future threats. However, they adopt different approaches.47 Risk offers a way of thinking that makes future threats the objective of a rational, even mathematical logic that analyzes risk factors, probabilities and the possible extent of damages. On the basis of these reflections and calculations, one can choose to take a risk or not, to take out an insurance policy or to take some measure to minimize the effect of a probable future threat. Resilience thinking sheds light on a partly different process that consists in strengthening the ability of individuals or groups to persist and endure in the face of stress or an adverse environment. American sociologists began as early as the 1990s to debate about the roots of resilience and the optimistic view of human nature inspired by this concept.48 In the past decades, resilience studies have constantly expanded their range of influence across different disciplines, including not only the fields of anthropology, human geography, psychology and sociology but also international studies, policy-making, and, quite recently, historiography.

In 2008, the Australian premier minister Kevin Rudd launched a political initiative aimed at making resilience a national priority and moving the Australian approach to emergency management from response to resilience.49 Ten years later, the Australian government is still highly interested in building resilience and dedicates significant budget resources to strengthening the country’s resilience against natural disaster and economic shocks ($690.9 million in the 2018–19 budget estimate).50 As in the case of risk and security, the availability of interdisciplinary theory and the public relevance of resilience has convinced a growing number of historians that resilience thinking might make a productive contribution to their vocabulary and research interests.51 The differentiation between coping, adaptive, and transformative capacities is one important step to theoretically developing and methodologically implementing the resilience approach in so many different disciplines, particularly in history. New historical research on resilience relies on three pillars: persistence, adaptability and transformability.52 In addition, historians have adopted the notion of the adaptive cycle. According to this theory, ‘resilient systems are ones that successfully navigate all stages of growth, development, collapse, and reorientation’.53

Despite the widespread debate on resilience, there is no generally accepted definition of this concept. In history, we can use the term of resilience in a narrow sense to refer to ‘the return rate to equilibrium upon a perturbation’.54 For instance, resilience can be used to examine the new international order established after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. A second way to use the concept of resilience in history is to put the research focus on bouncing-back processes after major critical situations such as political revolutions, military invasions or economic crises. The resilience approach allows an understanding, for instance, of how exile and migration were not only defensive strategies but also, and much more so, adaptability-strengthening processes in the context of the transnational circulation of ideas and modern state building. In history as in other disciplines, resilience seems to be an approach that values individual, social and political continuity and the ability to adapt to difficult environments instead of changing the environment. It means more than merely bouncing back after a crisis or returning to the status quo after a revolution. Resilience explores ‘the capacity to persist in the face of change’.55

The research group ‘Resilience: Phases of Societal Upheaval in Dialogue between Medieval Studies and Sociology’ is one of the first major research programmes on resilience to be established in the field of history. Hosted by the University of Trier, the group implements an analytical framework aimed at describing ‘historical processes in terms of resilience’.56 Inspired by a combination of sociological theory and empirical research on medieval history, these scholars developed a terminology to apply the conception of resilience in historical research.57 Four fields of research are considered of special importance: (1) resilience processes, (2) resilience strategies, (3) resilience dispositions and (4) resilience resources. Resilience processes include practices and ideas of adaptability and conservation which help social groups or individuals to maintain their identity in the face of major threats. Resilience strategies are intents, expectations and methods that aim at stabilizing social groups or institutions to help them cope with disasters and shocks. The notions of processes and strategies seem quite similar, though resilience processes refer to long-term transformations. Resilience dispositions are incorporated knowledge and deep-seated experiences that are (re)activated to challenge instability. Finally, norms and values as well as economic and political capacities can generate resilience resources for individuals and communities. Historians are using the concept of resilience as a means of reconsidering the history of ruptures and revolutionary events beyond teleological interpretations. They aim at elaborating new analytical criteria and chronological borders to examine continuity, especially continuity through change.


The strongest argument in favour of the use of risk, security and resilience in history is the challenge these concepts pose to teleological explanations by stressing the role of contingency and multiple paths to modernity. By investigating both cultural constructions and material manifestations of threats, historical research on risk, security and resilience may help us to understand the diversity of contested futures in the course of history. All three concepts are suitable for bundling a multiplicity of subjects in a specific perspective that focuses on the perception of threats to the human body, property and social order.58 That is one reason why interdisciplinary work and reflections are well implemented in this field of research. In addition, it integrates different subdomains of history: economic history as well as the history of the environment and natural disasters, medical history as well as the traditionally dominant field of political history. However, the history of emotions and that of gender, which are among the most broadly discussed topics in current historiography, seem to be marginal in these current programmes.59

Another strength of the concepts of risk, security and resilience is that they seem to value long-term transformations. Ulrich Beck had the brilliant idea of using the paradigm of risk to historicize modernity. However, historians do that in another way. Research on risk, security and resilience aims at challenging traditional chronological and conceptual boundaries between modern and premodern history. The scholars involved tend to rethink turning points to shed new light on political (dis)continuity and social change. Time is one of the key categories related to risk, security and resilience, as these conceptions are directed at the future. This connects the research described here to the temporal turn that historiography is currently experiencing. Risk and security studies examine, for example, the changing perceptions of historical time and the invention of the future.

It seems that these concepts help researchers to look with fresh eyes on well-known topics and questions about the birth of the modern world, but they do not dismantle the paradigm of modernization and modernity. Indeed, risk, security and resilience are related in several different ways to narratives of modernity. Are these notions as neutral and open-ended as the projects we have presented in this article suppose? Risk, security and resilience are objects of historical research and at the same time politically influential signatures in our contemporary world. The research programmes follow a trend in contemporary thinking that is based on the idea of replacing optimism with pragmatism and on concerns about stability and adaptability. It seems that Benedetto Croce’s philosophy of history and his criticism of positivist historiography can partly explain the unprecedented intensification of the study of risk, security and resilience. Croce distinguished between chronicle (act of will) and history (act of thought). He described chronicle as ‘past history’ and history as ‘contemporary history’, which is, as an act of thought, inseparably linked with our present consciousness.60 Risk, security and resilience thinking clearly emerged from our present perceptions, fears and expectations. This can be a problem if it leads to presentism, namely a regime of historicity that tends to interpret the past in presentist terms and overemphasize the importance of the contemporary period.61

Since the pioneering work of the Annales school, historians have increasingly used theories in their research. However, it does not often occur that historians systematically discuss their empirical results in order to re-elaborate theories. Historians are always looking for middle-range concepts and theories that are fuzzy enough to enable them to bundle various diverging case studies over time and over space but provide analytical instruments that make comparisons and more general reflections possible and meaningful. Koselleck famously pointed out that ‘only theory transforms our work into historical scholarship’.62 Risk, security and resilience seem to provide frameworks with the right degree of theoretical abstraction, interdisciplinarity and contemporary relevance. For these reasons, historians are currently using these concepts to ‘transform’ their work into historical scholarship.