On Resilience, Spiders and their Webs

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

Photo of a spiderweb

Russell (1979: 404) describes tarantism as ‘a disorder characterized by dancing which classically follows the bite of a spider and is cured by music’. This type of dance has no specific form. Rather, it is ‘an uncoordinated jerky movement of limb and body in time with the lively tune’ (Russell, 1979: 419). If spiders can thus ‘initiate’ movement in others, they can also be thought of as ‘a node in a complex tangle of interactions’ (Wise, 1993: 15); and these interactions, in turn, are crucial to understanding how spiders themselves ‘move’. Elsewhere I have likened resilience to a movement process (Clark, 2020a). By extension, the analogy of spiders and their webs offers a useful way of conceptualizing resilience.

Crimes such as conflict-related sexual violence can damage parts of these webs, resulting in a ‘jumbled sticky tangle of broken threads…’ (Wise 1993: 16) and disconnecting individuals from their families, friends, communities. For the purposes of thinking about resilience, however, these broken threads are only part of a bigger story. In Haraway’s (2016: 31) words, ‘Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something’. The connectivities that individuals have in their lives and how they use them, matter for resilience. The term ‘connnectivities’ conveys some of the depth and emotional dimensions of the connections between individuals and the ‘webs’ that constitute their social ecologies (from children and families to particular places and spirituality) in a way that the word ‘resources’ – which is frequently used within resilience scholarship – does not. Resilience is also about building new webs, or creating new connectivities within existing webs, making them denser and stronger. Inside a spider’s abdomen, ‘as many as six kinds of silk glands produce different kinds of material’ (Levi, 1978: 734). In the absence of such glands, part of resilience involves sourcing and utilizing different materials within one’s larger environment to forge new connections and networks.

Thinking broadly, many networks exist underland. Rabbit warrens. The London Underground. Underfloor heating. According to Macfarlane (2019: 11), ‘The underland keeps its secrets well’. He further points out that ‘An aversion to the underland is buried in language….To be “uplifted” is preferable to being “depressed” or “pulled down”. “Catastrophe” literally means a “downwards turn”, “cataclysm” a “downwards violence”’ (Macfarlane, 2019: 13). The data from interviews conducted (in 2019) in the context of the CSRS project with victims-/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Colombia and Uganda support this. Interviewees reflected, inter alia:

I did not allow myself to fall into some sort of depression, to think about what happened or what might happen’; ‘For me, being a survivor is about coming out on top and going forwards after the things that have happened’; ‘If you start to fall back, you say to yourself: “No, I can do this!” and I pick up what I need and well, go for the top’; ‘Well, it’s about not getting stuck in that place that pit’; ‘[Someone doing well despite adversity] is one who God has helped to lift from his or her problems to become somehow better’.

The networks and connectivities that interviewees were using, however, were neither ‘underland’ nor hidden. They were a prominent theme within the 63 interviews (Clark, 2021b). In contrast, what is largely ‘underland’ within existing scholarship on conflict-related sexual violence – in the sense that it has received little attention to date – is the very issue of resilience. Resilience is neither a straightforward nor an unproblematic concept; it has its fair share of detractors (see, e.g. Béné et al., 2014; Joseph, 2013; McDowell, 2020). Yet, it has an important and legitimate place within discussions about conflict-related sexual violence.

 One of the Bosnian participants in the research recently reflected how, before the COVID-19 pandemic, she and other women with similar war experiences regularly came together at a local NGO to socialize, to weave, to sew. When they did so, they forgot about everything else;

...the [Bosnian] war was not mentioned for days, months...not a single word. Nor did we listen to what was happening somewhere, to what the politicians were saying. Absolutely nothing. We were in the world of colours, in the world of our threads and that's our network, that's the capacity. It is like when something tears, you have something to patch it up (workshop, Sarajevo, 14 June 2021).

Resilience does not mean placing the onus on individuals to deal with life’s challenges and uncertainties, and nor does it mean detracting from or diminishing the responsibilities of governments and states, contrary to frequent neoliberal critiques. In the particular context of this research, resilience means giving attention not only to victims-/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence themselves, but also to ‘the world of [their] threads’. It means making sure that these threads are strong and durable, and providing materials for when they get broken or damaged, so that individuals can forge new connectivities and keep ‘moving’ on with their lives. Resilience, as Haysom (2017: 1) points out, is a ‘co-construction’. 


Béné C, Newsham A, Davies M, Ulrichs M and Godfrey Wood R (2014) Resilience, poverty and development. Journal of International Development 26(5): 598–623.

Clark JN (2021a) Resilience as a multi-directional movement process: A conceptual and empirical exploration. British Journal of Sociology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12853 

Clark JN (2021b) Beyond a ‘survivor-centred approach’ to conflict-related sexual violence? International Affairs 97(4): 1067–1084.

Haraway DJ (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). 

Haysom L (2017) Moving the social ecology to the centre: Resilience in the context of gender violence. Agenda 31(2): 1–2.

Joseph J (2013) Resilience as embedded neoliberalism: A governmentality approach. Resilience 1(1): 38–52.

Levi HW (1987) Orb-weaving spiders and their webs. American Scientist 66(6): 734–742.

Macfarlane R (2019) Underland: A Deep Time Journey. London: Penguin Books.

McDowell S (2020) Other dark sides of resilience: Politics and power in community-based efforts to strengthen resilience. Anthropological Forum 30 (1–2): 55–72.

Russell JF (1979) Tarantism. Medical History 23(4): 404–425.

Wise DH (1993) Spiders in Ecological Webs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.