Problematising resilience during times of change
As we move into the post-pandemic world, one word is becoming increasingly prevalent as a measure of people’s preparedness: resilience. Within a populist paradigm, the ability to ‘bounce back’ is perceived as an individual response to adversity. But what are the implications of reductivist notions of resilience in times of uncertainty and threat?
There have been various attempts to define resilience since its recognition as a psychosocial response in the 1970s (Garmezy, 1971, cited in Masten, 2014). Individuals who were perceived as having adapted positively despite exposure to adversity were assumed to possess inherent personality traits which predisposed them to positive outcomes. Subsequent research (Masten, 2014; Rutter, 1987) acknowledged the influence of environmental ‘protective’ and ‘vulnerability’ factors, polarised as ‘assets’ versus ‘risks’ (Masten, 2014; Luthar, 2003). Academics have since sought to identify the extent to which these factors moderate or have compensatory effects, thereby increasing or decreasing the likelihood of resilience. There has since been recognition of an interplay between the two; notably the influence of external and internal loci of control, and the extent to which individuals perceive their self-efficacy and agency during periods of stress or uncertainty (Bolger & Patterson, 2003). Further developments in the field have been influenced by neurobiology and genetics, with increasing consideration of the interplay between genes, biology and experience (Obradovic, 2012).
Seccombe (2002) and Bottrell (2009) question the assumption that resilient outcomes are the result of an interaction between the individual and their environment. While Bottrell calls for a social theory of resilience which ensures sufficient resources are allocated to disadvantaged areas to increase the resilience of marginalised communities, Seccombe disputes as ‘insufficient’ the definition of resilience as an ‘individual disposition, family trait or community phenomenon’ – asserting that resilience research must acknowledge structural deficiencies within society and the impact of unequal economic policies upon vulnerable communities. Meanwhile, Ungar’s International Resilience Project (2008) indicated that resilience is contingent upon an individual’s capacity to navigate access to resources within their environment.
The ‘fad’ of resilience (Traynor, 2018) is problematic as it fails to acknowledge the environmental variations impacting on an individual’s capacity to ‘bounce back’ when confronted with adversity or change. Traynor suggests that viewing individual resilience as the panacea to managing uncertain situations or unrealistic expectations, requires individuals to acquiesce to a status quo which can be as harmful as it is divisive. If resilience is the metric by which adaption to life-changing events is measured, colleagues who are asset poor (to use Masten’s term), or neuro-atypical (according to the personality traits identified above), risk being positioned as deficit.
‘If resilience is the metric by which adaption to life-changing events is measured, colleagues who are asset poor, or neuro-atypical, risk being positioned as deficit.’
Furthermore, conferring the burden of responsibility to individuals absolves institutions from ensuring that sufficient efforts have been taken to support staff to transition to the new normal. Traynor (2018) was writing for a nursing audience, but his argument is salient for an education context too. His reference to individualistic notions of resilience being used to ‘mitigate systemic problems’ will strike a chord with educators across all sectors. Health and education professionals alike are required to assume responsibility for political interference, underfunding and a blame culture by demonstrating their resilience to the challenges resulting from such attacks on their profession. In order to ensure effective transition to the ‘new normal,’ institutions across all sectors need to reject simplistic notions of resilience, and acknowledge the myriad factors impacting on individual responses to change, uncertainty and threat. Alongside this ‘critical resilience’ (Traynor, 2018), institutional responses should be introduced to staff in a measured, timely and transparent fashion, respectful of our multiple and diverse roles.
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Bolger, K. E., & Paterson, C. J. (2003). Sequale of child mistreatment, vulnerability and resilience. In Luthar, S. S. (Ed.) Resilience and vulnerability: Adaptation in the context of childhood adversities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luthar, S. (2003). Resilience and vulnerability: Adaptation in the context of childhood adversities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Masten, A. S. (2014). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. New York: Guilford Press.
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Seccombe, K. (2002). Beating the odds versus changing the odds: Poverty, resilience and family policy. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(2), 384–394. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00384.x
Traynor, M. (2018). What’s wrong with resilience? Journal of Research in Nursing, 23(1), 5–8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744987117751458
Ungar, M. (2008). Resilience across cultures. British Journal of Social Work, 38(2), 218–235. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcl343