Forthcoming: Pathways to Resilience IV Conference: ‘Global South Perspectives’, 14-16 June 2017

The Pathways to Resilience IV Conference: ‘Global South Perspectives’ will be held in Cape Town, South Africa from the 14-16 June 2017 with pre-conference Site Visits scheduled for the 13 June at Etafeni Day Care Centre Trust, Community Action for a Safer Environment (CASE) and the Desmond Tutu Foundation Youth Centre. The conference will be held at Century City on the 14-15 June and at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the 16 June (See conference link at:

This fourth Pathways conference will the first one that the Resilience Research Centre (RRC) at Dalhousie University has hosted outside of Halifax, Canada. The RRC is proud to co-host the event with the Optentia Research Focus Area at North-West University, South Africa and with organizational support of the Primary Healthcare Directorate, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town. The goal is to focus on the Global South where people are often disproportionately challenged by double and triple jeopardies (e.g., being both socially marginalized because of race, gender, ability or class, while at the same time experiencing climate change, armed conflict, and structural inequality).

In the face of the apparently intractable challenges to human wellbeing, knowledge of how and why individuals, families and communities adapt to adversity and transform their worlds has become increasingly important. Pathways to Resilience IV will provide a forum for understanding how this adaptation varies across cultures, how those in the Global South define resilience, and what can be done to meaningfully support health, wellbeing and social justice.

Ultimately, optimal individual, family and community functioning is the reason we study resilience. Pathways to Resilience IV will advance this agenda. The aim is to make a real difference to those who are tasked with responding to adversity, not only in the Global South, but through what we learn, in the Global North as well.

The conference is organized by Dr Michael Ungar, Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University and Dr Linda Theron, an extraordinary professor in Optentia Research Focus at North-West University. Both are working group members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) Resilience Working Group led by Prof Steve Reid based at the Primary Health Care Directorate, University of Cape Town.

The WUN Resilience Working Group was initiated in 2014 and is currently made up of 25 members. It comprises two thematic project groups which include the ‘Youth Resilience Core Global Project’ whose aim is to investigate the individual, family, school and community factors that promote resilience in migrant youth across cultures, as well as the ‘Resilience in Service Providers in Public Health Project’ which is comprised of five linked research projects.

Members of the Service Providers project group which is coordinated by Dr Pamela Fisher based at Leeds Beckett University will be presenting a combined 90-minute symposium consisting of three presentations titled “The development of resilience in service providers in 3 countries”. Based on three studies conducted in South Africa, Australia and the UK, this symposium considers understanding and enactments of resilience among diverse groups of service providers (professionals, semi-professionals and community volunteers) working with young people in situations of adversity. The findings suggest that adversity can prompt innovative and creative ‘professional’ practices.

The presentation includes Dr Fisher’s abstract on “Emerging approaches to community resilience in the UK”; Assoc/Prof Rob Cover’s abstract on “Social Strategies, Digital Media and Social Change: The Resilience of health workers and service providers working with LGBTI youth in Australia”; and Dr Janet Giddy and Prof Reid’s abstract on “Resilience alone is insufficient: health systems need innovation and advocacy”.

The Youth group which is coordinated by Dr Justine Gatt based at the University of New South Wales will be presenting a symposium entitled “Pathways to resilience in adolescent migrant youth: An international project” featuring speakers from an international consortium who together aim to understand the impact of migration on mental health and resilience in adolescent youth across six international sites. The talks will encompass findings from a literature review and pilot study, and an explicit discussion of protocol development.

The presentation includes Dr Theron’s abstract on “Pathways to resilience: A review of wellbeing-enablers among migrant young people”; Dr Gatt’s abstract on “Mental health and resilience in migrant vs non-migrant youth: Initial pilot study results”; Assist/Prof Qiaobing Wu’s abstract on “Acculturation, Resilience and the Mental Health of Migrant Youth: A Cross-Country Comparative Study”; and Kristin Hadfield’s abstract on “What we learned from conducting a multi-country investigation of migrant youth”.

For further information on the conference, please click on the following link:


Popular Culture and the Pedagogies of Resilience

This blog post has been written by Associate Professor Rob Cover from the University of Western Australia.

If resilience is to be understood as a process facilitated by subjects in the context of their interactions with environments, institutions, families, schools and workplaces (Unger 2012: 1), then how the ‘idea’ of resilience as something desirable for liveability is socially understood and communication is an important question.

Popular media culture has a long history of being dismissed in scholarly work—sometimes due to a residual high art versus popular culture dichotomy that is deployed socially to determine the moral value of a set of texts or activities (Storey 2003); sometimes because they are dismissed as being merely escapist or distasteful sedentary activities; sometimes because they do not fall into the taste spectrum of researchers, which is often based on performances of class (Bourdieu 1979). At other times this is the result of disciplinary discriminations which frown upon work which favours examining ‘low brow’ texts in favour of policy documents and service provision protocols. However, such texts play a powerful role in the everyday lives of those who, among others, are subject to such policies and service provision; media texts are thus influential in how they respond to and understand policy, service provision, healthcare, social justice, belonging and wellbeing. Making sense of both (1) the ways in which media, film, television, games and other activities communicate, frame and/or foreclose on concepts of resilience, alongside (2) the ways in which people interpret representations of resilience within those texts, is thus a worthwhile aspect to add to our understanding of the relationship between resilience, wellbeing and social justice in a world marked by the differential distribution of precarity.

Popular media culture can be a powerful source of information or a resource on how to interact with one’s environment in ways which help people to manage their own socially-derived vulnerabilities, precarities and adversities. Popular entertainment, film, television, digital interactions and interactive digital games can be especially meaningful for younger people in particular (Ashcraft 2003: 38); bearing in mind that young people are often the target group of service provision enhanced by programs that seek to foster self-reliance. Popular media—whether television, film or magazines—is not merely one-way dissemination nor something which is necessarily only casually viewed, no matter how simplistic, repetitive or banal its narratives, themes and expositions might sometimes be. Rather, popular culture is actively and interactively interpreted by audiences and subjects to create new meanings that have relevance for everyday lives and those include how one navigates liveability in ways that are more-or-less resilient by influencing both the non-voluntarist and agential decisions deployed to access services and/or to engage with other subjects in our communities in ethically non-violent ways. In other words, popular culture provides a site of learning how to be particular kinds of people who create and participate in particular kinds of social relations.

Moving beyond the dominant psychological approach that understands resilience as a personal characteristic or trait and towards social justice perspectives that critically engage with the idea of resilience as a process, it is important therefore to make sense of the role of pedagogies around how the concept of resilience (its meanings and values) and the mechanics of its processes (recognising resilient-promoting social factors, ecologies, institutions and supports that help one adapt to changed circumstances and manage instances of adversity).

Popular culture is pedagogical. As Henry Giroux (2004: 62) described it: “Culture now plays a central role in producing narratives, metaphors and images that exercise a powerful pedagogical force over how people think of themselves and their relationship to others.” Young people engage with popular culture in interactive ways that allow these texts to be deliberately utilised in ‘bettering’ oneself (Riess 2004), which can include increasing one’s capabilities in addressing adversities in creative and sometimes non-normative ways. Important here is understanding that there is a significant difference between what young people are actively taught (in education, in training, in service provision and counselling for self-reliance) and what young people desire to learn (forms of learning, sites and situations of meaning, interest, identity) (Clarke 2003). The potentialities for popular media to serve pedagogies of resilience may, therefore, have less to do with the extent to which it represents stories of resilience and more to do with how texts which invoke narratives of success, failure, relationality and self-reliance invoke specific readings understandable from a resilience perspective. What warrants investigation, then, is how young people in particular might be positioned to develop readings nuanced enough to gain value from popular media.

Arguably, there is a sentimentalisation of narratives of resilience in popular media. Lauren Berlant (2008) and Janice Radway (2012) have suggested that much of the fiction, melodrama, stage and screen work from the second half of the Nineteenth Century to the present early Twenty-first is constituted by repetition of the ‘sentimental’ as a genre that presents as desirable a human reliance on felt emotional responses that produce certain kinds of attachments (nationalistic, familial, non-normative, etc.); such sentimentalism is largely “responsible for mass culture’s ability to gather those solicited by its dreams and promises into a mediated yet ‘intimate public.” (Radway 2012: 339). In one respect, an attachment to narratives of the resilient in the outputs of contemporary culture industries can be understood to be produced through a sentimentalist engagement with stories of success and failure, whereby these are pitted as lifecycle outcomes in terms of the ability of a subject to ‘bounce back’ from instances of adversity, setbacks and challenges.

In thinking about the conceptualisation of resilience in popular culture, one can make the argument that not only does a sentimentalisation of narratives of resilience mark the production of texts, but the other side of the creative and cultural industries’ process as well: the audience desire to see and engage in such texts. That is, there is an identifiable broad audience ‘taste’ for stories of resilience and resilient characters and a pleasure derived in viewing a character on film or television overcoming obstacles to achieve a set of goals (which is not necessarily to suggest that these are done in ways which conform to social justice and ethical relations—for example, the Oceans films that positively portray criminal activity, or Absolutely Fabulous that sees two broadly unlikeable people hurt others and still come up on top). At the same time, there is an audience position in which pleasure is derived from engaging in texts about characters who lack resilience, in that they are unable to deal with and address adversity and adverse social conditions well.

An exemplary popular-cultural site in which we can bear witness to the operations of resilience narratives is the romantic comedy. The filmic convention of the romantic comedy genre situates a problem which occurs just before the middle, and a return to some sort of stability is necessary at the end, despite what might be learned-on-the-way (Neale & Krutnik 1990:141-2); typically this is one or more challenges that disrupt two people from getting together: the appearance of an ex-lover, an adversarial parent-in-law, a misunderstanding. How one responds to that challenge determines the outcome: if the character bounces back from the challenge with resilience (typically in these cliché narratives, enhanced by a set of personal realisations that emerge via the advice from a friend or ‘wise’ figure), then the subject can reach closure within the narrative arc of the text. Conversely, the ‘bad’ character is the one who fails to make those personal realisations, which might include a realisation of one’s own vulnerability, and thus fails to understand or articulate resilience. Often, and problematically, this is deemed to be an inherent character flaw, re-invoking the more narrow psychological and pedestrian understandings of resilience. At other times, such a character is depicted as lacking resilience not due to an individual ‘lack’, nor to the inaccessibility of resources, but due to their unlikeability—the character lacks genuine ties of friendship, family and peer networks; usually such a character ‘falls on their face’ (either figuratively or literally) in the closure of the film, symbolising the inability to bounce back from their own adverse conditions.

For those old enough to remember the spate of John Hughes’ teen romantic comedies in the 1980s (many starring Molly Ringwald as the character who learns resilience), this narrative framework of resilience is quickly recognisable—all of that genre of films are texts about resilience. For example, the Hughes’-scripted film Pretty in Pink (1986) focuses on the learning curve of working-class high school senior Andie (Molly Ringwald), raised in a single-parent household with an out-of-work father and living on the ‘wrong side of town’. She is romantically interested in wealthy Blane (Andrew McCarthy) but lacks the confidence, social support and financial resources to pursue the cross-class relationship. This is the stumbling block central to the romantic comedy genre. Through encouragement from an unexpected source, Andie is able to develop the confidence to attend her high school prom alone, and ends the films having achieved personal and romantic goals as a result of her resilience to continue their pursuit despite persistent setbacks. A mundane story, of course.

Problematically, the film ‘levels’ the inequitable distribution of resources, resilience and wellbeing. Interpreted from the angle of the male lead, the resilience process is central to Blane’s development in which his stumbling block is the need to overcome the peer social pressure that results in his being mocked for his interest in a young woman of a different class. This is despite his substantial wealth and his capacity to project a sense of futural liveability post-school Dealing with the (literal) adversity, resilience is required to ‘cope’ with the substantial disruption to his social network this romance causes. In contrast, his best friend Steff McKee (James Spader) operates as the counter-resilience figure—bullying, overbearing, misogynistic, he too must cope with the challenge to his social circle that Blane and Andie’s romance invokes. However, he fails not due to a lack of resources but to the weakness of his social ties.

While this is just one, brief reading of a now-dated film from the genre of teen-oriented romantic comedy, it provides an exemplary account that allows us to see three aspects of the social production of resilience concepts:

1. While dominant accounts locate resilience in the ‘inner’ of identity, the conventions of the genre contrast this with accounts that incorporate the significance of sociality, social networks and strength of peer ties as the source for resilience. Much like the social-ecology approach, this depiction accounts for the extent to which subjects recognise these resources and supports in order to produce resilience. More importantly, this representation permits reading resilience produced not only in the connections between the individual and the social, but understands that individual subjects of resilience are constituted dynamically in relation to their social worlds, performing resilience as an aspect of subjectivity.

2. The capacity for resilience in such films is distributed without regard for class, socio-economic background or familial arrangements, problematically articulating the institutional environment of the school as a classless space separate from the ‘real world’. The North American cultural ‘anyone from anywhere can make it’ is enhanced (marginally) by the notion that anyone can make as long as they can learn resilience. While that resilience is produced through social networks, it is simultaneously understood as performed through individually ‘standing alone’.

3. The role of such films is not merely to entertain teen audiences but to disseminate a pedagogical account of resilience. Characters are arrayed as those with whom one can identify (if racially white, able-bodied and relatively straight, that is), and the identification is produced in the context of the acquisition of codes of behaviour and relationality that make possible particular modes of being and relating—we are actively invited to make self-comparisons along a normative scale of the ‘capability’ for resilience in terms of the range of characters presented through popular culture depictions.
There are many other media genres, too, which can be read as being accounts of resilience or ‘how to do’ resilience, including the amateur talent reality television shows such as X Factor and American Idol, all of which can be understood as being not only about the quality of performance but—given the amount of screen-time of background, training, interviews (etc.), that focus on the participant’s ability to cope (with pressure, with performance anxieties, with family, with competitiveness). Pointing to the ways in which contemporary creative industries have incorporated resilience as the ‘grand narrative’ of western society in ways which are sometimes-complex and sometimes-problematic does not necessarily preclude resilience as being of value. Rather, the question at stake is how to ensure stories of resilience do not foreclose on social justice and the production of ethical ways of being. And that will involve new, deeper, more engaged and more-nuanced pedagogies of popular culture.



Ashcraft, Catherine (2003) ‘Adolescent Ambiguities in American Pie: Popular Culture as a Resource for Sex Education’, Youth & Society 35(1): 37-70.

Berlant, Lauren (2008). The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Clarke, Kyra (2013). ‘Pedagogical Moments: Affective Sexual Literacies in Film.’ 13(3): 263-275.

Neale, Steve & Krutnik, Frank (1990). Popular film and television comedy. London & New York: Routledge.

Radway, Janice A. (2012). ‘Cultivating a Desire to Become “Not-Something”: Lauren Berlant, the Idioms of the Ordinary, and the Kinetic Temporality of the “Nearly Utopian”.’ Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 9(4): 337-345.

Riess, Jana (2004). What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Storey, John (2003). Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell.

Unger, Michael (ed.) (2012). The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. New York: Springer.

Child protection social worker resilience, what does it involve?

This blog post has been written by Prof. Ansie Fouché and Dr Elmien Truter from the Department of Social Work at North-West University, South Africa.

Worldwide children in need of care and protection are protected by a specific group of social workers, namely child protection social workers (CPSWs). These social workers are frequently confronted with the duty of removing maltreated children from the care of abusive/neglectful caregivers. Furthermore, they are tasked with investigating alternative placements for such children and to empower families with the needed skills to work towards being reunified with their children. In this process, CPSWs are often subjected to different forms of adversity such as violent and aggressive parents and caretakers; hostile community members; demanding caseloads, aggressive lawyers and daunting court proceedings.  Prolonged exposure to such working conditions might ultimately lead to negative outcomes for CPSW, such as burnout, compassion fatigue, depression and high attrition rates. There are however many CPSWs who adjust positively to such hostile working conditions.  This ability to “bounce back” is called resilience.

As registered social workers and social work academics, we have been interested to find out what the resilience of CPSWs entails. In South Africa the role and functions of CPSWs are regulated by the Children’s Act (38 of 2005), and they are referred to as “designated social workers”. These professionals hold a four-year university degree, are registered with a professional council (South African Council for Social Service Professions) and must adhere to the specific code of ethics.  After conducting a meta-synthesis (a systematic review of literature sources), we found that CPSWs worldwide are no strangers to adversity.  Instead, we found that this profession is indeed a risk-laden profession and pose numerous negative outcomes for these professionals (Truter, Fouché & Theron, 2016). What was alarming, however, was how little was documented about CPSW resilience.  If we want to either mobilize ecologies to support CPSWs better or to better empower these professionals with the needed knowledge and skills to adapt positively to such a risk-laden profession, we need to know what works well for those who are doing well.

We subsequently embarked on a journey of interviewing CPSWs in South Africa who are either considered resilient by their peers or who consider themselves to be resilient. We have also included social work academics and social work supervisors in our study. Our aim was to find out: (a) what exactly is it about this job that places them at risk for negative health outcomes and (b) how is it that they adjust well to such adverse working circumstances (I.E., what promotes their resilience)? So far we have interviewed a total of 31 professionals in one of the provinces in South Africa.  Our long term goal is to develop a resilience enhancing intervention programme for CPSW supervisors by continuing our investigation, amending nascent resilience enhancing guidelines (Truter & Fouché, 2015), and to then evaluate such a programme before implementing with target population.

Participating CPSWs confirmed their adverse working contexts and related these risks specifically to: (i) work pressure (e.g., unmanageable caseloads of above 100, lack of autonomy, political influences on priorities within CPSW tasks); (ii) inadequate professional support (e.g. irregular on unsupportive supervision, little to no resources); (iii) financial strain (e.g., paltry salaries that do not match continuously rising living costs); (iv) challenges unique to the nature of CPSW (e.g., removal of children, provocative court experiences and exposure to aggressive clients); and (v) emotional exhaustion, which aligns with what CPSWs across the globe have reported (Truter, Fouché & Theron, 2016) to constitute risk factors in this profession. A number of participants explained that these risk factors exacerbated the situation for CPSWs who came from dysfunctional personal backgrounds themselves, and/or who demonstrated certain unhelpful attitudes or personality traits such as pride, being arrogant or insecure, inability to set and respect boundaries and being over emotional.

However, they continued to explain why and how they adjusted well to these risks. Their resilience processes included: a) practice- and purpose-informing creeds (all participants had a passion for, or sense of being called to, CPSW); (b) supportive collaborations (participants all mentioned specific supportive relationships of a professional, personal, or religious nature that facilitated their resilience); (c) constructive transactions (respecting personal needs and boundaries, investing in self-care activities, being solution focused, engaging in continuous training and education, and practicing self-control); (d) accentuating the positive (celebrated victories despite the many failures; shared humour in the midst of feeling overwhelmed by case overload; adopting a positive attitude; and purposefully chose positive company, to sustain themselves through the adversities); (e) individual strengths (certain personality traits including, but not limited to: intelligence, having internal locus of control, patience, authenticity, a strong character, integrity, and someone who focuses on the facts).

Recent developments in resilience research points to the more important role that social ecologies play or should play in enhancing individual resilience, and dismisses the notion that resilience is mainly associated to individual strengths (Wright & Masten, 2015; Ungar, 2011).  The participants in our study, however, emphasised that their resilience was mostly a result of their demonstrated internal strengths/ personality traits, such as: perseverance, reaching out to alternative resources, optimism, making healthy choices and making a plan when ecologies fail. Although some role players of their ecologies contributed to their resilience (for instance healthy friendships, available resources like a safe park or a gym), they strongly argued that their resilience was the outcome of supportive partnerships between the CPSWs and ecologies, mostly initiated or negotiated by the CPSWs who linked these initiatives and negotiations to particular traits and internal strengths.

Although there is little evidence in literature to support this stance, it is however imperative to listen to and acknowledge the voices of our participants – after all, they are the experts on their own circumstances.  Subsequently, we wonder what this signifies.  Are certain individual strengths a prerequisite to CPSW resilience? Are these individual strengths sufficient for long term resilience in such hostile working contexts? Have the ecologies of these professionals forgotten that they too need protection? We are also interested to investigate whether this emphasis (an emphasis on individual strengths to secure resilience among South African CPSWs) will change when we interview CPSWs in different contexts – or will we find CPSWs whose ecologies are more active in the negotiation and initiation of support? Hence, we plan to interview further groups of resilient CPSWs in different regions of South Africa soon.



Truter, E., & Fouché, A. (2015), ‘Guidelines for promoting designated social worker resilience within reflective supervision’, Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 51(2), 221-243.

Truter, E., Fouché, A. & Theron, L. (2016), ‘The Resilience of Child Protection Social Workers: Are They at Risk and If So, How Do They Adjust? A Systematic Meta-Synthesis’, British Journal of Social Work, In press.

Ungar, M. (2011). The social ecology of resilience: Addressing contextual and cultural ambiguity of a nascent construct. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(1), 1-17.

Wright, M. O., & Masten, A. S. (2015). Resilience Processes in Development. Handbook of Resilience in Children, 17–37.

Resilience in Community Mediation

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This post is by Dr Richard Slade. Richard is a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Leeds.

In their working lives people are regularly exhorted to become more ‘resilient’ to the stress and pressures of organisations, processes and service demands. There is strong analysis of the reasons for this, for example the demands of best value – to do more with less – that workers constantly face. There is much discussion of how these pressures make people feel. Commentators urge that we should become more resilient to their impact, although the practical action people can take for themselves, to become more resilient, is thinner. More generally resilience seems to be the order of the day. Indeed an observer could be forgiven for concluding that making some – any – reference to resilience is at least as important as thinking about what the concept really means and how it works. From terrorism, to natural disasters, to the equilibrium of the individual, the need for resilience, however generalised in its understanding, is all around us. Perhaps it’s the VW of social policy: a plethora of models to choose from, and some ‘overstated’ data claims.

Drilling down on the detail emphasises the importance of a conceptual framework. In 2011 the UK government published a framework for community resilience which sees localities drawing on existing networks and resources to respond to emergencies. Working alongside statutory services, resilient communities are ones defined as being adaptive and able to sustain an “…acceptable level of function structure and identity” (Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience, 2011) suggesting organisation and resources able to cope with the paradox of rapid change whilst retaining continuity: indeed coping seems to be the order to the day. By implication communities without such capacities, or with unconventional resources that rest outside the states understanding of resilience, can be conveniently problematized. Any grief or discomfort communities experience arises from their lack of this essential if ill-defined quality. In the complex environment of everyday life this ‘catch-all’ use of resilience can also be observed to piggy-back on a trend of problematizing individuals and communities for activity elsewhere in the system, providing a vehicle for a new form of stigmatisation: ‘lack of resilience’. Lack of resilience to the pressures and strains of life can avoid facing up to issues of inequality and exclusion, Yet in some communities an interrelated cycle of financial austerity, inequalities and exclusion resulting from decisions made elsewhere in the system have profoundly undermined those orthodox resilience capacities and resources that the UK government sees as so important.

Research set in the North of England, co-led by Dr Pamela Fisher and Dr Richard Slade from the University of Leeds has been exploring the work of individuals and communities working from a zero resource baseline to develop community mediation as a strategy to address growing levels of antisocial behaviour in children and young adults. As part of this project we have been engaged with a WUN international working group to explore and develop conceptual frameworks of resilience. We have considered understandings of resilience from the point of closed systems, for example those which echo the not untypical position of the UK government, and open systems, exampled in our research where community activists have adopted a whole systems exploration of the causes of antisocial behaviour and possible solutions.

We have begun to consider how the individual’s relationship with their wider community can become a collective relationship and have noted a strong difference between understandings of resilience which focus on maintaining or reproducing the status quo in the face of challenges, and individuals and communities who by contrast can be characterised by activism and innovation. In short the difference between: coping and surviving on the one hand and social change on another. Our WUN discussion has a useful synergy with Harms (2015) whose understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma forges strong connections between individual resilience, family resilience and community resilience. For Harms (2015) a key issue in resilience is not just that people cope with and survive adversity. Rather there is change, a lived ‘newness’ in their inner selves which extends to their relationships with family and their communities.

Our research revealed that having undertaken a traumatic life journey, community mediators had arrived at a point where they could carry out the demanding and sometimes dangerous task of deescalating conflict and violence: calming down children and young adults locked in belligerence towards each other. Living and working in communities with high levels of inequalities and inward migration the majority of mediators were former offenders, gang members or gang leaders. Their unique journey towards mediation seemed to include a ‘tipping point’ of change. This could arise for example during incarceration in a prison cell and worrying how their partner was coping with a stalker, or dealing with the stress and anxiety of attacks from ambitious lower order gang members who wanted a quick route to gang leadership or ‘being fed up with people being frightened of me’ (Fisher and Slade 2015). Such tipping points were seldom a moment in time but an accumulation of events that motivated an individual to want to see and do things differently; in the way that they looked at themselves, their interaction with their families and their communities which they wanted to make a more peaceful place to live.

The role played by mediators appears to come in part from recognising that a combination of past experience and significant change can realise skills and ‘street’ status, essential ingredients in mediation. This points to a form of resilience that is beyond one focused on coping and surviving adversity but rather individual change leading to activism rather than acquiesce. However, we have also seen how this can be threatening to state understandings of the concept, where individual and community engagement is fine when agencies set the rules but innovation and activism is not favoured. Building a more embracing and inclusive understanding of resilience will be a challenge.

Cabinet Office, (2011) National Framework on Community Resilience. Cabinet Office. London
Harms, L, (2015) Understanding Trauma and Resilience. Basingstoke. Palgrave McMillan.

Resilience, but not necessarily as you know it…

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This post is by Dr Pamela Fisher. Pamela is a researcher at the University of Leeds. She tweets @PamelaLFisher

Resilience is generally regarded as a quality that enables people to experience wellbeing despite the disadvantages, adversity or pressures they experience. From an ecological perspective, resilience is not understood as an individual trait either innate or acquired, but as a capacity which is contingent on people’s access to resources (social, emotional and material). In other words, the focus is on how families, peer groups and communities secure for themselves the social, material and emotional/spiritual resources which contribute to human wellbeing.

I believe that the ecological approach to resilience has much to recommend it. I like the way it emphasises the resources people have rather than focusing on the innate characteristics of individuals. That said, ecological approaches to resilience perpetuate normative understandings of citizenship, deviance, health and wellbeing. For example, resilience is equated with pursuing goals which enable a person to adapt to the status quo rather than to question it. Resilience is mainly orientated towards compliance and conformity. As Neocleous (2013) puts it:

“Resilience wants acquiescence, not resistance. Not a passive acquiescence, for sure, in fact quite the opposite. But it does demand that we use our actions to accommodate ourselves to capital and the state, and the secure future of both, rather than to resist them”.

I largely agree (as do many others) with the above perspective, but I don’t accept that this has to be the case. Normative understandings of resilience may preclude resistance, but marginalised/community understandings of resilience are entirely consistent with innovative social change. It seems to me that a key challenge is to ensure that diverse forms of resilience (as understood and enacted in communities) need to be rendered visible and acknowledged by a broader public, including policymakers and a range of professionals. What constitutes resilience requires broader deliberation, and the voices of people who are often pathologised/demonised within dominant discourses should be central in this process. As things stand, the values and practices associated with ‘mainstream’ resilience reinforce the stigmatisation and social exclusion of already marginalised groups, partly by failing to recognise that the latter develop different (but nevertheless valuable) understandings and ways of enacting resilience. What normative understanding of resilience miss is that life’s challenges differ significantly depending on who you are and where you are. A one ‘size fits all’ model of resilience simply doesn’t work.

My work often identifies ‘spaces’ (both literal and metaphorical) in which forms of resilience are developed which remain unacknowledged in ‘mainstream’ discourse. My approach towards resilience is to view it as an emergent and embedded quality specific to different social, ethnic and cultural contexts. New understandings of resilience are therefore immanent within relationships within a particular context. People ‘on the margins’ of society have more impetus than most to develop creative approaches to resilience. My definition of marginalised people is broad and would include groups disadvantaged for socio-economic reasons, because of their age (they are old or young), migration, ethnicity, religion, mental health, disability, and so forth. In brief, under the terms of market morality marginalised groups are those considered to have less value in the labour market. People are often stigmatised because they lack financial resources, and this is attributed to a supposed absence of resilience, understood normatively. In contrast, in my work I argue that marginalised communities often display high levels of social organisation in order to adopt innovative value-based forms of resilience. Resilience isn’t necessarily developed through the adoption of a normative template – but by engaging with other people, and with life’s everyday challenges in often novel and value-led approaches.

Recently, I have been co-leading a project on gangs in Sheffield with Dr Richard Slade (Social Work) at the University of Leeds where we’re collaborating with Dr Lisa Buckner and Professor Tracy Shildrick. The main focus of this project is to explore the views of community mediators (people who used to be involved in gangs) views on resilience, including their own resilience, and then to investigate how these understandings impact on their work with children and young people who are either involved in gangs or susceptible to gang involvement. In referring to ‘gangs’, we appreciate that this is highly loaded term and that there is a wide divergence of ideas on what constitutes a gang.

This project forms part of an international and interdisciplinary partnership which has arisen out of the Worldwide University Network (WUN). WUN has identified a number of grand challenges including (in relation to public health) the promotion of resilience amongst children and young people. Our international partners include Professor Steve Reid and Dr Janet Giddy of the University of Cape Town, Dr Rob Cover of the University of Western Australia, Dr Elmien Truter and Dr Ansie Fouche of North West University, South Africa, and, Dr Hairong Nan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Our collaboration is about finding out how ‘professionals’ understandings of resilience, personal and ‘professional’, impact on the services they provide which seek to promote resilience in others.

I’ve put the term ‘professional’ in inverted commas because I want to underline that I am not using the term according to an elitist definition (see Friedson, 2001) which excludes many people working in third sector and voluntary groups, volunteers, peer-support workers and/ or people who have often been termed ‘para-professionals’. In addition, and crucially, I use the term professional to include service users and informal carers. What makes someone professional, in my view, is their sense of commitment – not their occupational status.
Like resilience the term professional is also ripe for re-invention…


Bottrel D (2009) Understanding ‘marginal’ perspectives towards a social theory of resilience, Qualitative Social Work 8(3): 321–339.

Friedson, E. (2001) Professionalism: The Third Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Neocleous, M. (2013) ‘Resisting Resilience’, Radical Philosophy, 178: 2-8.

Ungar, M. (2004) Nurturing Resilience in Troubled Youth. Toronto: Toronto University Press,