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,