How Useful is the Concept of Resilience for Studying Individuals and Families with Low Resources?


Mary Daly, University of Oxford, January 2024

Resilience is now one of the most popular and talked-about concepts. With roots in ecological sciences especially, its focus on disturbance and adaptation makes it appealing as a way of thinking about recurrent and new crises. The concept has the capacity to speak to how well existing systems can perform under pressure, placing emphasis on how resources can be activated to avoid harm and overcome risks. It has a core interest in durability, continuity and ‘bouncing back’ and in how entities manage their risks. These and other features have propelled the concept’s rise in national and international policy making. The EU, for example, uses resilience very widely, even naming its post-COVID-19 funding programme as the Recovery and Resilience Facility. Resilience is also making its presence felt in social policy discourses as welfare states come increasingly under pressure to cut expenditures and use existing resources better.

The EU- and UKRI-funded project – rEUsilience – is investigating the coping and response strategies of low-resource families in six countries and considering whether and how resilience as a concept can be useful for the analysis of family lives and welfare state support in that context.  

Many social scientists have kept a critical distance from resilience – there are fears that the concept aligns too closely with neoliberal thinking and promotes individual and familial self-reliance to the relative neglect of structural inequalities and socio-political forces. There are other criticisms of the concept as well, especially for how it privileges adaptation as a focus of analysis and desired outcome. Moreover, resilience has a very strong normative orientation in promoting the capacity to withstand or overcome crisis, rather than, say, preventing such crises from arising in the first place.  

However, the concept has positive qualities that are worth bearing in mind and it also seeks to theorise something important. Its strengths are evident when the concept is stripped back to its core elements. While there is a diverse literature and the field continues to develop, the three core components of the classic resilience framework are the precipitating event or shock, the reaction forthcoming and the outcome achieved. The implied relational patterning is as follows: a shock or unexpected event occurs; there is reaction to it; and that reaction in the context of the shock determines whether the original entity or form of action has endured and/or emerged as stronger or weaker. Each element brings important dimensions for consideration. The ‘shock’ focuses attention on various stressors, highlighting especially those that are unexpected or unpredictable. The reaction element spotlights the behaviours or activities called forth and is especially interested in adaptive or ‘coping capacities’ and learning, whether on the part of individuals or other units. Thirdly, the outcome element directs attention to the capacity to withstand or recover from shock and the conditions under which entities achieve a return to a previous condition or a different way of functioning. 

Such strengths notwithstanding, there are weaknesses in each dimension and in the framework as a whole. These are especially serious from a social perspective. Taking the shock first, we must question whether the resilience concept ‘slices’ reality too much and underplays ongoing risk (rather than the ‘big bang’ of shock). When does the resilience sequence actually start and what about pre-existing conditions as influencing likely exposure and coping? In regard to reaction, there are questions about whether resilience can countenance action that is other than reactive; perhaps the real doubt here is around whether the framework does justice to the dynamism, diversity and unpredictability of human agency. And outcome is problematic too, especially because resilience thinking is much more comfortable in investigating the restoration of existing systemic relations over a specific time period rather than their transformation.

So should we reject resilience?

Rather than rejecting the concept outright, a suggestion I would like to make is to expand the thought frame by grounding resilience in other concepts, especially ones that have a deeper usage in social sciences and can speak more readily to human behaviour and social structure. I suggest that three concepts can help.  One is vulnerability which both highlights the pre-existing situation and suggests that exposure to risks or shocks is not random but is affected by existing vulnerability. Appreciating the systemic element to risk or ‘shock’, it allows us to approach the causal question of why resilience might be called for. In this and other ways, it contextualises ‘shocks’, crises and risks in broader patterns of inequality and state in/action. The second concept is resourcefulness which focuses critical attention on both the resources that are available and how these are used by actors. It has a much better sense of human agency than classic resilience notions and sees agency as not predetermined by the imperative to maintain existing functioning. Sustainability, the third suggested grounding idea, can help correct the tendency in much resilience scholarship to focus on rather short time windows and allows for transformation as an outcome. Sustainability shares with resilience an interest in outcomes but it not only extends the temporal dimension into the future, therefore bringing a strong concern about future viability, but it also allows for change in this and other contexts. Short-term resilience might jeopardise more long-term outcomes by, say, using up valued resources in coping without replenishing them and for this and other reasons may necessitate change and transformation. These three concepts have problems of their own that merit analysis but used as grounding ideas for the study of resilience they lend more context, substance and explanatory depth to resilience applied to explore how individuals and families face situations of low resources.  

Overall, there are three take-way messages.  First, the application of resilience to social processes and structures needs to be treated with great care for the concept’s interests lie elsewhere, mainly in operational effectiveness and system stability and reproduction. Second, while the concept has strengths and points research in the direction of something important, we may have to decentre it, especially for the study of social phenomena and the rise of adversity. Therefore, third, I suggest that it be used alongside some existing concepts; in particular its usage and application to social phenomena can be improved by grounding it in conceptions of vulnerability, resourcefulness and sustainability.  As such, we acknowledge that, while we may be able to investigate resilience as a feature of a social entity, this cannot be theorised without countenancing differences in vulnerability, resourcefulness and in the short- versus long-term sustainability of reactions and outcomes. 

Read the full piece from our Thinking about Resilience Series here.

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