Firstly – What is Resilience?

In terms of human health and society, resilience refers to the means through which we make a positive reaction to adversity.

Representing resilience as part of the mission of public health through image of cupped hands and words Public Health

By conducting research into resilience and its meaning, we discover new ways in which people can understand resilience, build emotional resilience and use this to make changes towards social justice.

When we ask widely “what does resilience mean?”, definitions include the sense of rebounding, of bouncing back from problems, but also confronting and changing those problems. By conducting resilience research we are working with whole communities in developing robust theories that bring about meaningful change.

Among the most frequently quoted definitions of resilience, and what it means to be resilient, are “positive development despite adversity” (Luthar, 2003) or “the ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges, strengthened and more resourceful” (Walsh, 2008). While for Ann Masten, resilience is, ‘Positive adaptation to adversity despite serious threats to adaptation or development’.

Roisman, Padrón and colleagues said in 2002:

Resilience is an emergent property of a hierarchically organised set of protective systems that cumulatively buffer the effects of adversity and can therefore rarely, if ever, be regarded as an intrinsic property of individuals. (Earned-Secure Attachment Status in Retrospect and Prospect, Roisman et al., 2002, p.1216)

To these understandings of what resilience is, we can add those which Professor Angie Hart and colleagues have recognised through resilience research in the University of Brighton’s Centre of Resilience for Social Justice:

Overcoming adversity, whilst also potentially changing, or even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity.’ (Uniting Resilience Research and Practice With an Inequalities Approach, Hart et al., 2016, p.3)

Meaningful resilient moves are:

The kinds of things we need to make happen (e.g. events, parenting strategies, relationships, resources) to help children manage life when it’s tough. Plus ways of thinking and acting that we need ourselves if we want to make things better for children. (Helping children with complex needs bounce back: Resilient Therapy (TM) for parents and professionals, Aumann & Hart, 2009, p. 11)

Yet, research recognises that resilience is hard to measure, can be slippery to pin down and that thinking shifts as we learn more.

Explore the details of how the University of Brighton’s academics have been changing the way resilience research can help bring health and social justice to communities in our What we do at the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice pages.

Families today are exposed to high levels of daily stress, and the incidence of childhood depression is increasing. Despite our best efforts, we cannot prevent adversity and stress. We can, however, learn to be more resilient by changing how we think about challenges and adversities. Kordich-Hall and Pearson, 2006, p.63.

Resilience research as a quest for social justice

Cover of report from United We Stand, Youth Perspectives on Developing Resilience to Drought in South Africa

Find out more about how international communities, including here in Leandra, South Africa, have contributed to co-productive resilience research.

Research into the meaning of resilience and what it means to be resilient leads our academics and community researchers on an investigation to understand what takes place for those people – children, families, vulnerable adults and workers – who positively adapt to hardship.

The researchers in the University of Brighton’s Centre of Resilience for Social Justice work with multiple and changing ideas as to what resilience means and what resilience can mean. Our work, in Britain and across different parts of the globe, brings communities together that can answer the question together: what is our resilience, and how can we help diverse communities find and build their resilience to shared and individual challenges?

For the research Centre of Resilience for Social Justice and its social network Boingboing, resilience in the face of adversity is not just about an individual’s inner psychological resources or innate characteristics; it involves a combination of ‘nature’ (what a child is born with) and ‘nurture’ (what they learn and are offered along the way). Our researchers – academics and the wider community – seek to make resilience and resilient therapy an embedded treatment, one which works across whole communities to improve futures through resilient practices. (Hart, A., & Blincow, D., with Thomas, H. (2007). Resilient Therapy: Working with children and families. London: Brunner Routledge.)

Professor Michael Ungar gives a definition of resilience as: ‘Adequate provision of health resources necessary to achieve good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development.’ (Ungar, 2005, p. 429). Professor Ungar has given a now familiar definition of the dynamic nature of the construct of resilience; that is, that it is the ability of the child or young person to navigate to, and negotiate for, support systems that are available.

Anne Rathbone from the University of Brighton’s  Centre of Resilience for Social Justice reflects on this: “children and young people can’t navigate their way to support and negotiate it if they can’t see who, what and where these support systems are. Services need to be not just available, but known about, visible, timely, welcoming, and confidence-inspiring.” (See Anne Rathbone’s, post for Boingboing, Report from the European European Conference on Resilience in Education, July 2018.)

For researchers in the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice, trying to influence the conditions that shape the circumstances of children and families’ daily lives is a core part of direct practice. Ideas for resilience-working with an inequalities imagination include:

  • Resilience through consciousness-raising by working with individuals or groups in relation to the various inequalities they might face.
  • Resilience through emancipatory learning, adult education and legal rights education.
  • Resilience through mobilising communities, neighbourhood organisation and community development.
  • Resilience through advocacy work, civic activism or advocating for others can inspire transformation.
  • Resilience through negotiating, developing and using persuasion skills.
  • Resilience through lobbying, campaigning and understanding the stages of policy and law-making and, thus, where to focus your effort.
  • Resilience through co-production, distributing leadership, participatory action research.

This research has co-production at its core, working towards understanding Ungar’s sense of resilience as resistance. His Nine Things All Children Need, are reflective of aspects of the Resilience Framework: Structure, Consequences, Parent-child connections, lots of strong relationships, a powerful identity, a sense of control, a sense of belonging/spirituality/life purpose, rights and responsibilities, safety and support. When he talks about challenging inequalities and focusing on the most marginalised children he is talking about – and in believing in, and striving for – social change and co-production. Working with those most affected is key to this.

Done well, co-production offers, in one way or another, opportunities for all these to be developed in individuals and groups. Co-production can be viewed as embedded therapeutic practice with the iterative links between individual and community development and the power to ‘change the odds’.

Definitions of resilience have now merged, thanks in part to successful resilience research, so that they are starting to emphasise what people can actually do to improve the odds for those having a particularly tough time of it. For the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice a working definition of resilience is, as stated above:

“Overcoming adversity, whilst also potentially changing, or even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity.” (Uniting Resilience Research and Practice With an Inequalities Approach, Hart et al., 2016, p.3)

Many organisations are using academic research to develop ways of working with others to help make resilient moves in their lives. Our resilience research work is part of this. In other words, “Beating the odds, whilst also changing the odds”.

How resilience research is developing our understanding of what it means to be resilient

Children's health and mental health issues illustrated in putting hands together with a painted heart

Importantly to the ongoing research conducted by the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice – and grounded in its years of resilience research – the meaning of resilience is not a case of individual ability. Some groups and community structures are inherently resilient while others – often in the most challenged sectors of society – require more conscious effort to build.

When we trace the history of formal research into resilience back to its roots in the 1970s, this aspect is part of what has been a controversial and developing concept. For a long time, research largely focused on individual children, in isolation from their environments and social situations, seeing resilience as a personal quality or a set of individual skills that “enable one to thrive in the face of adversity” (Connor and Davidson, 2003). The value of a concept of resilience that focuses entirely on individual traits has been challenged for seeming to support a ‘just deal with it’ attitude to poverty and deprivation (for example Garrett, 2016; de Lint and Chazel, 2013; Harrison, 2012).

While emerging research in neuroscience and genetics continues to explore biological factors (Dudley et al, 2011; Hill et al, 2015; Kim-Cohen, 2004), many researchers and theorists look beyond individual factors to a systems-based, social ecological approach to understanding resilience, recognising the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ elements described above.

Socio-ecological models have been developed to further the understanding of the dynamic interrelations among various personal and environmental factors. The best-known social ecological theory is that of Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) and his description of the environment (or social ecology) at five different levels can be a useful tool for analysing a child’s environment and context and helps resilience researchers decide where to concentrate our efforts.

A social ecological approach to resilience will pay attention to the way a child’s environment (family, school, community and wider environment) can provide the support and resources needed for their healthy development. The University of Brighton’s Centre of Resilience for Social Justice and its social network, Boingboing, use the term ‘inequalities imagination’ to describe what is required for a practitioner to take proper account of how social, economic and health inequalities in their environment impact on child and family difficulties (Hart et al, 2003; 2016; Prilleltensky and Prilleltensky, 2005; Prilleltensky et al, 2008).

Developing an inequalities imagination will support a practice understanding of how wider social forces affect the capacities of individuals to change their own lives. Through this, the communities we work with develop a mental resilience and emotional resilience which not only helps them survive but allows them to thrive by effectively transforming the adversity they face.

The Centre of Resilience for Social Justice recognises research as a community practice, co-producing knowledge and understanding of highly complex social situations and individual experiences by drawing on the widest possible range of perspectives, including academics, social workers, teachers, experts-through-experience and service users.We are one of the University of Brighton’s centres of research and enterprise excellence and have been leaders in the academic development of resilience research – a refining and understanding of what resilience is and the publishing of material that demonstrates how it can be part of more people’s lives. More than this though, our research includes responsibility for the dissemination of methods and models of resilience which bring an increasing possibility of social justice to communities worldwide.

We are at the heart of what we call a Resilience Revolution. The structures we have developed through work in, for example, Academic Resilience, or the ways we have investigated the inherent resilience of Communities Affected by Drought, can be – and are being – put in place around the globe.

Explore our Centre of Resilience for Social Justice website and our Boingboing community website to find more about our work. Contact us to find out more about working with our methods in your cities and communities.

Find out more about our membership and make contact with the University of Brighton Centre of Resilience for Social Justice through our Who We Are pages.

Resilience means overcoming adversity, whilst also potentially subtly changing, or even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity – or, put even more simply, the meaning of resilience is beating the odds and changing the odds. Adapted from Hart et al., 2016, p. 3.