Resilience and Diversity

This German winter is quite a mild one: Brownish green meadows, dark green or leafless trees, fog, rain and mud, some harmless frost during the nights, a bit of sunshine here and there. Lots of birds picking rosehips and hawthorn berries – and, after a two weeks surprisingly cold and snowy interplay, the German countryside turns again into looking quite a bit like Ireland. This winter differs quite a lot from what I was used to in my late 1960s childhood, freezy winters with sometimes -20 to -30 centigrade, thick ice on ponds and creeks, and lips and nose frozen to the thick dune blankets when waking up in the morning in my grandma’s stove fired house. But now, far from those frosty times, it seems as you could be fine outside with just some unlined boots and a wool jacket. It is not just me feeling like that. Even some species of migratory birds increasingly make their winter quarters here, like the great egret, enjoying the open ponds, creeks and wet meadows of the area, maybe adopting their annual travel habits to climate change.


Sitting at my desk, observing birds through the window, reading ecosystems research as well as the RESCuE interviews with resilient families in the aftermath of the European economic and financial crisis, I am surprised by some analogies. Ecosystems theory conceives diversity as a source of resilience. Mostly, diversity is understood as a variety of different but functionally connected species, sometimes as a diversity of resources and conditions, not to say options or frameworks of action within a given space, biosphere or the like. If conditions change, even when encountering an external shock, a resilient ecosystem will undergo a transformation of the balance, habits and actions of species, who will even adapt their practices, such as hunting behaviour, reproductive behaviour and diet. This will lead to shrinkage of several species, increase of others, some of which might even have been overlooked before. Their movements and range will extend or contract, they might turn to other foodsources – in extreme cases this might even include to close up to humans and their locations instead of moving away from humans, like the foxes in London, rabbits in Wolfsburg and polar bears in Arctic areas. In general terms, diversity (of species and their habits) allows a ‘system’ to adapt to shocks through a sometimes transformative readjustment of their inner relations, balances and dynamics, and that’s what is called resilience in ecosystems research. Diversity works as a reservoir for actors, practices and life nexuses which might have been hidden, marginal or residual under a first set of circumstances, but become increasingly important when those circumstances are changing. Diversity may also consist of polyfunctionality or polyvalence of one single issue – wild thorny rosebushes provide a safe environment for birds breeding, they grow on stony and infertile land, protect other tree seedlings from deer, their rosehips provide winter food for birds, not to talk about the roses, their beauty and the bees, just one example. Or, when squirrels store nuts in underground holes, they do not only make storage for their own hunger, but spread their favourite food tree species throughout the area.

When we look at the resilient families we have been visiting in the RESCuE fieldwork in 2015, there are some striking parallels in terms of diversity. Many of them had not found just a single solution for their lack of money and formal employment, but show a whole set of intertwined activities. An example family did subsidized minijobs in a public work measure, street busking and tourist guide work, carpenters’ and other construction work in an informal context, was very active in several local cultural associations and part of informal networks of musicians, craftsmen and neighbours. Moreover, they spent a lot of time in the nearby forests, collecting mushrooms, berries, and just spent time with their children out in the wood. The German equivalent of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” was their say to explain their multitude of activities. And, consequently, even as one of them came into a permanent job, she was very reluctant to cease or cut any of her informal activities. She stuck to all of them, not only to be able to shift to other sources of income if one fails, but also for the polyfunctionality of those informal practices beyond income generation.

Interviewing the wife, aged mid 30s, she told us for example, spending time outdoors with her family means to enjoy leisure without having to pay for, enriching the family’s diet for free, and having a good time as a family – plus showing the children some worthy practices. This comes quite close to what is called a ‘mixed economy’ by social historians looking at rural working class households in the 18 century – or by development economists looking at income compositions of African, Indian or Latin American rural households. Whatever we may call it, at the core of it is diversity of resources, practices, purposes and functions, as many activities of our resilient families are contributing some economic support by reducing payments and creating income, but moreover reproduce social relations, ties and networks and cultural patterns – to put this into a Bourdieu frame. Thus, diversity seems to be a crucial aspect of resilience, not only in natural systems of plants and animals, but also in a human socioeconomic sense, looking at vulnerable families in the European crisis. Moreover: We are all very familiar with the lines of distinction which are drawn in a modern labour society: Markets are a sphere of realising profit, rent or wage, but not a source of making personal relations. Formal labour takes place outside the household, and the family home is a place for unpaid reproductive labour and leisure. Giving someone a gift is a matter of custom and status demarcation, but not a primarily economic activity. And bringing a sack of apples or a freshly slaughtered chicken for someones birthday would probably gain more frowns than gratitude from the gifted. The shrinkage of kitchen space and domestic practices, the loss of labour premises inside or around a family home through the last two centuries, the reduction of household work intensity, duration and scope are pointing into the same direction, that the family home has lost its productive function in favour of being almost completely reduced to a unit of consumption. But, to become resilient in times of economic crisis, it seems to be necessary to cross or better re-entangle these lines of distinction which are characteristic for our modern postindustrial market societies, to reintegrate social, cultural and economic functions of our practices, and to be aware of the need for functional and ecological diversity of our own practices.

Markus Promberger



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Snapshots from the Field – Aesthetics in Vocalizing the Silent World of Things and Objects

NPE team’s researchers Terhi Vuojala-Magga and Joonas Vola have spent this autumn conducting their fieldwork for the international RESCuE project in different locations around Lapland. During the fieldwork in Inari by the sand road to Kuttura they encountered also something unexpected:, the old gold digger’s figure, the gold-chap.

npe blog terhi + joonas fieldwork 1   It is footed on water resisting rubber boots, where the rest of its wooden core is covered with textile clothing and the grinning plastic-rubber face’s eyes are protected from the brightness of the midnight sun with round sunglasses. It is already autumn, so the gold-chap has been given a rake; the gardener of the wilderness, housekeeper under the open sky and guardian of the gold to be found.

The very first sight of the gold-chap easily raises uncanny feelings. Its figure clearly stands out from the surrounding landscape, and even more so when it gets dark and its figure is brought out by the light spots beneath its twisted legs. For an outsider, the sensory-emotional value, the aesthetics of this creation or creature, seems easily detached from the environment and the gold panners’ life. It does not follow the form of the sculptures of Polykleitos, it is not decorated with gold as a sign of prosperity gathered from the area, nor is it trying to expel and scare the ones approaching the place where it stands. Instead of judgments of sentiment and taste, the gold-chap needs to be seen more broadly as a reflection of economy, ecology and entertainment and how these elements visually manifest themselves in the borderline of culture and nature.

Having a look under the clothing reveals that the arms, legs, neck and back are actually a single piece of wood, so that the limbs are not made by cutting, bending or carving. The hidden core of the gold-chap is completely made with solar energy under the Northern sky. As the latest developed car engines, gold-chap is also a hybrid consisting of various recycled materials from cotton to wool, rubber, nylon and plastic. Not even one piece of the gold-chap is especially manufactured or produced for it; it has been simply put together. Rather than being an abandoned ghastly figure, it signifies the presence of those who have lived in and visited that spot and brought their own clothing and accessories to mark the livelihood that is maintained in these lands. It also emphasizes a sense of humor and entertainment. This spirited guardian is the true genius loci of the gold claim and the gold panners’ camp.


The gold-chap does not only reveal different aesthetics perspectives but he can be seen as a transformation of a wooden creature to a kind of spiritual human figure as the seasons change. While the people of the Caramba enjoy their summers in panning gold, the good old wooden fellow keeps on looking at the men and their friends. Gold panners work, sit beside the fire, tell stories, play music and sing. During the summer time the wooden figure is hardly seen from the road nor can he see to the road, he is hidden behind the green leaves of birch trees. During the summer, his role is to share the happiness and freedom of wilderness with his southern mates.

However, once the winter comes the gold diggers disappear back to south and the song of birds and men is finished. In the quietness of the vast land of snow and darkness, the only tracks beside the empty road are from wild life of predators and prays. The old fellow becomes a lone creature: on the one hand, he represents the lost happiness of the past summer. And yet, on the other hand, his appearance is stronger than ever before, because now he stands on open ground of bare trees – he can see the empty road. Each time Terhi drives by the man he becomes to be more and more visible, not only as a piece of art but as a living creature of humanity. He faces a transformation from a wooden creature to the only human being of wilderness.

In this transformation the winter and cold makes the man freeze. His summer clothes do not keep him warm. Eventually Terhi negotiated with the men of Caramba that she is allowed to dress the old chap with warmer clothes once the weather gets colder. When the man has been dressed up with warm clothes and Terhi passes him, she feels like the man is waving his hand: “It´s fine now, I will keep on watching you while you drive this road. Thanks!”


The Aesthetic discussion of objects and things being tacky or tasteful is out of question in this lived reality. The combination of different elements is not reflecting collage style but speaking out the appreciation and necessity of re-use and circulation of rare materials and goods. The evaluation of ‘the nature of art’ has the pressure on the word ‘art’ as a skill, art of skilled people to make the best out of their environment: shared, comfortable and sustainable ways. Here the beauty is the visual manifestation of the art of sparse living. Whenever one faces a piece of art in a vast land in a long run, day after a day – the aesthetics start to get transformed to the spiritual levels perception and one enters to the Arctic world of magic.

Terhi Vuojala-Magga and Joonas Vola, October, 2015

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Caveats about the use of the ‘resilience’ concept in social sciences

What are the differences between an unemployed person in some of the poorest countries and the richer countries? Presumably many but the most significant is the fact that those who have no formal employment in the former can face complete destitution unless they scrape a living within informal sector without any protection. On the other hand, citizens in rich countries with strong welfare states are entitled to various forms of benefits which protect them and prevent their vulnerability in times of joblessness, sickness and old age through a system of social welfare and security.

While people, surviving through hardship without any welfare support in some of the poorest countries in the world, deserve an enormous credit for their resilience, the political system in which resilience involves survival at the cost of child labour, hunger, poor employment rights, no health insurance is not one to aspire for.

As the term ‘resilience’ has become a popular term in political and academic circles in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and the ensuing recession, our article on ‘Resilience, Hardship and Social Conditions’  in the Journal of Social Policy provides a critical assessment of the use of this concept. In short, ‘resilience’ is often detached from the social conditions in which it arises. In particular, there is a tendency for it to be used with an agent centric view, undermining the influences of structural factors in the ways people respond to hardship. One may consider the effects of business dislocation on redundant workers as an example. Furthermore, the influence of individual and social histories in how people deal with unexpected shocks may be ignored in the development of this concept. For instance, the off-springs of the wealthy, healthy and edified are likely to deal with economic crises better than those with more disadvantaged backgrounds.

The implication of all this is that a disregard for social conditions of resilience may lead researchers to misclassify individuals or households when factors other than their individual characteristics account for the state they are in after some distress or shock. For those who are (mis)classified as non-resilient, the associated ‘scientific stigma’ would add further to the injury. There is also the potential difficulty of explaining discontinuities in ‘resilience’ (i.e. recovering from crisis only to fall back into it again) if one does not consider the influences of wider social environment in which we live.

More importantly, the term is conducive to ideological exploitation in that it can be used to justify regressive changes in the society. In the UK for example, social rights and entitlements are being curbed under the pretext of the resilience of the ‘big society’. Hence, resilience discourse may be seen as a change in language but a continuation of the neoliberal ideology; i.e. It is difficult to appeal to the mantra of big markets – small governments when markets failed big time. So why not repaint the same dogma as ‘big society – small government’.

 Hulya Dagdeviren, July 7, 2015

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Apple pickers and oyster diggers: Involving some classical social theory

Emile Durkheim[i] has addressed the fact that societies and the social division of labour are becoming more and more complex and have to rely on growingly complex conditions. But, with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg[ii], neither Durkheim nor many other thinkers of his era ever said or thought that this progress could also take place the other way round. But crises usually challenge everything, including the unspoken law of modernism: that development always means progress. And, at the beginning of the 21st century and four decades of austerity policies, it does not seem that it is a law of nature that a crisis will necessarily be followed by a socially inclusive recovery like the post war period after 1945, and it is historically evident that economic progress may harm not only working classes (parts) or certain sectors of economic activities and failing entrepreneurs, but also threat and harm complete countries, the natural environment and the global climate. So far, it is mainly left, ecological, post-growth and postcolonial thought and writings that have brought this forward.

But, as the RESCuE project is discovering practical patterns of socioeconomic resilience, we might have to rethink this issue once again. I think it is more than obvious that complex modes of production, exchange and consumption and social integration, like paid work in a highly organized workplace away from home and household, in a modern labour and market society framed by a welfare state, are vulnerable to failure if exposed to a serious crisis. Couldn’t it be that, if such divisions of labour, complex markets and the modern post-industrialist institutions fail, gradually or completely, some people are starting to re-actualize older, residual, less complex layers or patterns of production, consumption and social integration? Production seems to redevelop from offices, companies and factories at least partly into home- and housework, direct use of nature, and informal work. Labour, exchange and consumption are losing the ‘social’ as well as losing formal and legally regulated markets as one of the Smithian[iii] expressions of ‘the social’, but are now increasingly being allocated alongside patterns of acquaintance, like family, kinship, neighbourhood, subculture and informal structures of the local community. Exchange for money is complemented by older systems such as barter, gift exchange, sharing and keeping production and consumption more within their own ‘oikos’. Let’s remember another early 20th century social theorist, Ferdinand Toennies[iv], who said that society is a rather precarious and abstract issue, requiring deliberate action of citizens who do not necessarily know each other, while communities come into existence naturally, based on similarity of life situations, co-presence or co-locality. Toennies’ thoughts well expressed what Durkheim did not say too explicitly, that society might at a certain historical stage take over tasks from communities – which is very true in the case of the welfare state, most obviously in the Scandinavian ones. For both Durkheim and Toennies, as I read them, a very regular price of this turnover from communities into society may be anomie in case of failure and a lack of affective inclusion even when the system is working well. Persisting poverty, growing unemployment, but also a growth of crime, rising social protest not only from the left, and a lack of social belonging that have been widely diagnosed throughout Europe in the last years might be symptomatic and connect to current diagnoses of postdemocracy[v] or the delayed crisis of capitalism[vi]. But it seems that some few people are able to turn the table and develop strategies to buffer or cope with the crisis, developing resilience.

Why so few? This is where the inherent complexity growth argument of Durkheim, less visible but also crucial for Toennies might have its weak point. It could be a modernist or liberal misunderstanding, that only markets (including financial markets), the dissociation of home and work, of workers and the means of production, the uneven distribution of work-related knowledge, the highly developed global divisions of labour and modern institutions and organisations are complex, and more complex than their historical antecessors? Isn’t it even more a misunderstanding to think of older layers and practices as less complex? Especially in terms of knowledge: not everyone has the knowledge of seasons, places, properties of plants and ways of preserving which are required for gathering. Not everyone has the knowledge to repair a car or washing machine, to lay tiles on the roof, exchange a rotten beam in a timber framework or grow food in the garden. Not everyone has the knowledge to build and keep up informal networks and ties for mutual help in a poor and deprived neighborhood, not to talk about the knowledge of cooking healthy meals for little money. And not everyone has the knowledge to successfully walk the thin line between acceptable and inacceptable informal practices, or between barely legal and illegal practices with respect to declaring or non declaring informal income to the social authorities or squatting public land. And of course, it is not too common to know what to do with 100 kilos of apples before they start rotting or how to dig oysters and other shellfish on the Thames’ banks at low tides.

Thus, we might now be able to draw a first conclusion: For analyzing practices in vulnerable households exposed to crises, it could be interesting and helpful to use the image of layered knowledge and practices, of which lower or older ones come to work when the newest layer fails in a crisis. This goes also – not mentioned here before – together with Raymond Williams[vii]’ model of dominant, residual and emerging patterns of culture: If the dominant pattern fails, previously residual patterns reemerge, or new ones emerge. But the reemergence of residual patterns requires precarious conditions, like knowledge, which might not be residual but simply lost. Backing up earlier empirical arguments and conceptual assumptions, the uneven distribution of knowledge might add another argument why resilience is a matter of a few, and neither a mass phenomenon nor a broad anti poverty strategy – and why many families actually suffering from the crisis can never be honestly blamed for not being resilient. And, it can be added, we all know that knowledge can be transferred if we manage to develop good institutions which are sensitive for inequality and its inherited risks.

There will be further conclusions coming up. Let’s keep thinking about it and discuss them.

Markus Promberger, July 3, 2015

[i] See Emile Durkheim, “La division sociale du travail”, and “La suicide”

[ii] See Rosa Luxemburg, “Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus“

[iii] See Adam Smith, “An Inquiry to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”

[iv] See Ferdinand Toennies, “Community and Society”

[v] See Colin Crouch, “Postdemocracy”

[vi] See Wolfgang Streeck, “Die gekaufte Zeit”

[vii] See Raymond Williams, “Culture and Society”

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Apple-pickers in Franconia


And here comes the story about the apple pickers in the area where I live – and do observations on resilience as well. It is a hillside area, its centre about 40 km from a big city, the area is patched with little villages, the space between them holds meadows, fruit tree fields and single fruit trees, grain, corn and potato fields, and small patches of forest.

Driving by the outskirts of B.-Dorf, a neighbor village, I passed two patches of each 4 or 5 old apple trees, situated aside a patch of shrubby bushes, on a meadow, which is cut by a new road, leading to a construction site where a the ground for a new supermarket is laid – B.-Dorf has no more active fulltime farmers and a more central position for shopping and business. Straightly on the meadow there is an old VW van and a Renault Kangoo combination car, and three adults with children are picking apples from the trees, their car boots filled with kid’s buckets, sacks and shopping baskets full of apples. As I approach from a 100 m distance, they start looking at me, a kid points, they seem to get nervous, which makes me withdraw after a 10 minutes observation from my car. Their license plates are from one of the nearby big cities. Two days later I pass by again, noticing that two of the old apple trees have been cut to give way to a provisory construction path.

Driving on to E.-Dorf the first day, I leave the state street to enter a smaller street leading to E.-Dorf, on its left sided by an alley of about 20 apple and pear trees, aged about 20 years. Between the 4th and the 5th tree I notice a silver combination (an old Hyundai pony or the like) car which had passed the small stripe of grass between the road and the bicycle path, standing between the trees, car boot open and filled with white plastic sacks full of apples. The car’s owner is busy quickly picking apples from the trees.

Talking to my neighbours, a few of which do small scale fruit growing and sales, and all of them participate in the fruit-related gift economy, it turns out that my observations do not stand alone, as almost everyone had made similar observations this year. There is not much criticism, just ‘they’d better ask’, and ‘they should not go into fenced land’, and ‘they even tried to pick my backyard walnut trees before I drove them off’ in a laughing way, and this criticism is balanced by statements like ‘our fruit are obviously better than those from the ALDI supermarket’, or ‘better they take them apples home than having them rot on the ground’. It is also consented that families with children should not be criticised for such picking practices, as – this is a common understanding in those villages – children need to be fed almost all the time, and they should eat healthy fruit instead of supermarket sweets.

Although the fruit prices went down through the last decades, and also a very common traditional kind of huge apple trees is regarded ineffective to be picked commercially, which led to a decline of commercial apple and plum growing, there is a very developed kind of mixed economy about the fruits. Some are sold to fruit wholesalers despite the low prices, as a kind of side income in cases where labour does not count – instead of watching TV the family will go out and pick their apples, plums or cherries. There is also small roadside retail sale, but there is also a whole range of sharing and gift economy about the fruit, so a rich harvest will be shared with relatives and neighbours, with defined, loose or no expectations on counter gifts – those practices could fill a book. Fruits play a strong role in the collective and symbolic identity of the village people (there are villages named after apples and cherries, some others’ village coats of arms show fruit, and there are some fruit feasts through the year), although there are hardly any persons who live from agricultural incomes alone, and most inhabitants do not at all participate in market-related agriculture. Fruit growing also has intergenerational rationality, as the fruiting period of a tree may range up to 50 years. And, moreover, there is a very hidden notion of collective prosperity and fertility, as many children and many fruit are deemed as a lucky development for the village, and both goes together, as the children are said to benefit very much from eating fruit, and giving fruit to children is a kind of social investment in the villages future.

On the other hand, due to natural conditions, market logics and social change, fruit trees can be abandoned as nobody finds time to cut or to fertilize them, or they are not harvested due to low prices, or there are abundant harvests from time to time, there are still some fruit that go nor into markets neither into gift ecchange or sharing activities. Those fruit are usually slowly loosing their character of private property and become a common good. As the fruit don’t bear labels, the distinction whether a fruit is common or private property is hard to make. But there are informal rules about it: Sloes, brambles and rosehips are wild fruit to be picked by everyone, although old men from the village usually come by some urban earlybird sloepickers and tell them not to pick before the first frosty night. Don’t pick from trees or from fenced land, unless you’re allowed to. But you can pick up one bag of apples from the ground as an adult, and children can pick a handfull from the tree without asking, and if the tree is not fenced in. It is always welcome if you ask – and eventually stay for having a little chat. Children would be encouraged to pick fruit from the tree or from the ground, and the village mayor would also encourage poor families to collect fruit from the trees standing on public grounds. Or, the elementary school children would go out, collect apples, bring them to a cider press and take the applejuice back to school.

What the observed villages used to do with their fruit can in various respects be seen as a kind of collective resilience, embedded in socioeconomic and cultural patterns and practices, from sharing and gift to market economies, community and intergenerational solidarity, integrated into a framework of informal rules and cultural settings and practices, such as the knowledge of how to cut trees or when to harvest, the notion of apples as healthy child food, the social bonds and networks around the fruit economy, and the various symbolic representations of fruit in the folk culture, that keeps existing and adapting to modern life close to a big city.

Obviously, this year there are other actors mixing into this local economy of the fruit. Not just hitchhikers picking a bag of sloes or a handfull of apples, but individuals and families from nearby cities come out and strip apple trees completely off their fruit – which has never been happening before at that scale. Cars and clothings of the observed persons speak for the fact that they are not very well off, but not really poor, and their behaviour makes it quite likely that they had not asked for permission before. Nevertheless, they are tolerated, and what used to be a resilient practice of a few villages seems to get into relation with the resilient practices of nearby city dwellers in a time, when Germany still is well off, but some part of the population are stronger touched by the economic crisis that others. Nevertheless, the side of the city dwellers still needs to be observed more in this case of the fruit growing area in Upper Franconia.

Markus Promberger, April 7, 2015

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Resilience, Social Investment and Social Citizenship


The process of resilience, regardless of field, usually entails developing the ability or capacity to withstand and deal with shocks: an idea that has been developed from engineering, ecology and psychology. In the UK, the term has been used in relation to community cohesion and the prevention of radicalisation. The term has also been established within a socio-economic context, mainly in macroeconomics, to discuss the resilience of markets and national economies, and, in development studies, to examine the ability for villages, towns and countries in the Global South to develop prosperity.

It is only just beginning to be used to discuss the ability of households in more developed states to deal with economic shocks, such as the Great Recession. Thus far, the term has been linked to disasters or major crises: absolute poverty and global inequality in terms of development, the health of economies such as Greece, or the ability for communities to resist and reduce terrorism. Each of these carries connotations of a large and potentially absolute threat to wellbeing in some form. Yet for the concept to be transposed onto or adapted for use in more developed states, it is important to recognise the fact that the crisis at hand may not be as deep or as close to disaster. This is not to say that the issues households in developed states face are less important or (relatively speaking) less severe. Rather, these states, particularly in Western Europe, have developed long-standing and deeply embedded welfare settlements that to some extent protect against the most severe crises, and help transfer risk away from the household onto the state (though of course it would be naïve to suggest this happens in every case).

There is a well-established literature on the variations of welfare states and the different worlds of welfare capitalism. Based on the assumption that there are different forms of welfare state that categorise and transfer risk differently, one could also assume that there may be different points where a household’s situation develops into a crisis. This entry point, at a fundamental level, would depend on the nature and depth of social citizenship rights in a given state, and the ease with which they can be accessed. Of course, it is likely that a ‘crisis’ will have many similar features across states, such as a household not being able to pay bills, afford essentials, and so on. However, there is already a lot of differentiation both within and between states regarding at what stage someone can receive help from the state, and the extent to which they must rely on civil society, friends and family. This differentiation is only one criterion for understanding the extent to which a household is able to develop and maintain resilience, but given the importance of welfare in post-war Europe, it is worth focusing on in more detail.

According to T.H. Marshall, social citizenship entails having a modicum of economic security, as well as the ability to participate fully in society and to be an active member of the polity. An inability to deal with the risks and shocks associated with market capitalism prevents this. As such, one can draw a direct link between resilience and social citizenship. The extension of social citizenship rights, traditionally via the welfare state, to members of a polity provides an essential tool for developing and maintaining resilience in that it provides assistance to those who are struggling to cope, or cannot cope, with shocks. In providing assistance through risk mitigation, capacity building, or crisis support, the welfare state can contribute directly to a household’s resilience. However, citizenship implies a contract. Therefore assistance from the state can be understood as an investment in its citizens: the state shores up citizens against hardship and provides some resources (such as economic transfers or skills training) to prevent an immediate return to danger, and in return citizens should (ideally) be less likely to require assistance in the future.

In other words, welfare as social investment can help develop households who, because of their renewed or developed resilience to economic risk and shock, will be less of a burden on the state in the future. Theoretically this should reduce the strain on a range of social citizenship institutions (including beyond the welfare state). Freed-up resources could possibly then be used in other areas, to increase support for more vulnerable groups, and to help create high quality jobs with good pay – an aim that distinguishes social investment welfare from neoliberal welfare strategies, for example.

An issue with this line of thought, directly related to resilience, is that of activity and passivity. The relationship between resilience, welfare and crisis sketched out above implies that at some point in a timeline of resilience development, a household will require external help that makes it reliant on institutions other than itself. At this stage, it is perhaps difficult to categorise a household as ‘resilient’. Yet, as qualitative research for RESCuE in the UK suggests, it becomes increasingly difficult to exercise one’s agency as resources become less available. In such a situation, help is needed to overcome socio-economic inertia and allow financial respite that enables households to settle debts and save money. This facilitates movement to a position from which agency can be exerted over the important social and economic choices one must make to develop resilience. This also relates to more traditional debates surrounding welfare, in that development of social investment in the 1990s emphasised a move away from passive receipt of benefits to active participation in return for support. Citizens would develop their human capital in order to be able to compete in a global labour market that demanded flexible workers. As such, a resilient citizen would be an employable citizen: a worker with many strings to their bow.

Social investment welfare is therefore an ideal companion to the concept of resilience. Their relation to one another embodies the contractualism of a European welfare settlement that is focused on building the capacity and developing the social and economic independence of European citizens, whilst striving to reduce the burden on what is increasingly seen as an outdated and outmoded institution of support in a modern, developing and globalised economy. However, although it certainly outlines the implied responsibilities of citizens (to develop relevant skills, become financially literate etc.) it does not do much to outline the social rights of citizens. As such, there is a danger that ‘resilience’ becomes a stick with which to beat those who do not take up the opportunities provided by the state as enthusiastically as they possibly could. Indeed, this is something that the Labour government in the UK concentrated on between 1997 and 2010, focusing on a hand up not a hand out, and increasing the conditions placed upon receipt of welfare support.

Resilience as a concept and as a normative ideal certainly has the potential to be a progressive and transformative force, but to do this justice there must be more in terms of highlighting the rights and benefits for the citizen, rather than focusing on their responsibilities as global citizen-workers. Investing in citizens, encouraging them to become autonomous and entrepreneurial, requires an acknowledgement that risk is being transferred onto individuals who may not be in a position to deal with it effectively. If citizens are expected to take on the responsibility of accepting substantial risk for varied levels of improvement in quality of life, there must be a reciprocal expectation that the state will ultimately do more to ensure this risk is manageable, perhaps through mitigation and transfer strategies.

Matt Donoghue, March 3, 2015

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Resilience, entrepreneurship and the rule of law: ethical dilemmas for researchers


One of the most emblematic television commercials of recent years is for the bank HSBC*. Shown on many news and other channels around the world, it shows a little girl who opens a lemonade stand outside her home. While Maurice Chevalier’s version of ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ plays (somewhat dubiously) in the background, she makes a roaring success of the business by speaking several languages and taking a range of different foreign currencies.

At a symbolic level, this advertisement celebrates many of the dominant values of our time: feminine achievement, entrepreneurship, responsiveness to customers, openness to global markets and willingness to trust the finance industry.

But if we look through a different lens, and interpret it literally, what do we find? Child labour, tax avoidance, operating a business without planning permission, lack of respect for health and safety rules and a complete disregard for a range of other regulations.

What emerges from such analysis is a conclusion that probably seems self-evident to most social and political scientists: that there are strong contradictions between the drive for entrepreneurship on the one hand, and, on the other, the need for fair rules that allow markets to function transparently, safeguard individuals from harm and produce social cohesion.

The concept of resilience stands right at the centre of this contradiction. A resilient individual, some might argue, is someone who takes initiatives, seizes opportunities and tries something new in order to further their own interests and those of other household members. The biographies of many successful entrepreneurs include romanticised accounts of just such innovative achievements (the food made at the kitchen table or the products invented in the garage that turn into a global brand; the door-to-door salesperson or market-stall holder who launches a retail chain). Our lemonade-stand heroine is emblematic of such figures. But at what point does the kind of innovative entrepreneur she represents morph into a criminal or a benefit cheat in the public imagination or in the reality of how regulations are applied? We are, after all, also plied with images representing the alternative reality: the tax-evader, the exploitative sweatshop owner, the criminal.

The so-called informal economy (often called, revealingly enough, the ‘black economy’, ‘shadow economy’ or ‘grey economy’) has long been recognised as an ambiguous space, difficult to research, whose actors are viewed in multiple ways, both positive and negative. There is a continuum between serious crime, such as drug-dealing, extortion and protection rackets, shading off into dealing in stolen goods, black market trading, selling counterfeit products or smuggled goods at one extreme and, at the other, desperately poor people scraping a livelihood by hard work: selling second-hand goods, recycling garbage or growing food for sale. In between these extremes are a large number of grey areas where the applicability of the law is questionable but there may be no criminal intent, including working informally for friends for repayment in kind, homeworking, selling goods on commission for mail order companies or taking on occasional work as a seasonal agricultural worker, window-cleaner, child-minder, car-washer, deliverer of leaflets through letterboxes, dressmaker or cake decorator.

For the researcher, this field of study presents ethical as well as intellectual challenges. As the RESPECT project concluded, the professional researcher has to balance three very different ethical principles.

These three principles are:

  • First, the researcher should respect scientific standards. In the popular perception, this could be termed ‘finding the truth’. But, it is often argued, since all ‘truths’ are socially constructed, this may be an impossible goal. Nevertheless, the researcher has a clear duty to avoid deliberate misrepresentation, fabrication or misinterpretation of data and ensure factual accuracy insofar as this is possible.
  • Second, the researcher should respect the law. Again this principle may be contentious. There is, for instance, a widely held view that it is the duty of intellectuals to resist unjust laws, such as those imposed by totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that there are some laws, such as those designed to prevent plagiarism or protect the privacy of research subjects that it is clearly in the interests of researchers, as a community, to uphold, since they form the basis of their own professional standards. More importantly, we must recognise that researchers are also citizens. In their capacity as citizens, they have a duty to inform the authorities if they witness criminal activity.
  • The third ethical obligation placed on the researcher is the avoidance of social and personal harm. This includes the well-known requirements to ensure that participation in research is voluntary, to respect privacy and to ensure that it does not lead to physical or emotional pain or material disadvantage.

Much to the frustration of research funders, ethical research does not and cannot involve blindly following any checklist of rules of good conduct because all of these principles may come into conflict with each other in certain circumstances.

To take just a few examples: research on activities such as drug use or prostitution may involve observing the law being broken without reporting it to the police; research on child sexual abuse or racist gangs may involve working undercover without gaining the informed consent of the subjects being studied; some psychological research involves deception of the participants. Some of these may be extreme examples, but most social scientists who carry out empirical research with human subjects come up against minor versions of such dilemmas on a frequent basis.

In research on resilience among poor households all three of these principles are in play and researchers, individually and collectively, have to exercise our judgement on how to balance them. How do we find out, to the best of our ability ‘what’s really going on’? But (if this involves some ‘grey areas’) how do we then decide whether what is going on is serious enough to report to the authorities? And, if we do so, how do we avoid any harm coming to our research participants, especially in the event that in reporting one kind of harm (such as the discovery of child sexual abuse, or serious benefit fraud) we end up being instrumental in bringing about another (such as the arrest of a respondent, or the withdrawal of benefits)? If we do not do so, how do we, as citizens, live with the knowledge that our failure to act may have resulted in some other kind of harm? And to what extent might we be personally liable if we are seen by the authorities as colluding with fraud or crime? Journalists, following their codes of practice, have faced jail sentences rather than reveal their sources of information. Should social researchers be prepared to take a similar stance? If we do not, how can we earn the trust of our informants?

These are big questions. The debate is just beginning.

Ursula Huws, January 16, 2015

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Oyster diggers in Central London – Examples of nature use by low income households and their contribution to the households living


Oyster diggers in Central London – Examples of nature use by low income households and their contribution to the households living

When travelling home from the last RESCuE workshop in Lisbon, I was still impressed by the diversity of the first findings all the colleagues had been reporting on socioeconomic practices of vulnerable households, which – in some cases – might contribute to developing resilience. One difference was striking me in particular, and it was about making use of land and nature. From Poland, Finland and Germany, there had been reports of gardening and breeding small animals, fruit and mushroom picking, collecting firewood in the forests, fishing, even herding. From Spain, Greece and Portugal, there was even some first evidence of families turning back to small agriculture. This was accompanied by considerations on the various functions performed by those practices: Improving family nourishment beyond the level feasible on the monetary income the families actually have, enable for savings on food expenditure, gaining goods which can be shared within our outside the family, or be fed into gift exchange, even sometimes might be sold for money. Moreover, those activities can be seen to give structure and sense to daily life. On the other hand, other colleagues reported that there were not much of such activities of vulnerable families in their countries, be it in rural or urban settings. There were several arguments for this: Being visibly engaged in collecting wood or picking berries, people would possibly fear stigmatization, as if they were so poor being forced to foraging. And gardening would be rejected as a middle class activity. Moreover, according to the privatization of public land in the 18th century, much commented by writers like Karl Marx and E.P. Thompson, there is not much public land to be used, and private land is often fenced in to prevent intruders and mark privacy. Keeping hens for eggs or poultry meat might be more expensive than to buy them in a supermarket, but the economic balance might shift if taken into account that poor people might have a lot of time on disposition. All in all, those activities could also more be seen or self-described as a hobby, which could contribute to resilience as a sense giving activity, but should not be seen as a useful economic practice. When we would observe men standing at coastal rocks fishing with a rod, others sitting aside a canal and fishing, this could be either hobby fishermen or polish workers more accustomed or less ashamed to those practices.

Of course, there is some fishery and gardening that are clearly hobbies: Fly fishing on salmons in the Scottish highlands, speedboat based offshore fishing on tunas, marlins and sharks, or setting up price winning gardens aside upper class cottages and manors. But, as might be crucial for non-industrial labour, there are practices that are more seen as a way of life than as a purposeful activity for income, and at any times not as labour understood as physical strain. You simply do it, because your fathers or mothers did it, or because it is expected that you do so – or you just came across it in your life and started to love it. But, without having to be labeled as labour, it might produce savings, living quality, and even income, thus exceeding just to be a senseful activity. We just might tend to underestimate it, as it is different to the role expectations of a modern working society, such as getting money for outbound work on somebody elses premises, or if not, produce goods for the market, or be dependent on transfer income.

My father and grandfather used to be in small creek rod fishing, and, although never spending too much time in it, were always bringing home more that our family could or wanted to use, which then then gave a basis for sharing with neighbours – or some gift exchange for sour crout, potatoes or some occasional transportation service. Years later I was at a conference in south of Ireland, arriving one day earlier and taking a walk, when I came to a shore bridge, where some elder men were rod fishing. Not wanting to intrude – silence is a key issue in rod fishing – I watched them from some distance, and talked to one of them when he finished and passed by. Looking at his catch, I saw two buckets, each crowded with about seven or eight fishes about the length of an underarm. He said he was a retired factory worker, coming here at least twice a week, saying this is his hobby, watching the waves, tides, birds and weather, not getting upon his wife’s nerves, smoking. Asked about what he’d be doing with all the fish, he said, cooking or frying some of them at home, giving some to the young neighbor guy picking him up with his car when driving home from work, and bringing the rest to a bar and restaurant in his hometown for some money and for covering his (of course very moderate, he added laughingly) drinking bill. I did not ask him for his income, his clothes were not easy to judge but cheap, and his fishing rod was more looking like the ones my grandpa made himself than those of the glitzy fishery shops for American tourists in the area. I wasn’t sure if he was actually poor, but he surely wasn’t rich.

Traveling through the Soviet Union and through Russia and Ukrainia, in the 1980s supermarkets used to have at least half empty shelfs and for sure a lack of fresh vegetables, full shelfs but unaffordably high prices in the 1990s and later, but in all times you might always find some street vendors with a handful of tomatoes, grenade apples, mushrooms or self made pirogi for little money. Asking friends and colleagues, they introduced me into the so-called datcha economy: In the Brechnev era, short before the dusk of the Soviet empire, the informal sector had been producing at least 40%, some say even 60% of vegetables and other, mostly fresh and unprocessed foodstuffs of the country, mainly through the datcha system: A datcha usually is a tiny little wooden log house surrounded by a garden of 250 to, say, 800 square meters at the fringes of a town or in a small village, often run by a family’s grandma (babushka) or pensioners, sometimes inhabited by the whole family through the summer months, where every patch of soil is covered by potatoe plants, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, st johns berries, strawberries and any imaginable kind of foodplants, cruised by hens, ducks, sometimes even a pig or a cow, with an outside kitchen, a well, a small yard, and some shacks. Even in 2006 Ukrainia, this system was fully working. I remember being invited by a family of six, consisting of a man around 40 working as a long distance truck driver for less than 150 € a month, but unemployed several months per year, his wife, working in public administration of a nearby small town for less than 100 € pm, mother in law with a 80 € pension, and three children at school age, one of them a boy about 16 years old, working a few days per months as a helping hand on informal construction sites. Almost all they ate throughout the year came from their own 800 sqm garden, including wine, preserved vegetables, fresh cheese, eggs, melons, just except sausages made by a nearby factory, seed oil, and industrially produced grey bread, which is cheap, available everywhere and of a good quality. This family was clearly vulnerable, poor housing (three small bedrooms for six), poorly paid and unsteady jobs if at all, poor to most of the current definitions (a fate they share with about 60% of the Ukrainian population) but at a rather good nourishment stage, having full activities, stable family life and social integration (of which their hospitality is a good indicator, if not that a handful of other neighbours just dropped in when they saw there were visitors) and did not have to spend much more than just time and work on what was on their table.

Thus, as western European consumerists we might tend to underestimate to which extent activities like gardening, small agriculture or foraging can indeed economically contribute to a family’s living, beyond giving them senseful activities in their daily lives. Of course, the resources involved have a lot to do with making purposeful use of land or nature, and knowing what to do. Both cannot be assumed for every poor, it might seem at least that these are facilities of a rural population with access to natural resources. Or?

Letting again my impressions from Lisbon pass through my mind when traveling home, I remember small trips with a local overground trains, sometimes passing by small patches of land squeezed in between or even enclosed by railroad tracks and high walls, densely planted with pumpkins, red and green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, sometimes cared by eldery men or women in shabby clothes, carrying water cans or other items. But it does not have to be official or informal gardening, which we know has been a crucial support of living for early 20th century working classes, like the plot gardeners or garden city movement are good examples for.

It was in spring 2014 when I visited London – or was it autumn 2013? When I crossed the river Thames at Tower Bridge, there was low tide, about 1.5 m or more below regular level (which could be estimated by seaweed growth on the embankment walls). The bank reinforcements were now footed by previously unseen sandbanks, on which seagulls and other birds sat, using the low tide for their own purposes. Looking from the north embankment to the south, I suddenly recognized a man walking just above one sandbank’s waterline. Aged well above 60, dark brown cord trousers, cheap green PVC boots up to the knees, a light brown worn out cotton hiker’s jacket hanging from the shoulders, open, with a red and green sweater, and a tweed flat cap on his head, in his hands a small shovel, a stick, looking like a tree branch of about 2 cm diameter with a cut fork at one end, and a pale green plastic bucket with holes in the bottom to let water rinse through. He paced along, stood still, drilled the stick into the ground, dug a bit with his shovel, and then threw a small lump of sand and something else into his bucket, which he then dived into the water and pulled out again. He repeated this procedure every few foot until he came to the end of the sandbank, turned round the bend and disappeared from my sight. Not to lose too much words about it, his look and behavior was exactly like that of the shellfish gatherers in northern Spain, País Vasco, Asturias, or Galicia who are searching the sandy firths of Spain’s northern coast at low tides – except the rubber boots, a preference for blue or other colours than brown, and the bucket, as the man’s Spanish colleagues would do this barefoot and with a bucket shape basket made from wire. Unfortunately I could not take a closer look at his prey, but the London authorities name the same classes of shellfish to populate the Thames estuary between West London and the North Sea: Oysters, Mussels, crabs of various kinds – which the London Authorities have warned not to eat due to environmental pollution. But there are not only techniques to get them, which is not so easy, as you have to read the life signs from the animals hidden in the sandy ground – little bubbles or movements, but also techniques to clean them through rinsing and keeping them in clean salt water for hours or days. No matter how effective and healthy this actually is, but our shellfish gatherer seems at least to have reached a reasonable age. Not sure if or how poor he actually is, but his physical and habitual appearance is very different, looking very different from any other images of London city dwellers, including working class, poor or homeless.

Those observations raise a lot of analytical issues, which surely have to be discussed more extensively, but the first impression is that there is some hidden richness in socioeconomic practices which might be called residual in the terms of Raymond Williams, but seem to be reemerging in times of hardship – or just become more visible when we simply look closer. Using natural resources does to support not seem to be limited to the countryside alone, it may come along as a cultural practice – hobby, tradition – with positive economic side effects, and it is surprisingly diverse, as natural conditions and resources are. When we look for resources which households with low income or in hardship might practically draw upon, successful combinations of nature use and knowledge might be quite relevant examples.

Markus Promberger, December 22, 2014

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Finding a sociological language for discussing resilience


Sociology is a discipline which has always struggled with the fact that its subject matter is that of everyday life. The relationships between individuals and the institutions that shape their lives are not just the stuff of everyday conversations but also, very often, of other discourses too, ranging from novels to political speeches to religious sermons. Words like ‘family’, ‘community’, ‘work’, ‘society’, ‘culture’ or ‘government’ are common to all these fields and slip fluidly between them, altering their meanings in subtle ways as they do so. This is one reason why, when the results of sociological research are presented in the popular media, the reaction is often very different from the response to other kinds of research (say, in medicine, or physics). Some non-specialists may respond with ‘well, that’s obvious. why did they need to do research on that?’, whilst others may feel free to take issue with the findings, drawing on no other evidence than their own personal experiences or second-hand anecdotes. When the verbal currency is essentially the same as that used in everyday speech, then it is difficult to give it a precise scientific meaning.

This problem is compounded when a new term is introduced into sociological discourse, taken from a different context, in order to identify a previously unexplored phenomenon for the purpose of developing concepts and tools for analysing it. And it is doubly compounded if it is also a term that is used metaphorically in everyday speech. The term ‘resilience’ illustrates this problem in a particularly acute form. The word derives etymologically from the Latin resiliens, the past participle of the verb resilire which means – literally – to ‘jump again’ or ‘jump back’  (re = ‘back’ + salire = ‘jump’). Its technical meaning in physics refers to the kind of elasticity that allows certain materials to regain their shape, or ‘bounce back’ after being subjected to pressure. This quality provides such a powerful metaphor that is not surprising that the term was later adapted in ecology (by Crawford Holling) to refer to the ability of natural environments to absorb changes and by psychologists to refer to the human ability to recover from illness, depression or adversity.

Psychology is, of course, largely the study of individuals and such usages create special problems if they are transferred uncritically to sociology, which, whilst of course it also studies individuals, does so very much in the context of the broader society in which these individuals live, and the social institutions which they shape and are shaped by. The risk inherent in the individual approach is that the term ‘resilience’ is taken to refer to a specific attribute – a quality, or bundle of qualities – that a person or household possesses (or does not) that makes it possible to withstand, or bounce back, from adversity. It is only one small step from such an approach to a position that regards the person or household who lacks resilience as in some way deficient, or responsible for their own failure to survive. The political danger inherent in such an approach is that it might lead to conclusions that support blaming victims for their own misfortune.

Such problems are not unique to the study of resilience. A central debate in sociology for many years has focused on the relationship between individual agency and social structures and the relative importance of each of these in shaping the dynamics of change. In practice, many sociologists would agree that their relationship with each other is dialectical and mutually shaping. On the one hand, a person’s’ ‘place’ in society is fundamentally shaped by a range of pre-existing institutional factors; on the other, the actions that a person takes individually can serve either to challenge or reinforce these pre-existing patterns, bringing about personal change. When actions are taken collectively, either jointly, in an organised way, or when a large number of individuals acting independently make similar choices, the cumulative effect of these actions may bring about larger social changes, affecting much broader groups, resulting in a permanent reshaping of some features of those larger institutions. Whilst the relative weight of structural factors and individual agency may be in doubt, there is a broad consensus that they interact with each other to produce new patterns, or variations on the old, which may in turn bring about real changes in the life-chances of individuals.

Before looking in particular at resilience it might be worth considering how sociology has coped with other issues that have been introduced onto its agenda for examination. One of these is gender. The social variable ‘sex’ originates in biology and was traditionally seen as an unchanging personal attribute. When sociologists began to study it as something that might be socially shaped and capable of change, this word was found to be unsatisfactory and the word ‘gender’, originally a grammatical term, was borrowed from linguistics to refer to those aspects of masculinity and femininity that are socially shaped. However simply importing a new term did not in itself resolve the problem of how to generate a sociological understanding of gender. The problem of structure and agency remained and there were still many unanswered questions: How, exactly, did gendered patterns reproduce themselves? What could explain their persistence in the face of major changes in sexual behaviour, in family structures and in legislation? In 1987, Candace West and Don Zimmerman published an article in Gender and Society called ‘Doing gender’. This, and subsequent work that built on their insights, introduced the idea of gender not so much as a permanent institutional structure (an abstract noun, as it were) nor a personal attribute (like an adjective) but as a collection of practices (or verbs) that men and women, individually and collectively, perform every day and which have the effect of producing, modifying and reproducing the gendered institutions that shape the societies we live in and, in turn, that we are also shaped by. ‘Doing gender’ is a clumsy and ungainly verb, but it is currently the best term we have for describing the practices that link structure dialectically with agency to shape, and reshape our social world

We need something similar, I would argue, to study ‘resilience’: a verb that posits resilience, not as an inherent feature of institutions, nor as an attribute of individuals, but as a series of practices that links them dynamically with each other, in the process producing adaptations to both.

One approach that we are currently investigating in the UK RESCuE team for developing this concept further draws on the so-called ‘capabilities’ approach, developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum*. Some might argue that such an approach is too focused on the individual, but it does seem to offer promising possibilities to link the idea of people’s basic needs and their abilities to meet them, with their capabilities and the economic, social and cultural resources that are available to them for this purpose.

This work is in early stages and we will be reporting further on it as the RESCuE project progresses.

Ursula Huws, December 19, 2014

* See for instance: Sen, Amartya (1985). Commodities and capabilities. Amsterdam New York: North-Holland; Nussbaum, Martha (2003). “Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice” Feminist Economics.

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