Finding a sociological language for discussing resilience

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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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