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

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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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