Resilience, neo-liberalism, ecological perspective Paul Garrett’s (2016) article, ‘Questioning tales of “ordinary magic”: “Resilience” and neo-liberal reasoning’, is a welcome critique of resilience theory and utilisation in social work practice and social policy. Garrett sets out a range of concerns with the fundamental tenets of resilience. At root, his problem with resilience is that it is ‘integral to forces seeking to dilute opposition to neo-liberalism’ (p. 1920). He concludes: ‘The emphasis on the agentive coping individual, located within “given” social and political structures, undercuts any attempts to reform “resilience talk”’ (p. 1921). While he indicates that, ‘In furnishing this critique, it is hoped that others may be prompted to respond in order to generate debate’ (p. 1911), his conclusion leaves little wriggle-room for discussion. Nevertheless, I consider it important to endeavour to reclaim resilience for social work, on the basis of the questionable premise of his argument and his neglect of decades of social work resilience writing. Garrett’s apparent premise that nothing less than radical structural change will suffice is at odds with social work itself. The foundational social work notion of ‘person-in-environment’ (Weiss-Gal, 2008), which extends back 100 years to the writing of Mary Richmond (1922), endeavours to hold in tension a focus on both the person (or any social system, such as family or organisation) and the social and structural environment around the person/system. This tension is prominent not only in social work, but also sociology (Van Breda, 2016b), leading Romanos (2014, p. 98) to write: ‘The question of … the relationship between social agency and social structure is certainly the problematic around which the entire history of sociology is written.’ Social work, through the person-in-environment principle, adopts a dual commitment to both agency and structure. This is taken up into the global definition of social work, which states, inter alia, that ‘social work engages [both] people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing’ (IFSW, 2014). Similarly, Patel (2015) presents ‘bridging the micro-macro divide’ as a core principle of a developmental approach to social welfare, in which both micro and macro interventions are crucial to achieve social development outcomes. And Frost (2008) has argued, drawing on psycho-social theory, for the dissolution of the dichotomisation of agency and structure. Psychosocial theory weaves together psychoanalytic insights with a structural analysis of people and society, allowing a holistic view of the ‘subject, within, saturated by, reflecting of and influencing, impacting on and impacted by … their social world’ (Frost, 2008, p. 245). This in turn offers coherent ways to work past the agency–structure binary. Consequently, Garrett’s premise appears to require the same ‘critical scrutiny’ (p. 1910) that resilience requires. Nonetheless, Garrett is right in pointing out with concern that much resilience writing and popular narratives are individualistic and vulnerable to co-option into a neo-liberal agenda. Several social workers writing on resilience have made similar critique (Singh and Cowden, 2015; Collins, 2017). Social workers engaging in resilience research must, I agree, engage critically with how they construct resilience and the degree to which their construction is aligned with social work theory and values. However, Garrett appears to overlook or minimise resilience theory that has long been engaging with these very concerns. This is particularly so among social work authors, who have (though neither exclusively nor universally) been at the forefront of cultivating an understanding of resilience that foregrounds the ecological perspective and systems theory (Van Breda, 2016a). Numerous resilience researchers make use of ecosystems theory to inform their understanding of resilience processes. In the social work literature, these date back to the 1930s, during the time of the Great Depression (Van Breda, 2016a), where attention was given both to the resilience of social systems (like families and organisations) and to protective resources in the social environment. More recently, Hamilton McCubbin (1996), Mark Fraser (2004) and Roberta Greene (2006) have rigorously constructed an ecological understanding of resilience as involving multiple layers of systems, including culture and social structures such as poverty and inequality. While these have not, in general, focused on structural inequality as the unit of observation, they have also not fixated on the individual or advanced an individualistic view of resilience. Instead, they have recognised the crucial role played by the social environment in facilitating well-being, and the need for social workers to intervene across the micro–meso–macro continuum. Michael Ungar is particularly influential and well known in this regard. His definition of resilience emphasises the agency of individuals to navigate to and negotiate for resources in the social environment as well as the role of the environment to provide a range of resources for individuals to utilise in times of adversity (Ungar, 2012). Despite the focus on individual agency in this definition, Ungar argues that environmental variables explain far more variance in resilient outcomes than do individual variables, and that even apparently individual protective factors (such as self-esteem) are primarily relational or environmental. His most recent work thus focuses particularly on the contribution of social welfare services to resilience (Ungar et al., 2015). This use of social ecological theory strongly relocates resilience from the terrain of intrapsychic individualism into the realm of people-in-interaction-with-their-environment, which lends itself to setting in place social structures and dynamics that promote human flourishing (Bottrell, 2009). Dorothy Bottrell’s work takes the recognition of the importance of the social environment and social structures further, by arguing that resilience is not merely about drawing on resources in the environment, but also about resisting negative forces in the environment. She thus defines resilience as ‘practices which express opposition to rules and norms in specific contexts and which contain critiques of social relations, from the lived experience of marginalisation’ (2007, p. 599). Bottrell’s work is open to critique, in that it continues to emphasise the responsibility of individuals to resist and oppose the social forces that oppress them, and her stated commitment is to identity development, rather than political conscientisation or social activism. Nevertheless, her work is important in that it moves beyond resilience as coping with adversity, to include resilience as challenging adversity. Angie Hart and her colleagues take Bottrell’s work a step further by integrating a social justice lens into resilience thinking. They define resilience as ‘overcoming adversity, while also potentially changing, even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity’ (Hart et al., 2016, p. 3) or, in more popular terms, ‘changing the odds’ (p. 7). Hart’s work thus advocates socially transformative research that seeks not merely to learn about, but also to change, the social conditions that impede human flourishing. Resilience research is increasingly taking these notions into account. To illustrate, I draw on two studies conducted by New Zealand social work scholars (Sanders and Munford, 2014; Munford and Sanders, 2015) with youth who were engaged with multiple services. They were interested to understand how service use contributed to improved outcomes; thus, the service was treated as a structural resilience resource in the young person’s social environment. In both studies, mere use of services was not predictive of outcomes, suggesting that the mere presence of social structures is insufficient to promote well-being. However, the young people’s ability to exercise agency regarding the services they received (e.g. through having a say in what services they received and in shaping the service to be relevant to their needs and culture) increased perceived service quality, which in turn led to improved outcomes. The researchers’ questions were informed by an ecological understanding of resilience as involving both agency and structure, and the results show that resilience appears to lie in the interaction between young people expressing agency and services that are respectful and flexible. While these developments in resilience theory may still leave it vulnerable to a neo-liberal agenda, and while resilience theory currently may not be the most useful ally of a radical social work agenda, resilience theory, particularly within the person-in-environment framework, which social work researchers have been advancing for some decades, can and does align with social work theory and contributes to achieving social work goals at micro, meso and macro levels. The ecological approach to resilience avoids an individualistic or psychologised approach to resilience, and adopts a broader lens, incorporating a range of systems around the individual or social system. It should no more be discarded than we would discard trauma counselling because it does not eradicate traumatic events. Funding acknowledgement This work is based on research supported in part by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa for the Grant No. 93634. Any opinion, finding and conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the author(s) and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard. Conflict of interest statement. None declared. References Bottrell D. ( 2007) ‘ Resistance, resilience and social identities: Reframing “problem youth” and the problem of schooling’, Journal of Youth Studies , 10( 5), pp. 597– 616. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Bottrell D. ( 2009) ‘ Understanding “marginal” perspectives towards a social theory of resilience’, Qualitative Social Work , 8( 3), pp. 321– 39. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Collins S. ( 2017) ‘ Social workers and resilience revisited’, Practice: Social Work in Action , 29( 2), pp. 85– 105. Fraser M. W. (ed.) ( 2004) Risk and Resilience in Childhood: An Ecological Perspective , Washington, DC, NASW. Frost L. ( 2008) ‘ Why teach social work students psychosocial studies?’, Social Work Education , 27( 3), pp. 243– 61. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Garrett P. M. ( 2016) ‘ Questioning tales of “ordinary magic”: “Resilience” and neo-liberal reasoning’, British Journal of Social Work , 46( 7), pp. 1909– 25. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Greene R. R. ( 2006) Social Work Practice: A Risk and Resilience Perspective , Belmont, CA, Wadsworth. Hart A., Gagnon E., Eryigit-Madzwamuse S., Cameron J., Aranda K., Rathbone A., Heaver B. ( 2016) ‘ Uniting resilience research and practice with an inequalities approach’, Sage Open , 6( 4), pp. 1– 13. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS IFSW ( 2014) Global definition of social work, http://ifsw.org/policies/definition-of-social-work/. Retrieved on 19 March 2017. McCubbin M. A., McCubbin H. I. ( 1996) ‘Resiliency in families: A conceptual model of family adjustment and adaptation in response to stress and crises’, in McCubbin H. I., Thompson A. I., McCubbin M. A. (eds), Family Assessment: Resiliency, Coping and Adaptation: Inventories for Research and Practice , Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin. Munford R., Sanders J. ( 2015) ‘ Components of effective social work practice in mental health for young people who are users of multiple services’, Social Work in Mental Health , 13( 5), pp. 415– 38. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Patel L. ( 2015) Social Welfare and Social Development , Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. Richmond M. E. ( 1922) What Is Social Case Work? An Introductory Description , New York, NY, Russell Sage Foundation. Romanos V. ( 2014) ‘The “linguistic turn” and continental sociology: The question of agency and structure’, in Koniordos S., Kyrtsis A. (eds), Routledge Handbook of European Sociology , Abingdon, UK, Routledge. Sanders J., Munford R. ( 2014) ‘ Youth-centred practice: Positive youth development practices and pathways to better outcomes for vulnerable youth’, Children and Youth Services Review , 46, pp. 160– 7. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Singh G., Cowden S. ( 2015) ‘ The intensification of neoliberalism and the commodification of human need—a social work perspective’, Critical and Radical Social Work , 3( 3), pp. 375– 87. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ungar M. ( 2012) ‘Social ecologies and their contribution to resilience’, in Ungar M. (ed.), The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook of Theory and Practice , New York, NY, Springer. Ungar M., Theron L., Liebenberg L., Tian G.-X., Restrepo A., Sanders J., Munford R., Russell S. ( 2015) ‘ Patterns of individual coping, engagement with social supports and use of formal services among a five-country sample of resilient youth’, Global Mental Health , 2( 21), pp. 1– 10. Van Breda A. D. ( 2016a) ‘Contribution du travail social à la théorie de la résilience’ [‘Social work’s contribution to resilience research’], in Ionescu S. (ed.), Résiliences: Ressemblances dans la diversité [Resiliences: Similarities in diversity] , Paris, Odile Jacob. Van Breda A. D. ( 2016b) ‘ The roles of agency and structure in facilitating the successful transition out of care and into independent living’, Social Work Practitioner-Researcher , 28( 1), pp. 36– 52. Weiss-Gal I. ( 2008) ‘ The person-in-environment approach: Professional ideology and practice of social workers in Israel’, Social Work , 53( 1), pp. 65– 75. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 15, 2018
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