Prognosis Critical: Resilience and Multiculturalism in Contemporary Australia

Michele Grossman



Most developed countries, including Australia, have a strong focus on national, state and local strategies for emergency management and response in the face of disasters and crises. This framework can include coping with catastrophic dislocation, service disruption, injury or loss of life in the face of natural disasters such as major fires, floods, earthquakes or other large-impact natural events, as well as dealing with similar catastrophes resulting from human actions such as bombs, biological agents, cyber-attacks targeting essential services such as communications networks, or other crises affecting large populations. Emergency management frameworks for crisis and disaster response are distinguished by their focus on the domestic context for such events; that is, how to manage and assist the ways in which civilian populations, who are for the most part inexperienced and untrained in dealing with crises and disasters, are able to respond and behave in such situations so as to minimise the impacts of a catastrophic event.

Even in countries like Australia that demonstrate a strong public commitment to cultural pluralism and social cohesion, ethno-cultural diversity can be seen as a risk or threat to national security and values at times of political, natural, economic and/or social tensions and crises. Australian government policymakers have recently focused, with increasing intensity, on “community resilience” as a key element in countering extremism and enhancing emergency preparedness and response. In some sense, this is the result of a tacit acknowledgement by government agencies that there are limits to what they can do for domestic communities should such a catastrophic event occur, and accordingly, the focus in recent times has shifted to how governments can best help people to help themselves in such situations, a key element of the contemporary “resilience” approach. Yet despite the robustly multicultural nature of Australian society, explicit engagement with Australia’s cultural diversity flickers only fleetingly on this agenda, which continues to pursue approaches to community resilience in the absence of understandings about how these terms and formations may themselves need to be diversified to maximise engagement by all citizens in a multicultural polity.

There have been some recent efforts in Australia to move in this direction, for example the Australian Emergency Management Institute (AEMI)’s recent suite of projects with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities (2006-2010) and the current Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee-supported project on “Harnessing Resilience Capital in Culturally Diverse Communities to Counter Violent Extremism” (Grossman and Tahiri), which I discuss in a longer forthcoming version of this essay (Grossman). Yet the understanding of ethno-cultural identity and difference that underlies much policy thinking on resilience remains problematic for the way in which it invests in a view of the cultural dimensions of community resilience as relic rather than resource – valorising the preservation of and respect for cultural norms and traditions, but silent on what different ethno-cultural communities might contribute toward expanded definitions of both “community” and “resilience” by virtue of the transformative potential and existing cultural capital they bring with them into new national and also translocal settings.

For example, a primary conclusion of the joint program between AEMI and the Australian Multicultural Commission is that CALD communities are largely “vulnerable” in the context of disasters and emergency management and need to be better integrated into majority-culture models of theorising and embedding community resilience.  This focus on stronger national integration and the “vulnerability” of culturally diverse ethno-cultural communities in the Australian context echoes the work of scholars beyond Australia such as McGhee, Mouritsen (Reflections, Citizenship) and Joppke. They argue that the “civic turn” in debates around resurgent contemporary nationalism and multicultural immigration policies privileges civic integration over genuine two-way multiculturalism. This approach sidesteps the transculturational (Ortiz; Welsch; Mignolo; Bennesaieh; Robins; Stein) aspects of contemporary social identities and exchange by paying lip-service to cultural diversity while affirming a neo-liberal construct of civic values and principles as a universalising goal of Western democratic states within a global market economy.

It also suggests a superficial tribute to cultural diversity that does not embed diversity comprehensively at the levels of either conceptualising or resourcing different elements of Australian transcultural communities within the generalised framework of “community resilience.” And by emphasising cultural difference as vulnerability rather than as resource or asset, it fails to acknowledge the varieties of resilience capital that many culturally diverse individuals and communities may bring with them when they resettle in new environments, by ignoring the question of what “resilience” actually means to those from culturally diverse communities. In so doing, it also avoids the critical task of incorporating intercultural definitional diversity around the concepts of both “community” and “resilience” used to promote social cohesion and the capacity to recover from disasters and crises. How we might do differently in thinking about the broader challenges for multiculturalism itself as a resilient transnational concept and practice?

The Concept of Resilience

The meanings of resilience vary by disciplinary perspective. While there is no universally accepted definition of the concept, it is widely acknowledged that resilience refers to the capacity of an individual to do well in spite of exposure to acute trauma or sustained adversity (Liebenberg 219). Originating in the Latin word resilio, meaning ‘to jump back’, there is general consensus that resilience pertains to an individual’s, community’s or system’s ability to adapt to and ‘bounce back’ from a disruptive event (Mohaupt 63, Longstaff et al. 3).

Over the past decade there has been a dramatic rise in interest in the clinical, community and family sciences concerning resilience to a broad range of adversities (Weine 62). While debate continues over which discipline can be credited with first employing resilience as a concept, Mohaupt argues that most of the literature on resilience cites social psychology and psychiatry as the origin for the concept beginning in the mid-20th century.

The pioneer researchers of what became known as resilience research studied the impact on children living in dysfunctional families. For example, the findings of work by Garmezy, Werner and Smith and Rutter showed that about one third of children in these studies were coping very well despite considerable adversities and traumas. In asking what it was that prevented the children in their research from being negatively influenced by their home environments, such research provided the basis for future research on resilience.

Such work was also ground-breaking for identifying the so-called ‘protective factors’ or resources that individuals can operationalise when dealing with adversity. In essence, protective factors are those conditions in the individual that protect them from the risk of dysfunction and enable recovery from trauma. They mitigate the effects of stressors or risk factors, that is, those conditions that predispose one to harm (Hajek 15). Protective factors include the inborn traits or qualities within an individual, those defining an individual’s environment, and also the interaction between the two. Together, these factors give people the strength, skills and motivation to cope in difficult situations and re-establish (a version of) ‘normal’ life (Gunnestad).

Identifying protective factors is important in terms of understanding the particular resources a given sociocultural group has at its disposal, but it is also vital to consider the interconnections between various protective mechanisms, how they might influence each other, and to what degree. An individual, for instance, might display resilience or adaptive functioning in a particular domain (e.g. emotional functioning) but experience significant deficits in another (e.g. academic achievement) (Hunter 2). It is also essential to scrutinise how the interaction between protective factors and risk factors creates patterns of resilience. Finally, a comprehensive understanding of the interrelated nature of protective mechanisms and risk factors is imperative for designing effective interventions and tailored preventive strategies (Weine 65).

In short, contemporary thinking about resilience suggests it is neither entirely personal nor strictly social, but an interactive and iterative combination of the two. It is a quality of the environment as much as the individual. For Ungar, resilience is the complex entanglements between “individuals and their social ecologies [that] will determine the degree of positive outcomes experienced” (3). Thinking about resilience as context-dependent is important because research that is too trait-based or actor-centred risks ignoring any structural or institutional forces. A more ecological interpretation of resilience, one that takes into a person’s context and environment into account, is vital in order to avoid blaming the victim for any hardships they face, or relieving state and institutional structures from their responsibilities in addressing social adversity, which can “emphasise self-help in line with a neo-conservative agenda instead of stimulating state responsibility” (Mohaupt 67). Nevertheless, Ungar posits that a coherent definition of resilience has yet to be developed that adequately ‘captures the dual focus of the individual and the individual’s social ecology and how the two must both be accounted for when determining the criteria for judging outcomes and discerning processes associated with resilience’ (7). Recent resilience research has consequently prompted a shift away from vulnerability towards protective processes — a shift that highlights the sustained capabilities of individuals and communities under threat or at risk.

Locating ‘Culture’ in the Literature on Resilience

However, an understanding of the role of culture has remained elusive or marginalised within this trend; there has been comparatively little sustained investigation into the applicability of resilience constructs to non-western cultures, or how the resources available for survival might differ from those accessible to western populations (Ungar 4). As such, a growing body of researchers is calling for more rigorous inquiry into culturally determined outcomes that might be associated with resilience in non-western or multicultural cultures and contexts, for example where Indigenous and minority immigrant communities live side by side with their ‘mainstream’ neighbours in western settings (Ungar 2).

‘Cultural resilience’ considers the role that cultural background plays in determining the ability of individuals and communities to be resilient in the face of adversity. For Clauss-Ehlers, the term describes the degree to which the strengths of one’s culture promote the development of coping (198). Culturally-focused resilience suggests that people can manage and overcome stress and trauma based not on individual characteristics alone, but also from the support of broader sociocultural factors (culture, cultural values, language, customs, norms) (Clauss-Ehlers 324). The innate cultural strengths of a culture may or may not differ from the strengths of other cultures; the emphasis here is not so much comparatively inter-cultural as intensively intra-cultural (VanBreda 215). A culturally focused resilience model thus involves “a dynamic, interactive process in which the individual negotiates stress through a combination of character traits, cultural background, cultural values, and facilitating factors in the sociocultural environment” (Clauss-Ehlers 199).

In understanding ways of ‘coping and hoping, surviving and thriving’, it is thus crucial to consider how culturally and linguistically diverse minorities navigate the cultural understandings and assumptions of both their countries of origin and those of their current domicile (Ungar 12). Gunnestad claims that people who master the rules and norms of their new culture without abandoning their own language, values and social support are more resilient than those who tenaciously maintain their own culture at the expense of adjusting to their new environment. They are also more resilient than those who forego their own culture and assimilate with the host society (14). Accordingly, if the combination of both valuing one’s culture as well as learning about the culture of the new system produces greater resilience and adaptive capacities, serious problems can arise when a majority tries to acculturate a minority to the mainstream by taking away or not recognising important parts of the minority culture. In terms of resilience, if cultural factors are denied or diminished in accounting for and strengthening resilience – in other words, if people are stripped of what they possess by way of resilience built through cultural knowledge, disposition and networks – they do in fact become vulnerable, because ‘they do not automatically gain those cultural strengths that the majority has acquired over generations’ (Gunnestad 14).

Mobilising ‘Culture’ in Australian Approaches to Community Resilience

The realpolitik of how concepts of resilience and culture are mobilised is highly relevant here. As noted above, when ethnocultural difference is positioned as a risk or a threat to national identity, security and values, this is precisely the moment when vigorously, even aggressively, nationalised definitions of ‘community’ and ‘identity’ that minoritise or disavow cultural diversities come to the fore in public discourse. The Australian evocation of nationalism and national identity, particularly in the way it has framed policy discussion on managing national responses to disasters and threats, has arguably been more muted than some of the European hysteria witnessed recently around cultural diversity and national life. Yet we still struggle with the idea that newcomers to Australia might fall on the surplus rather than the deficit side of the ledger when it comes to identifying and harnessing resilience capital.

A brief example of this trend is explored here. From 2006 to 2010, the Australian Emergency Management Institute embarked on an ambitious government-funded four-year program devoted to strengthening community resilience in relation to disasters with specific reference to engaging CALD communities across Australia. The program, Inclusive Emergency Management with CALD Communities, was part of a wider Australian National Action Plan to Build Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security in the wake of the London terrorist bombings in July 2005. Involving CALD community organisations as well as various emergency and disaster management agencies, the program ran various workshops and agency-community partnership pilots, developed national school education resources, and commissioned an evaluation of the program’s effectiveness (Farrow et al.).

While my critique here is certainly not aimed at emergency management or disaster response agencies and personnel themselves – dedicated professionals who often achieve remarkable results in emergency and disaster response under extraordinarily difficult circumstances – it is nevertheless important to highlight how the assumptions underlying elements of AEMI’s experience and outcomes reflect the persistent ways in which ethnocultural diversity is rendered as a problem to be surmounted or a liability to be redressed, rather than as an asset to be built upon or a resource to be valued and mobilised. AEMI’s explicit effort to engage with CALD communities in building overall community resilience was important in its tacit acknowledgement that emergency and disaster services were (and often remain) under-resourced and under-prepared in dealing with the complexities of cultural diversity in emergency situations. Despite these good intentions, however, while the program produced some positive outcomes and contributed to crucial relationship building between CALD communities and emergency services within various jurisdictions, it also continued to frame the challenge of working with cultural diversity as a problem of increased vulnerability during disasters for recently arrived and refugee background CALD individuals and communities.

This highlights a common feature in community resilience-building initiatives, which is to focus on those who are already ‘robust’ versus those who are ‘vulnerable’ in relation to resilience indicators, and whose needs may require different or additional resources in order to be met. At one level, this is a pragmatic resourcing issue: national agencies understandably want to put their people, energy and dollars where they are most needed in pursuit of a steady-state unified national response at times of crisis. Nor should it be argued that at least some CALD groups, particularly those from new arrival and refugee communities, are not vulnerable in at least some of the ways and for some of the reasons suggested in the program evaluation.

However, the consistent focus on CALD communities as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘in need’ is problematic, as well as partial. It casts members of these communities as structurally and inherently less able and less resilient in the context of disasters and emergencies: in some sense, as those who, already ‘victims’ of chronic social deficits such as low English proficiency, social isolation and a mysterious unidentified set of ‘cultural factors’, can become doubly victimised in acute crisis and disaster scenarios. In what is by now a familiar trope, the description of CALD communities as ‘vulnerable’ precludes asking questions about what they do have, what they do know, and what they do or can contribute to how we respond to disaster and emergency events in our communities.

A more profound problem in this sphere revolves around working out how best to engage CALD communities and individuals within existing approaches to disaster and emergency preparedness and response. This reflects a fundamental but unavoidable limitation of disaster preparedness models: they are innately spatially and geographically bounded, and consequently understand ‘communities’ in these terms, rather than expanding definitions of ‘community’ to include the dimensions of community-as-social-relations. While some good engagement outcomes were achieved locally around cross-cultural knowledge for emergency services workers, the AEMI program fell short of asking some of the harder questions about how emergency and disaster service scaffolding and resilience-building approaches might themselves need to change or transform, using a cross-cutting model of ‘communities’ as both geographic places and multicultural spaces (Bartowiak-Théron and Crehan) in order to be more effective in national scenarios in which cultural diversity should be taken for granted.

Toward Acknowledgement of Resilience Capital

Most significantly, the AEMI program did not produce any recognition of the ways in which CALD communities already possess resilience capital, or consider how this might be drawn on in formulating stronger community initiatives around disaster and threats preparedness for the future. Of course, not all individuals within such communities, nor all communities across varying circumstances, will demonstrate resilience, and we need to be careful of either overgeneralising or romanticising the kinds and degrees of ‘resilience capital’ that may exist within them. Nevertheless, at least some have developed ways of withstanding crises and adapting to new conditions of living. This is particularly so in connection with individual and group behaviours around resource sharing, care-giving and social responsibility under adverse circumstances (Grossman and Tahiri) – all of which are directly relevant to emergency and disaster response. While some of these resilient behaviours may have been nurtured or enhanced by particular experiences and environments, they can, as the discussion of recent literature above suggests, also be rooted more deeply in cultural norms, habits and beliefs.

Whatever their origins, for culturally diverse societies to achieve genuine resilience in the face of both natural and human-made disasters, it is critical to call on the ‘social memory’ (Folke et al.) of communities faced with responding to emergencies and crises. Such wellsprings of social memory ‘come from the diversity of individuals and institutions that draw on reservoirs of practices, knowledge, values, and worldviews and is crucial for preparing the system for change, building resilience, and for coping with surprise’ (Adger et al.). Consequently, if we accept the challenge of mapping an approach to cultural diversity as resource rather than relic into our thinking around strengthening community resilience, there are significant gains to be made.

For a whole range of reasons, no diversity-sensitive model or measure of resilience should invest in static understandings of ethnicities and cultures; all around the world, ethnocultural identities and communities are in a constant and sometimes accelerated state of dynamism, reconfiguration and flux. But to ignore the resilience capital and potential protective factors that ethnocultural diversity can offer to the strengthening of community resilience more broadly is to miss important opportunities that can help suture the existing disconnects between proactive approaches to intercultural connectedness and social inclusion on the one hand, and reactive approaches to threats, national security and disaster response on the other, undermining the effort to advance effectively on either front.

This means that dominant social institutions and structures must be willing to contemplate their own transformation as the result of transcultural engagement, rather than merely insisting, as is often the case, that ‘other’ cultures and communities conform to existing hegemonic paradigms of being and of living. In many ways, this is the most critical step of all. A resilience model and strategy that questions its own culturally informed yet taken-for-granted assumptions and premises, goes out into communities to test and refine these, and returns to redesign its approach based on the new knowledge it acquires, would reflect genuine progress toward an effective transculturational approach to community resilience in culturally diverse contexts.


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  1. The concept of ‘resilience capital’ I offer here is in line with one strand of contemporary theorising around resilience – that of resilience as social or socio-ecological capital – but moves beyond the idea of enhancing general social connectedness and community cohesion by emphasising the ways in which culturally diverse communities may already be robustly networked and resourceful within micro-communal settings, with new resources and knowledge both to draw on and to offer other communities or the ‘national community’ at large. In effect, ‘resilience capital’ speaks to the importance of finding ‘the communities within the community’ (Bartowiak-Théron and Crehan 11) and recognising their capacity to contribute to broad-scale resilience and recovery.

  2. I am indebted for the discussion of the literature on resilience here to Dr Peta Stephenson, Centre for Cultural Diversity and Wellbeing, Victoria University, who is working on a related project (M. Grossman and H. Tahiri, Harnessing Resilience Capital in Culturally Diverse Communities to Counter Violent Extremism, forthcoming 2014).


resilience; multiculturalism; transculturality; emergency management; cultural capital; cultural resilience

Copyright (c) 2013 Michele Grossman

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