The Resilience Complex

Michael John Wilson, James Arvanitakis



The term ‘resilience’ is on everyone’s lips - from politicians to community service providers to the seemingly endless supply of self-help gurus. The concept is undergoing a renaissance of sorts in contemporary Western society; but why resilience now? One possible explanation is that individuals and their communities are experiencing increased and intensified levels of adversity and hardship, necessitating the accumulation and deployment of ‘more resilience’. Whilst a strong argument could made that this is in fact the case, it would seem that the capacity to survive and thrive has been a feature of human survival and growth long before we had a name for it. Rather than an inherent characteristic, trait or set of behaviours of particularly ‘resilient’ individuals or groups, resilience has come to be viewed more as a common and everyday capacity, expressed and expressible by all people. Having researched the concept for some time now, we believe that we are only marginally closer to understanding this captivating but ultimately elusive concept. What we are fairly certain of is that resilience is more than basic survival but less than an invulnerability to adversity, resting somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Given the increasing prevalence of populations affected by war and other disasters, we are certain however that efforts to better understand the accumulative dynamics of resilience, are now, more than ever, a vital area of public and academic concern. In our contemporary world, the concept of resilience is coming to represent a vital conceptual tool for responding to the complex challenges emerging from broad scale movements in climate change, rural and urban migration patterns, pollution, economic integration and other consequences of globalisation.

In this article, the phenomenon of human resilience is defined as the cumulative build-up of both particular kinds of knowledge, skills and capabilities as well as positive affects such as hope, which sediment over time as transpersonal capacities for self-preservation and ongoing growth (Wilson). Although the accumulation of positive affect is crucial to the formation of resilience, the ability to re-imagine and utilise negative affects, events and environmental limitations, as productive cultural resources, is a reciprocal and under-researched aspect of the phenomenon. In short, we argue that resilience is the protective shield, which capacitates individuals and communities to at least deal with, and at best, overcome potential challenges, while also facilitating the realisation of hoped-for objects and outcomes.

Closely tied to the formation of resilience is the lived experience of hope and hoping practices, with an important feature of resilience related to the future-oriented dimensions of hope (Parse). Yet it is important to note that the accumulation of hope, as with resilience, is not headed towards some state of invulnerability to adversity; as presumed to exist in the foundational period of psychological research on the construct (Garmezy; Werner and Smith; Werner). In contrast, we argue that the positive affective experience of hopefulness provides individuals and communities with a means of enduring the present, while the future-oriented dimensions of hope offer them an instrument for imagining a better future to come (Wilson).

Given the complex, elusive and non-uniform nature of resilience, it is important to consider the continued relevance of the resilience concept. For example, is resilience too narrow a term to describe and explain the multiple capacities, strategies and resources required to survive and thrive in today’s world? Furthermore, why do some individuals and communities mobilise and respond to a crisis; and why do some collapse? In a related discussion, Ungar (Constructionist) posed the question, “Why keep the term resilience?”

Terms like resilience, even strengths, empowerment and health, are a counterpoint to notions of disease and disorder that have made us look at people as glasses half empty rather than half full. Resilience reminds us that children survive and thrive in a myriad of ways, and that understanding the etiology of health is as, or more, important than studying the etiology of disease. (Ungar, Constructionist 91)

This productive orientation towards health, creativity and meaning-making demonstrates the continued conceptual and existential relevance of resilience, and why it will remain a critical subject of inquiry now and into the future.

Early Psychological Studies of Resilience

Definitions of resilience vary considerably across disciplines and time, and according to the theoretical context or group under investigation (Harvey and Delfabro). During the 1970s and early 1980s, the developmental literature on resilience focused primarily on the “personal qualities” of “resilient children” exposed to adverse life circumstances (Garmezy Vulnerability; Masten; Rutter; Werner). From this narrow and largely individualistic viewpoint, resilience was defined as an innate “self-righting mechanism” (Werner and Smith 202). Writing from within the psychological tradition, Masten argued that the early research on resilience (Garmezy Vulnerability; Werner and Smith) regularly implied that resilient children were special or remarkable by virtue of their invulnerability to adversity. As research into resilience progressed, researchers began to acknowledge the ordinariness or everydayness of resilience-related phenomena. Furthermore, that “resilience may often derive from factors external to the child” (Luthar; Cicchetti and Becker 544). Besides the personal attributes of children, researchers within the psychological sciences also began to explore the effects of family dynamics and impacts of the broader social environment in the development of resilience. Rather than identifying which child, family or environmental factors were resilient or resilience producing, they turned their attention to how these underlying protective mechanisms facilitated positive resilience outcomes.

As research evolved, resilience as an absolute or unchanging attribute made way for more relational and dynamic conceptualisations. As Luthar et al noted, “it became clear that positive adaptation despite exposure to adversity involves a developmental progression, such that new vulnerabilities and/or strengths often emerge with changing life circumstances” (543-44). Accordingly, resilience came to be viewed as a dynamic process, involving positive adaptations within contexts of adversity (Luthar et al. 543). Although closer to the operational definition of resilience argued for here, there remain a number of definitional concerns and theoretical limitations of the psychological approach; in particular, the limitation of positive adaptation to the context of significant adversity. In doing so, this definition fails to account for the subjective experience and culturally located understandings of ‘health’, ‘adversity’ and ‘adaptation’ so crucial to the formation of resilience.

Our major criticism of the psychodynamic approach to resilience relates to the construction of a false dichotomy between “resilient” and “non-resilient” individuals. This dichotomy is perpetuated by psychological approaches that view resilience as a distinct construct, specific to “resilient” individuals. In combating this assumption, Ungar maintained that this bifurcation could be replaced by an understanding of mental health “as residing in all individuals even when significant impairment is present” (Thicker 352). We tend to agree.

In terms of economic resilience, we must also be alert to similar false binaries that place the first and low-income world into simple, apposite positions of coping or not-coping, ‘having’ or ‘not-having’ resilience. There is evidence to indicate, for example, that emerging economies fared somewhat better than high-income nations during the global financial crisis (GFC). According to Frankel and Saravelos, several low-income nations attained better rates of gross domestic product GDP, though the impacts on the respective populations were found to be equally hard (Lane and Milesi-Ferretti). While the reasons for this are broad and complex, a study by Kose and Prasad found that a broad set of policy tools had been developed that allowed for greater flexibility in responding to the crisis.

Positive Affect Despite Adversity

An emphasis on deficit, suffering and pathology among marginalised populations such as refugees and young people has detracted from culturally located strengths. As Te Riele explained, marginalised young people residing in conditions of adversity are often identified within “at-risk” discourses. These social support frameworks have tended to highlight pathologies and antisocial behaviours rather than cultural competencies. This attitude towards marginalised “at risk” young people has been perpetuated by psychotherapeutic discourse that has tended to focus on the relief of suffering and treatment of individual pathologies (Davidson and Shahar). By focusing on pain avoidance and temporary relief, we may be missing opportunities to better understand the productive role of ‘negative’ affects and bodily sensations in alerting us to underlying conditions, in need of attention or change.    

A similar deficit approach is undertaken through education – particularly civics – where young people are treated as ‘citizens in waiting’ (Collin). From this perspective, citizenship is something that young people are expected to ‘grow into’, and until that point, are seen as lacking any political agency or ability to respond to adversity (Holdsworth).

Although a certain amount of internal discomfort is required to promote change, Davidson and Shahar noted that clinical psychotherapists still “for the most part, envision an eventual state of happiness – both for our patients and for ourselves, described as free of tension, pain, disease, and suffering” (229). In challenging this assumption, they asked,

But if desiring-production is essential to what makes us human, would we not expect happiness or health to involve the active, creative process of producing? How can one produce anything while sitting, standing, or lying still? (229)

A number of studies exploring the affective experiences of migrants have contested the embedded psychological assumption that happiness or well-being “stands apart” from experiences of suffering (Crocker and Major; Fozdar and Torezani; Ruggireo and Taylor; Tsenkova, Love, Singer and Ryff). A concern for Ahmed is how much the turn to happiness or happiness turn “depends on the very distinction between good and bad feelings that presume bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive” (Happiness 135). Highlighting the productive potential of unhappy affects, Ahmed suggested that the airing of unhappy affects in their various forms provides people with “an alternative set of imaginings of what might count as a good or at least better life” (Happiness 135).

An interesting feature of refugee narratives is the paradoxical relationship between negative migration experiences and the reporting of a positive life outlook. In a study involving former Yugoslavian, Middle Eastern and African refugees, Fozdar and Torezani investigated the “apparent paradox between high-levels of discrimination experienced by humanitarian migrants to Australia in the labour market and everyday life” (30), and the reporting of positive wellbeing. The interaction between negative experiences of discrimination and reports of wellbeing suggested a counter-intuitive propensity among refugees to adapt to and make sense of their migration experiences in unique, resourceful and life-affirming ways. In a study of unaccompanied Sudanese youth living in the United States, Goodman reported that, “none of the participants displayed a sense of victimhood at the time of the interviews” (1182). Although individual narratives did reflect a sense of victimisation and helplessness relating to the enormity of past trauma, the young participants viewed themselves primarily as survivors and agents of their own future. Goodman further stated that the tone of the refugee testimonials was not bitter: “Instead, feelings of brotherliness, kindness, and hope prevailed” (1183). Such response patterns among refugees and trauma survivors indicate a similar resilience-related capacity to positively interpret and derive meaning from negative migration experiences and associated emotions. It is important to point out that demonstrations of resilience appear loosely proportional to the amount or intensity of adverse life events experienced. However, resilience is not expressed or employed uniformly among individuals or communities. Some respond in a resilient manner, while others collapse. On this point, an argument could be made that collapse and breakdown is a built-in aspect of resilience, and necessary for renewal and ongoing growth.  

Cultures of Resilience

In a cross continental study of communities living and relying on waterways for their daily subsistence, Arvanitakis is involved in a broader research project aiming to understand why some cultures collapse and why others survive in the face of adversity. The research aims to look beyond systems of resilience, and proposes the term ‘cultures of resilience’ to describe the situated strategies of these communities for coping with a variety of human-induced environmental challenges. More specifically, the concept of ‘cultures of resilience’ assists in explaining the specific ways individuals and communities are responding to the many stresses and struggles associated with living on the ‘front-line’ of major waterways that are being impacted by large-scale, human-environment development and disasters.

Among these diverse locations are Botany Bay (Australia), Sankhla Lake (Thailand), rural Bangladesh, the Ganges (India), and Chesapeake Bay (USA). These communities face very different challenges in a range of distinctive contexts. Within these settings, we have identified communities that are prospering despite the emerging challenges while others are in the midst of collapse and dispersion. In recognising the specific contexts of each of these communities, the researchers are working to uncover a common set of narratives of resilience and hope. We are not looking for the ’magic ingredient’ of resilience, but what kinds of strategies these communities have employed and what can they learn from each other.

One example that is being pursued is a community of Thai rice farmers who have reinstated ceremonies to celebrate successful harvests by sharing in an indigenous rice species in the hope of promoting a shared sense of community. These were communities on the cusp of collapse brought on by changing economic and environmental climates, but who have reversed this trend by employing a series of culturally located practices.

The vulnerability of these communities can be traced back to the 1960s ‘green revolution’ when they where encouraged by local government authorities to move to ‘white rice’ species to meet export markets. In the process they were forced to abandoned their indigenous rice varieties and abandon traditional seed saving practices (Shiva, Sengupta). Since then, the rice monocultures have been found to be vulnerable to the changing climate as well as other environmental influences. The above ceremonies allowed the farmers to re-discover the indigenous rice species and plant them alongside the ‘white rice’ for export creating a more robust harvest. The indigenous species are kept for local consumption and trade, while the ‘white rice’ is exported, giving the farmers access to both the international markets and income and the local informal economies. In addition, the indigenous rice acts as a form of ‘insurance’ against the vagaries of international trade (Shiva). Informants stated that the authorities that once encouraged them to abandon indigenous rice species and practices are now working with the communities to re-instigate these. This has created a partnership between the local government-funded research centres, government institutions and the farmers.

A third element that the informants discussed was the everyday practices that prepare a community to face these challenges and allow it recover in partnership with government, including formal and informal communication channels. These everyday practices create a culture of reciprocity where the challenges of the community are seen to be those of the individual.

This is not meant to romanticise these communities. In close proximity, there are also communities engulfed in despair. Such communities are overwhelmed with the various challenges described above of changing rural/urban settlement patterns, pollution and climate change, and seem to have lacked the cultural and social capital to respond.

By contrasting the communities that have demonstrated resilience and those that have not been overwhelmed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is no single 'magic' ingredient of resilience. What exist are various constituted factors that involve a combination of community agency, social capital, government assistance and structures of governance. The example of the rice farmers highlights three of these established practices: working across formal and informal economies; crossing localised and expert knowledge as well as the emergence of everyday practices that promote social capital. As such, while financial transactions occur that link even the smallest of communities to the global economy, there is also the everyday exchange of cultural practices, which is described elsewhere by Arvanitakis as 'the cultural commons': visions of hope, trust, shared intellect, and a sense of safety.

Reflecting the refugee narratives citied above, these communities also report a positive life outlook, refusing to see themselves as victims. There is a propensity among members of these communities to adapt an outlook of hope and survival. Like the response patterns among refugees and trauma survivors, initial research is confirming a resilience-related capacity to interpret the various challenges that have been confronted, and see their survival as reason to hope.

Future Visions, Hopeful Visions

Hope is a crucial aspect of resilience, as it represents a present- and future-oriented mode of situated defence against adversity. The capacity to hope can increase one’s powers of action despite a complex range of adversities experienced in everyday life and during particularly difficult times. The term “hope” is commonly employed in a tokenistic way, as a “nice” rhetorical device in the mind-body-spirit or self-help literature or as a strategic instrument in increasingly empty domestic and international political vocabularies. With a few notable exceptions (Anderson; Bloch; Godfrey; Hage; Marcel; Parse; Zournazi), the concept of hope has received only modest attention from within sociology and cultural studies.

Significant increases in the prevalence of war and disaster-affected populations makes qualitative research into the lived experience of hope a vital subject of academic interest. Parse observed among health care professionals a growing attention to “the lived experience of hope”, a phenomenon which has significant consequences for health and the quality of one’s life (vvi). Hope is an integral aspect of resilience as it can act as a mechanism for coping and defense in relation to adversity. Interestingly, it is during times of hardship and adversity that the phenomenological experience of hope seems to “kick in” or “switch on”. With similarities to the “taken-for-grantedness” of resilience in everyday life, Anderson observed that hope and hoping are taken-for-granted aspects of the affective fabric of everyday life in contemporary Western culture. Although the lived experience of hope, namely, hopefulness, is commonly conceptualised as a “future-oriented” state of mind, the affectivity of hope, in the present moment of hoping, has important implications in terms of resilience formation.

The phrase, the “lived deferral of hope” is an idea that Wilson has developed elsewhere which hopefully brings together and holds in creative tension the two dominant perspectives on hope as a lived experience in the present and a deferred, future-oriented practice of hoping and hopefulness. Zournazi defined hope as a “basic human condition that involves belief and trust in the world” (12). She argued that the meaning of hope is “located in the act of living, the ordinary elements of everyday life” and not in “some future or ideal sense” (18). Furthermore, she proposed a more “everyday” hope which “is not based on threat or deferral of gratification”, but is related to joy “as another kind of contentment – the affirmation of life as it emerges and in the transitions and movements of our everyday lives and relationships” (150). While qualitative studies focusing on the everyday experience of hope have reinvigorated academic research on the concept of hope, our concept of “the lived deferral of hope” brings together Zournazi’s “everyday hope” and the future-oriented dimensions of hope and hoping practices, so important to the formation of resilience. Along similar lines to Ahmed’s (Happy Objects) suggestion that happiness “involves a specific kind of intentionality” that is “end-orientated”, practices of hope are also intentional and “end-orientated” (33). If objects of hope are a means to happiness, as Ahmed wrote, “in directing ourselves towards this or that [hope] object we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow” (Happy Objects 34), in other words, to a hope that is “not yet present”.

It is the capacity to imagine alternative possibilities in the future that can help individuals and communities endure adverse experiences in the present and inspire confidence in the ongoingness of their existence. Although well-intentioned, Zournazi’s concept of an “everyday hope” seemingly ignores the fact that in contexts of daily threat, loss and death there is often a distinct lack of affirmative or affirmable things. In these contexts, the deferral of joy and gratification, located in the future acquisition of objects, outcomes or ideals, can be the only means of getting through particularly difficult events or circumstances. One might argue that hope in hopeless situations can be disabling; however, we contend that hope is always enabling to some degree, as it can facilitate alternative imaginings and temporary affective relief in even in the most hopeless situations.

Hope bears similarity to resilience in terms of its facilities for coping and endurance. Likewise the formation and maintenance of hope can help individuals and communities endure and cope with adverse events or circumstances. The symbolic dimension of hope capacitates individuals and communities to endure the present without the hoped-for outcomes and to live with the uncertainty of their attainment. In the lives of refugees, for example, the imaginative dimension of hope is directly related to resilience in that it provides them with the ability to respond to adversity in productive and life-affirming ways. For Oliver, hope “provides continuity between the past and the present…giving power to find meaning in the worst adversity” (in Parse 16). In terms of making sense of the migration and resettlement experiences of refugees and other migrants, Lynch proposed a useful definition of hope as “the fundamental knowledge and feeling that there is a way out of difficulty, that things can work out” (32). As it pertains to everyday mobility and life routes, Parse considered hope to be “essential to one’s becoming” (32). She maintained that hope is a lived experience and “a way of propelling self toward envisioned possibilities in everyday encounters with the world” (p. 12). Expanding on her definition of the lived experience of hope, Parse stated, “Hope is anticipating possibilities through envisioning the not-yet in harmoniously living the comfort-discomfort of everydayness while unfolding a different perspective of an expanding view” (15). From Nietzsche’s “classically dark version of hope” (in Hage 11), Parse’s “positive” definition of hope as a propulsion to envisaged possibilities would in all likelihood be defined as “the worst of all evils, for it protracts the torment of man”. Hage correctly pointed out that both the positive and negative perspectives perceive hope “as a force that keeps us going in life” (11). Parse’s more optimistic vision of hope as propulsion to envisaged possibilities links nicely to what Arvanitakis described as an ‘active hope’. According to him, the idea of ‘active hope’ is not only a vision that a better world is possible, but also a sense of agency that our actions can make this happen.


As we move further into the 21st century, humankind will be faced with a series of traumas, many of which are as yet unimagined. To meet these challenges, we, as a global collective, will need to develop specific capacities and resources for coping, endurance, innovation, and hope, all of which are involved the formation of resilience (Wilson 269). Although the accumulation of resilience at an individual level is important, our continued existence, survival, and prosperity lie in the strength and collective will of many. As Wittgenstein wrote, the strength of a thread “resides not in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres” (xcv). If resilience can be accumulated at the level of the individual, it follows that it can be accumulated as a form of capital at the local, national, and international levels in very real and meaningful ways.


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resilience; hope; culture

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