The Nature of Resilience

The notion of resilience originated in the disciplines of psychiatry and developmental psychology as a result of a burgeoning attention to personal characteristics or traits that enabled some children, although having been classified as being at risk of having negative life outcomes, to adapt positively and thrive (Howard et al. 1999; Waller 2001). From a chronological perspective, the decade of 1980s marked a paradigmatic change to the concept of resilience, from one which focussed upon understanding the pain, struggle and suffering involved in the adaptation process in the face of adversity, to one which focused more on understanding positive qualities and strengths (Gore and Eckenrode 1994; Henderson and Milstein 2003). Over the last two decades, the focus of resilience research in the disciplines of social and behavioural sciences developed from identifying personal traits and protective factors to investigating underlying protective processes, i.e. how such factors may contribute to positive outcomes (Luthar et al. 2000). However, despite this progress in focus, Howard et al. (1999) and Luthar et al. (2000) maintain that research in the area of resilience will be seriously constrained if a theoretical basis for resilience continues to be missing from most studies. Since the turn of this century, ground-breaking advances in biology research have provided powerful, additional evidence of the robust effects of early caregiving environments and thus promising and compelling arguments for the kinds of interventions which are likely to make a difference to children’s life trajectories (Luthar and Brown 2007; see also Curtis and Cicchetti 2003; Cicchetti and Valentino 2006).

Despite this diversity in approaches to researching resilience, a critical overview of empirical findings from different disciplines over time suggests that there are shared core considerations in the way resilience is conceptualised between disciplines. First and foremost, much previous research on resilience presupposes the presence of threat to the status quo, a positive response to conditions of significant adversity (Masten and Garmezy 1985; Masten et al. 1999; Cicchetti and Garmezy 1993; Luthar et al. 2000). Secondly, it suggests that resilience is not a quality that is innate or fixed. Rather, it can be learned and acquired (Higgins 1994). Associated with this is the third consideration that the personal characteristics, competences and positive influences of the social environment in which the individual works and lives, independently and together, interact to contribute to the process of resilience building (Gordon et al. 2000; Rutter 2006; Zucker 2006). Indeed, Luthar et al. (2000) assert that the term ‘resilience’ should always be used when referring to a dynamic ‘process or phenomenon of competence’ which encompasses ‘positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity’ (2000: 554).

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